Novelist Pia Manning is one of the authors who have a short story in the soon-to-be-published anthology The Haunted Train: Creepy Tales from the Railways. Today, she tells us about her childhood memories of trains, creepy experiences, and writing.
What fascinates you about trains?
Can you feel it? The scary- yet thrilling – foundation-shaking rumble a locomotive creates when it passes by on its way somewhere else. I don’t need to see the engine or catch a glimpse of the cars trailing behind it to imagine some tale or other about its end destination. I lived in a trailer in Florida as a child. The only thing separating our place from the railroad tracks was a rickety wooden fence. Every night in bed I’d wait to feel our mobile home begin to tremble, then outright shake. Maybe because my house had wheels, I wondered if somehow, the engine could pull it along too!
What were trains like in your childhood days?
Many called my grandfather rough. He wasn’t the easiest man to know, but for me, time spent with him was precious. After retiring from the coal mines, he operated a railroad switching station from a small shack perched on a rickety wooden platform high above the train tracks. He’d let me tag along some nights, and I’d sit, straddling his knee while we watched for the engine’s bobbing headlamp. “Now!” he’d call over the train’s whistle, rumble, and roar. This was my cue to push a red button that triggered a clanging bell and lowered the black and white striped crossing gates. The cars’ headlights flashed against the speeding train while they waited for the coal-filled freight cars to whoosh past. Most nights I’d try to count boxcars as they whipped by, but I always lost track. Once the red caboose faded from sight Grandpa gave me the “Okay, let ‘em go!” I’d press a black button that raised the gates and waved ‘good-bye’ as folks drove away.
What gives you the creeps?-
Legs creep me out. Specifically, too many of them. Snakes, no legs; no problem. Four-legged critters? Again, okay. But now we approach six-legged horrors – better known as insects. Butterflies and bumblebees I can handle. Same with ladybugs, even ants. After that, well, it depends on whether they bite. Biting me is a death sentence for them. And arachnids, centipedes, and millipedes make me wanna run away screaming. All those legs moving, little bodies rippling, antennae waving…just no.
Have you ever been to a haunted place? What was it like?
“Join Us for Thrills and Chills!’ the October newspaper headline screamed. The advertisement described a paranormal investigation offered by a local group. In other words, a ghost hunt. The site: A sesquicentennial downtown store with ambiance aplenty – narrow board wooden floors that squeaked unpleasantly, hammered tin ceiling tiles, and that wide woodwork usually found in ‘grandma’ houses. The current owners utilized the cavernous building as an antique store – various farm implements – old, rusted saws, hooks, and leather harnesses hung on the walls. Shelves held porcelain-faced dolls with sightless eyes that bore witness to what – I didn’t know. A plethora of cracked and chipped dishes joined holiday decorations – the detritus of someone else’s life – on those shelves.
Only a few of the many fluorescent ceiling lights had been left on the evening of the hunt. Their light reflected off the tin ceiling tiles and bathed us with a creepy sallow glow, and left all the nooks and crannies deep in shadow.
Three investigators, two women, and a man greeted the fledgling ghost hunters. All three wore multiple amulets that dangled from long chains and swayed when they walked. The leader of their group explained that their necklaces stopped ghosts from following them home. They assured us that no spirit could attach itself to anyone present that evening because they had cast protective spells that prevented any entities from leaving the building. Nervous laughter accompanied this scary revelation. I confess I hadn’t considered returning home with an unwanted spooky guest before I signed up.
A table filled with various hand-held ghost-detecting technology awaited us. These palm-sized gadgets and gizmos emitted clicks, hums, and beeps. Most blinked or flashed in the presence of a spirit. We sat in the folding chairs that ringed the table while the lead investigator demonstrated their uses.
The other two ghost hunters had disappeared into the store’s interior during her presentation. They reappeared, and speaking in hushed voices, assured her that there were indeed ‘spirits’ in the store. They pointed to two spots that they both agreed were ‘hot.’ More nervous laughter sounded.
The hunt commenced after we divvied the equipment and divided into groups. I joined a group with five others. Our destination? A dark corner behind several unused shelving units. One stout woman, in her early twenties and dressed all in brown, stood apart from us. She raised her arms, touched her thumbs to her middle fingers, closed her eyes, and repeated, “I see something yellow,” in a weird child-like sing-song voice. Her cadence changed, and she called upon the ghosts to approach.
Standing about five feet from her, a younger rail-thin woman held an Electro Magnetic Field (EMF) meter, that blinked wildly when the lady in brown ordered the ghosts to come nearer. The skinny woman flapped her arms violently and squawked. I waited for that EMF meter to go flying, but she managed to hang on to it. The Rubenesque woman repeatedly called upon the spirits to approach, causing the EMF meter to strobe which sent flashes of light erupting in all directions. The effect rivaled a nightclub’s disco ball.
The commotion attracted the attention of the lead investigator who hurried over, relieved the young woman of the EMF device, and gave her the option of joining another group. She scowled and explained that irritating the spirits was not a wise thing to do. The official investigator claimed that troubled spirits inhabited the building and needed help moving on. Apparently, ghosts don’t appreciate being teased.
This devolved into a battle. The brown-clad woman argued that she was ‘sensitive’ and had ‘investigated’ in the past. She continued throughout the evening, despite all warnings, with her thumbs to fingers, chanting.
I’ve no idea if ghosts, spirits, or elementals set off the EMF detector. Were ghosts present? Maybe. The building had once been a physician’s office, and we were told, an undertaker had set up shop in the building next door. I suppose if you believe in spirits, ghosts, or any kind of supernatural entity, that place would be a good location to explore.
I did reach out to the paranormal group a week or so after the event and asked what happened once everyone left. The leader explained that she had helped several spirits move on, but that not all wanted to leave. The remaining ghosts, however, did express their wishes to be left alone. I suppose that means they’re still haunting the place.
What do you like about the Gothic Fiction genre?
I love gothic atmospherics – the setting conveys so much in gothic fiction. I love describing the menace and foreboding inherent in a classic gothic work. I enjoy the twists at the end-the unexpected nature of a gothic story is so much fun. I’m also a big fan of the role of isolation in gothic fiction. Are you alone in a castle? Cabin in the woods? Isolation isn’t always about a fixed place. It can be social and/or economic too.
As a writer, what do you like about the short story format?
It keeps me honest! I’m a pantser. I think of an idea and I’m off. I don’t hesitate to explore all those highways and byways, which sometimes leads to a plotting disaster. I don’t have the luxury of drifting as far from the main in a short story.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a gothic horror story filled with the creepiest of happenings called the ‘Crate in the Hole’. It’s set in the Northwoods area of Wisconsin. A down-on-his-luck family man moves his dying wife and daughters to an isolated trailer. Mom soon begins communicating – whether she wants to or not – with ghostly souls. It’s not long before the entire family is in for the battle of their lives.
About Pia Manning
Novelist Pia Manning lives in the Northwoods territory of Wisconsin (USA) with her spousal unit, a herd of cats and a big yellow dog. Life there is filled with cheese curds, beer, brats, the Packers, Friday night fish fries, miles of trails, and thousands of lakes. She is involved with animal rescue and farms monarch butterflies.
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About the Book
Come on board for a Gothic journey in a funicular railway in Victorian England, a freight train in the Carpathian mountains, a high-tech sky train in Bangkok, an underground railway in Tokyo. Visit stations that lure with the promise of safe shelter but harbour unexpected dangers. Meet the people who work on the tracks – stationmasters, porters, signal-men – and those who travel – commuters, tourists, dead bodies, murderers, and ghosts.
In this volume, editor Rayne Hall has collected twenty of the finest– and creepiest – railway tales. The book features the works of established writers, classic authors, and fresh voices. Some stories are spooky, some downright scary, while others pose a puzzling mystery.
Are you prepared to come on board this train? Already, the steam engine is huffing in impatience. Listen to the chuff-chuff-chuff from the locomotive and tarattata-tarattata of the giant wheels. Press your face against the dust-streaked window, inhale the smells of coal smoke and old textiles, watch the landscape whoosh past as you leave the familiar behind and journey into the unknown.
But be careful: you can’t know the train’s real destination, nor your fellow travellers’ intentions. Once you’ve closed that door behind you and the wheels start rolling, you may not be able to get out.
The ebook is available for pre-order from Amazon at the special offer price of 99 cents until 31 January 2023 (after that date, the price will go up.) The paperback edition will be available soon.