That Hell Bound Train by Bloch, Robert, 1958
That Hell Bound Train, 1958, by Robert Bloch, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Hell Bound Train is a Hugo winning short story from Robert Bloch about outsmarting the devil himself. It is about a hobo-thief named Martin who rode the rails out of respect for his father, who was a rail man himself, and who died one day while working drunk. One day while in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train that was taking forever to get to him, Martin decided that he would toe the line, and make a real man out of himself. He vowed that he would clean up his act and live on the straight and narrow. Hearing this in Hell, Satan decided that he could not afford to lose this soul, which he reckoned he had for sure, so he visited Martin in a train straight out of Hell. When he arrived he offered Martin anything his heart desired in exchange for his soul. Wary of the ways of the trickster, Martin tried to outsmart Ole Scratch, and wished to be able to stop time whenever he wished, forever, and told Satan that he would do it when he reached his happiest moment. He also told Satan that if he could stop time, he would never die and Satan will have lost. Not really caring for Martin's opinion, Satan gave Martin a watch and told him when he pulled the peg, time would stop and he would get his wish.
"There we are," the Conductor smiled. "It's all set, now. When you finally decide where you'd like to call a halt, merely turn the stem in reverse and unwind the watch until it stops. When it stops, Time stops, for you. Simple enough?" And the Conductor dropped the watch into Martin's hands.
The young man closed his fingers tightly around the case. "That's all there is to it, eh?"
"Absolutely. But remember - you can stop the watch only once. So you'd better make sure that you're satisfied with the moment you choose to prolong. I caution you in all fairness; be very certain of your choice."
"I will." Martin grinned. "And since you've been so fair about it, I'll be fair too. There's one thing you seem to have forgotten. It doesn't really matter what moment I choose. Because once I stop Time for myself, that means I stay where I am forever. I'll never have to get any older. And if I don't get any older, I'll never die. And if I never die, then I'll never have to take a ride on your train."
The Conductor turned away. His shoulders shook convulsively, and he may have been crying. "And you said I was worse than a used car salesman," he gasped, in a strangled voice.
Thereafter Martin's life proceeded quite normally. He got a job, then a raise, then a promotion, then a car, a girl, a home and a family. Then came fame and a good reputation. He was riding high, but he never pulled the stem, thinking optimistically that things would just get better and better and better. But then he was caught cheating with a pretty young thing, and he lost his family and his reputation, and as he grew older and older he had a harder time rebuilding what he had lost. But he was always contemplating when he should pull the stem; when he should stop time and stop changing forever. But that moment never came. Before too long Martin knew that if he pulled the stem he would wind up living unhappily forever, so when Legba came back to claim what was his, he still had the watch on his person, running forward.
This is a pretty starkly told tale about how we never really know when we are happy, and about how we lack the focus to keep those moments and those feelings going. The ironic fact is that Martin never really did need the watch to keep happiness going, but even if he had the sense of himself to recognize true happiness, his human nature would have scuttled it eventually anyway. The watch was a symbol, and with it in his hands Martin should have been "watching" for the right moment. But he failed to, and when Satan reappeared in his demon infested train and Martin complained that he had been cheated, Satan told him "nobody ever pulls that stem anyway, youíre no different than the rest of them, because they were never satisfied either." But Martin had the last laugh. He realized that being on a train and working one was his childhood dream, so he pulled the stem before Satan could get the watch back, then asked for a job, because now that train would never get back to its terminus.
I have always loved Bloch's stories, although I have not real many of them yet. For a short story this one says a lot about human nature, and itís got a great twist at the end. It's widely available in a number of anthologies and collections. Four out of five stars.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell