Susan Hill, in her introduction to this reissue from 1948, highlights what made ‘Tom’ Rolt so singular; ‘a trained engineer, a railway enthusiast and the owner of a narrow boat in which he navigated the inland waterways of England and Wales’; and - oh yes - a car restorer, hill walker and philosopher to boot. They made real men then, my father’s generation, whose own CV was almost as broad. Shed theorists’ one and all.
There is yet more within Sleep No More that defines this self-taught artisan as a Jack Of All Trades. Its fourteen stories directly reflect Rolt’s stated interests through their keen knowledge of environment and setting, lending, at least, a picturesque authenticity. He seems as assured delineating the intricacies of iron-smelting operation (in ‘Hawley Bank Foundry’) as he does in Grand Prix racing (in ‘New Corner’). Where he falls down is where he inevitably falls back upon a literary knowledge parallel with our own. As a mere writer of short fiction therefore, he harbours no great advantage. His influences are clear and more than borderline derivative for today’s supernatural imbiber.
‘Music Hath Charms’ replaces the grave-recovered pipe from MR James’ ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ with a music box; while the aforementioned ‘Hawley Bank Foundry’ resolves itself with a weirdness Lovecraft would have regularly achieved. ‘Hear Not My Steps’ presents a version of the vengeful phantom reminiscent from Bram Stoker’s ‘Judge’s House,’ while ‘The House Of Vengeance,’ ending the collection, harbours the dated Satanic echoes of Dennis Wheatley.
Still, ‘Bosworth Summit Pound,’ ‘Cwm Garon’ – the best tale here - and the too short but pleasingly Pagan ‘The Shouting,’ each harbour a lyrical atmosphere that raise Rolt above the banal. (Oh yes; he was also a poet on the sly). The latter in particular bravely forsakes explanation of its mysterious, ‘off-camera’ ritual for ambiguity, the manner of which Robert Aickman might have been proud. Coming in at just 129 pages, these stories apparently represent the sum total of Rolt’s fiction, whose main works were non-fiction and technical. Despite the derivative source material, it is still testament to him that I am left wanting rather more than he will now be able to give.