Robert Bloch, at least to the small but select audience of this blog, needs no introduction. He is one of the great writers to graduate from the mid-Twentieth Century pulp racket, and—like all true pulp writers—if it sold, he wrote it. He worked several genres including crime, horror, science fiction and fantasy. He is best known for his fine novel Psycho—later transformed into its faithful film adaptation Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—but his work has a depth and quality rarely seen. If Mr Bloch wrote it, it is likely pretty great.
On the far side of great is his 1958 story “The Hell-Bound Train”. It won the 1959 Hugo Award, and it is the best science fiction story—short or otherwise—I have read in a long time. It features a young bindlestiff called Martin. His father “walked the tracks for the CB&Q” until he met with a drunken accident and his mother ran off with a traveling salesman. He skipped the orphanage and drifted with the rails. He tried his hand at crime, and on a cold and lonely November midnight he determined to go straight—
“No sir, he just wasn’t cut out for petty larceny. It was worse than a sin—it was unprofitable, too. Bad enough to do the Devil’s work, but then get such miserable pay on top of it!”
Martin’s dream of a straight life is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of an unfamiliar running train. The windows dark. Its whistle “screaming like a lost soul.” The conductor who steps from its forward car is off—the way he drags a foot when he walks, and his nonstandard technique of lighting his lantern with his breath. It takes only a moment for an offer of a ride to be tendered, but Martin negotiates a deal. He will gladly ride for a single wish in exchange. He wants, at his own choosing in a moment of happy contentment, to stop time. The conductor accepts the bargain, and Martin is certain he fooled the devil. He finds a job in the nearest town and plots his own happiness, looking for that moment where he wants to spend forever.
“The Hell-Bound Train” is brilliantly executed. Its narrative is seemingly simple, but the simplicity is misleading. A study of misdirection, really. It shows the reader enough to make a conclusion (incorrectly) about where the story will finish, fulfilling that expectation in a way, and then taking it further. And that final step takes the story from pretty good to great. It is very much like the best of The Twilight Zone , and a shame it was never treated in an episode.
“The Hell-Bound Train” was originally published in the September 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I read it in the anthology The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 edited by Isaac Asimov and published by Fawcett Crest in 1973.