Horror on the Train Tracks: ‘The Motion Demon’ Turns 100
#language & literature
default, Horror on the Train Tracks:
‘The Motion Demon’ Turns 100, A railway tunnel near Jaremcze, with the rock formation known as Kamień Dobosza, 1925-1930. Grabiński spent time in nearby Jaremcze, a well-know vacat, center, jaremcze-kamien-dobosza-domena-publiczna-polona.jpg
Ghost trains, unsolved catastrophes and dead-end tracks leading to astral dimensions… One hundred years after its publication, Stefan Grabiński’s classic Polish book of railway ghost stories continues to fascinate readers and... haunt train passengers.
The slim volume of short stories The Motion Demon, named after one of the titles within, was published in 1919 in Kraków. Its unnerving tales were all about careening runaway trains, mysterious railway catastrophes, maverick railwaymen and eerie train demons. The characters appeared in one story and re-appeared in another, while the names of the stations created an imaginary geography not found on any real map.
The book was a brilliant play on the idea of ‘railway fiction’ (a popular form of literature that flourished in the late 19th century) – which, however, was too scary for anybody to actually want to read on the train. It was also an intriguing take on philosophical tradition, attempting to pinpoint the essence of movement and vital energies (from Heraclitus to Bergson), while at the same time ensuring itself a popular read for the masses. It managed to establish a railway mythology and invented a nostalgia for trains at a time when this technology was still considered a symbol of modernity. Indeed, Polish literature was never so modern: popular and sophisticated at the same time. But how was it at all possible?
Polish Poe, Polish Lovecraft
The Motion Demon was the work of 32-year-old writer and teacher Stefan Grabiński. Grabiński was born in 1887 in a little provincial village in Galicia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and which is in Ukraine today). He grew up in Sambor and Lwów (Lviv today), where he studied Polish and classic studies at Lviv University.
As a young boy, Grabiński suffered an infection (resulting from a wound sustained in school from a pen held by a fellow pupil) that left him on the verge of death. The experience, which included many months of controversial therapy from a countryside quack, went on to play an important role in his life. As did his early religious experience. He would later say about these years: ‘I beheld the world as a symbol full of deeper meanings and, in each phenomenon of life, I glimpsed manifestations of the Spirit.’
His later stance on fantastic literature also owes a fair deal to these metaphysical experiences:
Fantastic [literature] is an expression of human longing for the miracle and the mysterious – it’s an attempt at grasping in the form of a tale the loftiest questions, the ones which deal with the ‘other side’ of existence; [it’s] an attempt at casting a bridge between life and the ‘other shore’, attempt at forcing one’s way into the great, unbounded ‘meadows of mystery’, it’s about testing the divine, extra-terrestrial lineage of the man.
From an interview with Kazimierz Wierzyński, 1930, trans. MG
He debuted as a writer in 1909 with a book of short stories which was barely noticed by critics or readers. In 1917, he moved to Przemyśl, pursuing a career as a teacher at a local middle school. The next year, the reinstallment of the Polish state following 123 years of partitions left no mark whatsoever on his writing. In 1919, he published The Motion Demon – a result of his fascination with the railway. The book enjoyed success and established his name as an important writer of fantastic literature.
Grabiński would go on to publish several other volumes of short stories (some of them also, like The Book of Fire, connected by a shared theme) and several novels, in which he explored his interests in demonology, mediums and spiritualism. However, his attempts at wider recognition proved unsuccessful, and he never quite shook off the status of a provincial writer, an author of strange ‘Galician’ fiction. He spent the last years of his life in utter poverty and isolation. He died in 1936 from tuberculosis, an illness that ran in the family, and in whose shadow he had lived all his life.
The metaphysics of motion
In The Motion Demon, Grabiński achieved what is likely his greatest masterpiece. A streak of blood-chilling horror stories connected by the theme of railway travel, it was anything but expected in Poland’s still-fledgling fantastic literature. Similarly new and perhaps even more pioneering was the idea of imbuing modern technology with a sense of the supernatural, recognising in it a potential source of horror.
Most of the stories found in the first edition of the collection were written in Przemyśl during World War I. Living nearby, Grabiński would spend much of his spare time at the Przemyśl train station. He even had a special permit from railway authorities to frequent its restricted areas. His pupils recalled seeing him spend countless hours on the viaduct over the rail tracks – a true precursor to trainspotters.
The station in Przemyśl, as argues Joanna Majewska, author of the new monograph on Grabiński, was one of the most splendid train stations along the whole streak of the Archduke Charles Louis Railway. Completed in 1892, this line crossed all of Galicia, from Kraków to Lviv and Tarnopol. The line helped connect the eastern-most regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the coast of the Adriatic.
The idea of railway and speed as something that changes our perception of time and space, and even impacts our organisms, is central to The Motion Demon. As is the idea, shared by some of its romantic (or crazy) protagonists, that the ultimate goal of railway is not to connect stations (and thus facilitate transport and communication), but rather movement for its own sake: speed and motion. This was certainly not something that the engineers of the Archduke Charles Louis Railway had in mind when designing the line.
The book may be an obvious testimony to Grabiński’s fascination with the new technology, its speed and mechanics, but its author was also interested in how this fruit and crown of man’s logic and reason brings about the irrational. The Motion Demon is notorious for actually codifying a whole mythology and metaphysics around this seemingly rational invention. Grabiński’s trains and stations are populated by ghosts and demons, and other irrational forces, while the trains themselves can act as vehicles to another dimension.
Perhaps more interestingly, Grabiński could even be considered a discoverer of a certain kind of railway nostalgia (a strange spooky feeling invoked in us by the sound of a distant train whistle or a red semaphore light looming in the horizon in the dead of the night), or rather a whole metaphysics of post-industrial railway spaces. Many of his protagonists, like Szymon Wawera, are fascinated by lost and abandoned railway areas, sections of the tracks overgrown with vegetation, which somehow preserve their glorious past. As Wawera says:
Here these memories live everywhere; invisible to the human eye they wander between the walls of the ravine, rattle along these rails and wander far away, throughout the entire area. One only needs to know how to look and listen.
From ‘The Dead Line’, trans. Mirosław Lipiński
Wawera ends up asking a question which has a more universal metaphysical potential: ‘Is it possible that after all this nothing remains?’ He himself was deeply confident that ‘memories do not die’.
This nostalgia is the more striking as it was sensed by Grabiński at a time when the railway was still in its prime, proudly looking into its bright future.
A work in perpetual progress
Grabiński intended his work to be read as a whole, but the book grew with successive editions. And it would not all be about gory, scary stuff. The first edition included two stories which departed from the typical model of a phantasmagorical railway ghost story. The Perpetual Passenger is the humorous tale of a ‘traveller’ who spends his days at a train station waiting for a train he never gets to ride. He ends up keeping himself in a constant state of ‘holiday nerves’, and thus certainly qualifies as ‘the ideal passenger’. In another one, entitled In the Compartment, the protagonist experiences an erotic fascination with the wife of a man travelling in the same train car. Suffice to say, the story ends in murder.
In the second edition from 1922, Grabiński added three more stories. Among them was A Strange Station – a futurist excursion into the railway travel of the 21st century, in which we find ourselves onboard the Infernal Mediterranée, an express train that takes just three days to make a tour around the Mediterranean. For the third edition, Grabiński intended two new stories. One of them, The Tale of the Tunnel Mole, was to serve as the new coda for the whole book, which would now consist of 14 pieces. Grabiński never saw this edition published.
20th century polish literature
20th century history
Relocation in the canon
Forgotten during his lifetime, Grabiński’s art started to slowly gain wider recognition following World War II (thanks to, among others, the efforts of Grabiński aficionado and fellow Lviv-dweller Stanisław Lem). But it was only in the last decades that he started to be recognised as more than a writer of strange ‘Galician’ fiction. Thanks to new research, and a new wave of interpretations (from psycho-analytical to post-colonial), Grabiński’s position on the map of Polish literature is now being relocated – once a second-class writer, his name is now more and more often mentioned in the context of Bruno Schulz or Witold Gombrowicz.
In the wider perspective of world literature, Grabiński has been traditionally compared to Poe, Meyrink or Lovecraft (of whom he was three years senior). But today he seems quite distinct from all these writers (of course, Poe was a major inspiration, acknowledged with emphasis by Grabiński himself).
In fact, his disposition as someone who was searching for clues in the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary and saw literature as a way of receiving and communicating the mysterious signals which come to us from the Great Beyond, might put him in an altogether different club of writers. One where Vladimir Nabokov presides.
English-language readers currently have a handful of short story collections available, including In Sarah’s House and The Dark Domain. Outspoken fans such as fantasy author China Miéville have spent many years demanding his entire body of work become available to those unable to read Polish. In either case, The Motion Demon will surely be the greatest introduction to Grabiński’s fascinating oeuvre. Just remember not to take it on the train with you!
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Oct 2019
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