The Fun is in the Trip

A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain,
To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.

The engine with murderous blood was damp,
And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp; 
An imp for fuel was shoveling bones,
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.

The boiler was filled with lager beer,
And the Devil himself was the engineer;
The passengers were a most motley crew
Church member, atheist, Gentile and Jew.
“The Hell-Bound Train”; traditional, from Songs of the Cowboys, 1921, collected by Jack Thorp

Cowboys worry a lot about hell, don’t they?

“The Hell-Bound Train” is a traditional cowboy song, basically on the same theme as “Riders in the Sky”. A drunk old cowboy dreams of a train to hell. Its demonic engineer taunts his terrified passengers about the sinful lives they’ve led — “You’ve bullied the weak, you’ve robbed the poor, The starving brother you’ve turned from the door” — and how it’s time for them to have their due. The whole experience frightens the poor cowboy so much that he turns from his drunken ways: “he never rode the hell-bound train.”

Chuck Berry did a nice version of the song in 1955 (it was the B-Side to “No Money Down”). His version is called “Downbound Train”, and the Devil talks about the train approaching “home”, instead of that other H-place. Other than that, the lyrics are close to Jack Thorp’s version.

In 1958, Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho) published a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called “That Hell-Bound Train”. The story won a Hugo award the next year. I wonder if Bloch had heard Berry’s recording?

Cover Illustration for IDW’s comic adaptation of “That Hell-Bound Train”. Adaptation by Joe and John Lansdale, art by Dave Wachter. I like Joe Lansdale, but Bloch’s short story is better than the comic.

The protagonist of the story, Martin, is the son of a drunkard train man who always sang that song.

WHEN MARTIN WAS A LITTLE BOY, his Daddy was a Railroad Man. He never rode the high iron, but he walked the tracks for the CB&Q, and he was proud of his job. And when he got drunk (which was every night), he sang this old song about “That Hell-Bound Train.” Martin didn’t quite remember any of the words, but he couldn’t forget the way his Daddy sang them out. And when Daddy made the mistake of getting drunk in the afternoon and got squeezed between a Pennsy tank car and an AT&SF gondola, Martin sort of wondered why the Brotherhood didn’t sing the song at his funeral.

Martin’s mother runs away with a traveling salesman, and Martin ends up in an orphanage. Not surprisingly, he ends up a juvenile delinquent, a convict, then a hobo and a train-hopper. He loves trains, and still remembers his father and his father’s song. Looking back on it, the folks on that train sounded like fun, didn’t they?

…the gambling men and the grifters, the big-time spenders, the skirt chasers, and all the jolly crew.

Sure enough, as Martin walks along a rail line thinking these thoughts, a mysterious unlit train pulls up out of nowhere, with a clubfoot conductor. The conductor offers Martin a ride on the train. Martin declines and insists on the traditional deal. He asks for the power to stop time at a moment of his choosing — a moment of happiness — and to live that moment forever. The conductor agrees, and hands Martin a silver pocketwatch. When Martin unwinds the watch, time will stop. Once.

Now Martin has a goal: to find that moment of happiness. He graduates from train hobo to a city panhandler in Chicago, then to a construction laborer. He has an apartment, a nice car, girlfriends. The company sends him to night school to become a bookkeeper, and soon he meets his wife-to-be. Along the way, Martin has moments of happiness that tempt him to unwind the watch, but he holds back, certain that a better moment is soon to come. He has a son — and of course he wants to watch his son grow up, right? And then he decides that he will find that moment of happiness when he gets rich and doesn’t have to work.

He almost makes it there, but then he meets a younger woman and has an affair. The resulting divorce costs him everything. Still, he manages to rebuild all his wealth, and continues to search for his moment of happiness in travel and companionship. Eventually, he ends up in a San Francisco hospital after a massive stroke. He runs away from the hospital, and has another stroke. He is about to die. He can save his life (and his soul) by unwinding the watch — if he’s willing to spend all eternity in this moment of agony. He’s not.

The train pulls up; the conductor comes to punch his ticket. No one ever unwinds the watch, he tells Martin. Everyone waits for the moment that never comes.

I won’t spoil it for you, but Bloch manages to give the story a sweet ending.

…the fun is in the trip, not the destination. You taught me that.


Slightly off-topic: I didn’t know it until I started researching this post, but apparently Chuck Berry is a fan of country music, and knows a quite a lot of old country songs (like “The Hell-bound Train”). There’s a great quote in the Wikipedia:

By early 1953 Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist. Although the band played mostly blues and ballads, the most popular music among whites in the area [St. Louis] was country. Berry wrote, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering ‘who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”

Hurray for musical inclusiveness!


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