Retro Review: “Ride the El to Doom” by Allison V. Harding

Weird Tales November 1944

Cthulhu graces the cover of the issue wherein “Ride the El to Doom” first appeared

“Ride the El to Doom” is a horror novelette by Allison V. Harding, which was first published in the November 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“Ride the El to Doom” begins with a ride on an elevated train, the titular El, in what is implied to be New York City (though the names of streets, stops and bridges don’t match any real places), as viewed through the eyes of steelworker Jack Larue. The descriptions are highly atmospheric, from the “dingy squalor” and “three and four-storey uniformity” of what has to be either Brooklyn or Queens via a bridge across muddy water to the shining towers of Manhattan in which Jack feels some ownership, because he cast the steel used to build them. We also learn that the El is rundown, the steel components without lustre and streaked with rust, and half-empty, too. I have never ridden the El, because it was gone long before I was born, but nonetheless I could picture the trip and the vistas only too clearly. Harding, who most likely was a native New Yorker, paints a great word picture here that is matched by Boris Dolgov’s striking interior art.

As the El approaches his stop, Jack gets up and exchanges a few words with the driver, a grumpy old man named Pete Nevers who has been working for the El seemingly forever. Jack idly muses that Pete is so connected to the El that if the city authorities were ever to demolish the El, they would have to take down Pete along with it. But that won’t ever happy, because the city cannot do without the El. Anybody who knows a little bit about the history of public transport in New York City (it’s remarkable what you pick up when researching the Silencer stories) knows that those are famous last words.

And indeed a few weeks later, Jack chances to glimpse an article in a co-worker’s newspaper that the El and the bridge which Jack crosses to get to work will be demolished. The bridge will be rebuilt, but the El won’t. Instead, it will be replaced by busses. Jack is bothered by this, so much that he gets drunk after work. When he talks to Pete on the trip home that night, Pete insists that they’ll never stop the El, that it’s alive and they can’t kill it. Jack counters that Pete is just scared, because he’s nothing without the El.

Later that night, Jack wakes up, feeling hungover, not to mention a little guilty about his confrontation with Pete. After all, the old man has always been good to him, has even lent Jack money on occasion. And so Jack decides to pay Pete a visit to apologise.

It turns out that Pete lives in a barren apartment in a rundown building near the El trainyard. Because Jack feels sorry for old Pete, he offers to find him a job at the steel foundry, perhaps as a watchman. But Pete declines. He can’t just change jobs, he declares. He can never leave the El. Jack tries to persuade him, but Pete won’t hear anything about it. “Thanks lad”, he tells Jack, but he needn’t worry about Pete or the El. He shakes Jack’s hand and Jack can’t help but notice that Pete’s handshake is hard and cold as steel.

But of course Jack worries about Pete anyway and even secures him a job as a watchman at the steel foundry. When he visits Pete again a few days later, the man who opens the door is not Pete, but his roommate, an El conductor named Philpot. Philpot tells Jack that Pete is taking the impending end of the El very hard. He doesn’t eat and spends most of his time after hours in the empty El car.

When Jack tells Philpot about the job offer, Philpot says that Pete won’t take it, because he isn’t leaving the El. However, Philpot is interested. Jack tells Philpot that the job offer is only good for Pete, no one else, whereupon Philpot opens an old trunk in the apartment, revealing a tangle of rusty steel parts. Pete has been swiping parts from the El for years, Philpot tells Jack, and is hardly trustworthy as a watchman. “But why?” Jack wonders, when the door opens and Pete comes in.

Pete is understandably furious and throws Jack and Philpot out. He also tells Jack in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want or need a new job, because he’s staying with the El. Philpot, on the other hand, would very much like the job, but Jack tells him to find one for himself.

On the final day of the El, Jack boards the train for its last ride, disgusted at all the reporters and local dignitaries, flag-waving school children and an off-key marching band and at the demolition crews who stand by to start their work as soon as the last train has passed by. Jack has a bottle of whiskey in his pocket and empties it on his way to the front of the train. Already drunk, he tries to talk to Pete, but all Pete says is “Get out!” That makes Jack angry and he takes a swing at Pete. But even though his fist feels as if he’d just hit a steel wall, Pete doesn’t even feel the punch. But Jack certainly feels it when Pete throws him across the car.

Jack gets drunk some more, falls asleep on a bench and wakes up sorely hungover. Furious, he decides to confront Pete, but only find Philpot wounded and bleeding on the floor. Philpot claims that Pete attacked him and that he isn’t human. He also warns Jack against going after Pete.

But of course, Jack does after Pete anyway. He enters the darkened El railyard and soon comes across the body of a night watchman, bludgeoned to death. He sees a train starting up, driven undoubtedly by Pete. Jack sprints after train and jumps aboard, realising too late that the demolition crews have already started to take down the tracks. Worse, the train is going very fast, too fast to jump off.

Somehow, Jack makes his way to the front of the train, where Pete is in his compartment. Jack yells at the old man to stop the train, because the tracks on the bridge are already gone, but Pete doesn’t react. So Jack tries to grip the controls and stop the train himself, but he cannot, because Pete is too strong for him. In desperation, he tries to pummel Pete, but once again it is like hitting a steel wall.

Jack realises that the train is going up the ramp to the bridge and that he and Pete have to jump off now or die. But Pete isn’t going to jump. He’ll go down with the El and he has Jack’s wrist in a death grip. At the very last second, Jack manages to yank himself free, tearing off Pete’s arm in the process. He jumps and watches as the train derails and falls into the East River (imaginatively called West River in this story).

Jack staggers home, dumps the severed arm in a corner of his room and covers it with newspapers (like you do). He watches the rescue efforts, watches as the battered cars of the El are brought up again. The official story is that Pete went crazy, murdered Philpot and the night watchman and stole the train to commit suicide. But his body is never found and Jack suspects it never will be.

One night, he takes Pete’s severed arm, still wrapped in newspapers, and takes it down to the riverfront. Now Jack finally removes the newspaper and finds not a severed arm, but a steel throttle lever. He realises that Pete truly hadn’t been human and throws the lever into the river to join the rest of “Pete”.

Interior art "Ride the El to Doom"

The striking interior art for this story by Boris Dolgov.

“Ride the El to Doom” is an atmospheric and highly effective horror story. Particularly, the two El rides that bookend the story, one a regular daytime ride and the second a feverish nightmare suicide ride, are very atmospheric. Ditto for the El’s last trip, complete with dignitaries, off-key marching band and flag waving school children. Writingwise, this story is considerably better than “Guard in the Dark”, the other Allison V. Harding story I reviewed. Native New Yorker Allison V. Harding was obviously writing what she knew here and it shows.

In fact, the thing I liked most about “Ride the El to Doom” is that it offers a glimpse into a vanished New York City. This is a New York where elevated trains still clatter through the city on stilts, though they are on their way out, where steelworkers and other bluecollar folks can still afford to live in Manhattan, where Brooklyn and Queens are monotonous working class neighbourhoods rather than hipster central. This is the New York City of old movies, the New York City that King Kong trashed and also the New York City of the Silencer. In fact, the city descriptions alone were well worth reading the story.

And yes, the city described is absolutely New York, even if Harding changes the names of places and turns East River into West River and 110th Street station, a suicide hotspot in the days of the El, into 109th Street station. I’m not sure which bridge the fictional West River Bridge is supposed to be, for while bridges in New York City have been demolished, none of them seem to have been demolished in the 1940s.

The historical background of the story is the end of the elevated railway a.k.a. El in New York City. The El had been introduced as a solution to New York City’s rampant traffic problem in 1867 and quickly caught on after a few false starts, because unlike trams and trolleys, the El did not occupy valuable street space, but instead ran one level above. However, the El was also noisy. It cast streets and sidewalks into permanent shadow – already a persistent problem with New York City’s many highrise buildings anyway – and covered the neighbourhood in smoke, soot and dirt. Owners of buildings and shops along the El lines complained and property values fell, even as El access developed previously underdeveloped areas. And once subways and busses could handle the same passenger volume cheaper and faster with less noise and pollution, it spelled the end for the El. The first elevated train line ceased operation in 1938 and others followed throughout the early to mid 1940s, i.e. at the time the story is set, though the last line in the Bronx held on until 1973. For more on the history and end of the New York City El, see here and here. As for why most elevated trainlines came down during the 1940s, at least part of the reason was that the steel used to build them was needed for the war effort. The quick demolition of the tracks in “Ride the El to Doom” alludes to this.

Allison V. Harding is a somewhat mysterious figure, as I explained in my review of “Guard in the Dark”. But all evidence points at her having lived in New York City and therefore witnessing the El tracks come down all over the city around the time that she wrote this story. And because the El was so ubiquitous until it disappeared, Allison V. Harding very likely rode it at least occasionally, even though she was of a different social class than her characters. Is the last ride of the El in the story with its potbellied dignitaries and flag-waving school children and off-key marching band something Harding personally witnessed? The description is so on point that it almost seems as if Harding described a real event. And now I am tempted to search the New York Times archives for reports about the ends of the various El lines to see if something matches Harding’s description.

Another thing that’s notable is that “Ride the El to Doom” features only working class characters. Protagonist Jack Larue is a steelworker with an alcohol problem, Pete Nevers is an El motorman and Philpot is a conductor. These are not the kind of people you often see in science fiction, fantasy or horror stories as anything other than walk-ons or side characters, neither during golden age nor today.

“Ride the El to Doom” is also an early example of  contemporary horror and what we now call urban fantasy. According to received wisdom, horror was found mainly in gothic and historical settings before Rosemary’s Baby and the works of Stephen King dragged it into the present and urban fantasy flat out did not exist before the 1980s. However, all of the Weird Tales stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project have had contemporary/near contemporary settings. Furthermore, Weird Tales was a hotbed of proto-urban fantasy and popular Weird Tales series characters like Seabury’s Quinn’s occult detective Jules de Grandin and Manly Wade Wellman’s occult detective John Thunstone are the direct ancestors of Harry Dresden, Peter Grant, Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, October Daye and Anita Blake.

If there’s one thing that has become amply clear to me during my extended sojourn in the golden age it’s that fantasy was a hugely varied genre pre-Lord of the Rings. There was gothic horror, modern horror, sword and sorcery, proto-urban fantasy, weird fiction, children’s fantasy, humorous fantasy, etc… Nor did this variety vanish overnight, when the popularity of Lord of the Rings exploded. Quite the contrary, a lot of pulp era fantasy was reprinted in the wake of the success of Lord of the Rings and sword and sorcery experienced its second boom during the 1960s, though of the protagonists of the first boom in the 1930s/early 1940s, only Fritz Leiber was still alive and active to see it. It was only when horror split off as a separate genre in the 1970s and what remained was overtaken by Tolkien clones and big fat quest fantasy that fantasy contracted for the next twenty to thirty years.

“Ride the El to Doom” is urban fantasy in the most literal sense of the word, because the monster to be slain is not a vampire or werewolf but a crucial feature of the city. If public transport horror were a thing, “Ride the El to Doom” would be one of its founding texts. And indeed, it’s worth remembering that railroad fiction was its own genre during the pulp era and that Railroad Stories was one of the longest running pulp magazines of all time. Railroad Stories began publication as The Railroad Man’s Magazine in 1906 and is still around 114 years later, though they stopped publishing fiction in 1979. So Railroad Stories has been in business longer than Astounding/Analog, Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, the three longest running (with interruptions in the case of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales) SFF magazines.

Possessed or otherwise malicious machines are a common feature of the golden age and beyond. “The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, winner of the 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Short Story, as well as “Etaoin Shrdlu” by Fredric Brown, a Retro Hugo finalist in the same category and year, are two examples, respectively featuring a sentient radio-phonograph console and a sentient linotype machine. The novella “Killdozer!” by Theodore Sturgeon, published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1944 and therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos, featured a possessed bulldozer murdering a construction crew. Isaac Asimov’s 1953 story “Sally” is an early tale about autonomous cars who have minds and personalities of their own and conspire to commit murder. Stephen King’s 1983 horror novel Christine is another take on the same subject, only that the explanation for Christine’s sentience is supernatural rather than technological. “Rise the El to Doom” certainly fits into this pattern, only that the sentient machine has a human face here in the form of Pete Nevers.

Allison V. Harding drops hints regarding the true nature of “Pete” throughout the story. We get comparatively few physical descriptions of the characters – we don’t even know what race they are, though personally I imagine Pete as an old black man. But what few physical descriptions of Pete there are usually compare him to steel, iron, metal or coal, all materials associated with the El.

Considering how good this story is, it’s a shame that it has never been reprinted. Maybe the fact that it is tied to a very particular time and place counted against it. Or maybe it’s yet another case of the women writers of Weird Tales being ignored and dismissed as “useless filler that only takes up pages”, while every single utterance ever made by H.P. Lovecraft is analysed to death. Indeed, one thing I have learned during this project is that Weird Tales was so much more than just Lovecraft and Howard, Cthulhu and Conan, and that a lot of it was very good indeed, even if it has never received even a fraction of the attention that Lovecraft and Howard received.

A great atmospheric tale of urban horror that has been unjustly forgotten. Highly recommended.

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