Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Haunted L

Creative writing instructors in Chicago learn quickly that you need to lay down at least one ground rule right off the bat: no stories set on the L. If you don't . . . good god, the stories you'll get of Highly Significant encounters between sensitive twenty-year-olds and representatives of the Other--emotionally charged scenes of cross-racial understanding (or misunderstanding), encounters with the aged or the homeless or the mad, unprompted confessions from the unappreciated wife of a coked-up commodities trader. A young Midwesterner with pretensions to creativity usually finds his first encounter with the forced proximity of the L so bracing that he dive-bombs right at the nearest mountain of cliches, and the casualties tend to be legion.

In fact, until tonight I would have said it's not possible to write a good story about the L, period. Then--as I made my way through Otto Penzler's consistently rewarding Black Lizard anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, I encountered Robert Weinberg's "The Midnight El" (1994), which is so good I'll forgive not only the setting, but also his (all too common) misspelling of L.

Like most ghost stories, it depends significantly on surprise, so I won't share too much beyond the premise. Chicago-based psychic detective Robert Taine, a character about whom Weinberg wrote regularly, sets out late one winter night to catch the Midnight El, a perhaps mythical ghost train that picks up dead souls. It starts its run at exactly midnight every night, from the station nearest the most deaths that day. Taine is after the wife of a client, a woman whom he--like his client--is convinced shouldn't be dead. It won't hurt the story if I tell you that the train does arrive, and Taine, having employed a potion, slips aboard, where he finds a conductor who totes an anachronistic pocket watch of unusual powers. Taine appeals to the conductor:
"The Greeks considered Charon the most honorable of the gods," said Taine, sensing his host's inner conflict. "Of course, that was thousands of years ago."

"Spare me the dramatics," said the conductor. A bitter smile crossed his lips.
Who has earned the right to a bitter smile more thoroughly than Charon? I'll admit to not knowing that he was regarded as highly honorable, though it makes sense: for life and afterlife to remain in balance, the ferryman must be ready to accept his due payment, but be proof against bribery or histrionics.

Ultimately, it's the honor of the conductor on which the story turns, used by Weinberg to bring about a resolution that feels appropriately myth-based and ancient, even as the story's trappings are the screeching and rumble of the L. It's a great ghost story, well worth seeking out.

The most unbelievable aspect--in a story built around a train car full of the dead? That the L arrives right on time and operates properly throughout its run. In reality it would be ten minutes late and then run express, leaving legions of reanimated corpses fuddled on the platform to horrify the early commuters the next morning.

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