John George Lang - The Ghost Upon the Rail
John George Lang's The Ghost Upon the Rail doesn't quite fit the “facts” of the mystery surrounding Fred Fisher, a farmer from Sydney who disappeared in the mid-18th century under curious circumstances. Some time later Fisher's ghost appeared to various (and often besotted) wanderers, invariably pointing toward what was later discovered to be the hiding place of his corpse. A man, Worrall, profited from Fisher's disappearance and was later implicated in his murder. The story of the ghost lives on, inspiring Australian writers throughout the decades.
Lang, arguably Australia's first novelist, and certainly the first-born Australian to make a mark in the literary world, changed Worrall to Smith, and changed the murky confusion of the story into something entirely more clinical, factual and defined. Along the way he wrote a shorty story critic Mary Lord considers to be one of the earliest Australian detective stories, if not in fact the very first.
The Ghost Upon the Rail shows both Fisher and Smith as one of those all too common types from Australia's dark past – both men came to Australia as convicts, earned their freedom after years of prison life and hard labour, and then made their fortunes first squatting, then settling, the earth. They are neighbours, friends and allies until Fisher decides to return to England, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever, in an effort to show his “true family” and “true home” that he has made something of his life. He doesn't return.
A year elapsed, and Mr Smith gave out that he had received a letter from Fisher, in which he stated that it was not his intention to return to Sydney; and that he wished the whole of his property to be sold and the proceeds remitted to him. This letter Mr Smith showed to several of Fisher's most intimate acquaintances, who regretted extremely that they would see no more of so good a neighbour and so worthy a man.
Of course – married! The worthy locals believe the story though they regret Fisher's absence. Some can't believe, given Fisher's love of the land and fondness for community, that he has left, but these doubts are quickly dispelled. In Fisher and Smith's day (and, somewhat, in Lang's), remaining in Australia instead of returning to England as a gentleman was a sign of immaturity and indicative of a certain lack of pluck. Given that, why wouldn't Fisher just leave and never come back?
”I tell you I seed it,” said the old man. “And there's no call for you to laugh at me. If Mr Fisher be not gone away – and I don't think he would have done so without coming to say goodbye to us – I'll make a talk of this. I'll go and tell Sir John, and Doctor Mackenzie, and Mr Cox, and old parson Fulton, and everybody else in the commission of the peace. I will, as I'm a living man! What should take Fisher to England?
What the old man saw was a ghost, dressed up like Fisher and pointing, silent, off into the darkness. The old man is the first of several people who see the ghost until, finally, they follow its directions and discover a skeleton wearing scraps of Fisher's clothes and carrying his prized knife. All fingers point to Smith, who has profited handsomely from Fisher's absence.
Lang's story is narrated from a detached viewpoint in a manner similar to the long essays present in the weekend editions of good newspapers. There is a sense that the narrator has heard or researched this story, perhaps in the function of an interested journalist or a weary policeman writing a report, and, in an attempt to separate the facts from the fiction, has composed this piece. That is to say the story is presented less with artistry than completeness. There is hardly a sense of narrative tension at all, and the characters as presented are broad strokes which never coalesce into a coherent image. The mystery of the story – Fisher's killer – is understood early to be Smith purely thanks to the fact that there are no other characters of consequence introduced until very late in the piece. Who else could it be if not him?
Given that, the thrust of the narrative would ordinarily rely on the detective coming to the conclusion we already know to be true, or, perhaps, to use their superior intellect and wit to unravel all of the double crossings and dealings which have fooled us, the reader, as much as the characters. Witness Poirot. Witness Maigret. Witness Holmes. Unfortunately, The Ghost Upon the Rail has no detective or equivalent, and suffers accordingly. The final paragraph in particular, which is an extended explanation of the how and why of Smith's murdering, devolves into a confused mess of unnecessary exposition and confusingly worded sentences.
As perhaps Australia's first novelist, Lang provides an interesting window into the birth of a nation's literary culture. Such writers remain interesting for historical reasons even though their artistry may not match up to the standards of later efforts. Lang's The Ghost Upon the Rail is such a beast, ungainly and awkward, but shifting forward, exploring new territory and opening up new vistas.
The Ghost Upon the Rail by John Lang is a short story from the The Penguin Best Australian Stories, edited by Mary Lord.
Other stories from the The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories include:
---1866: Fortune, Mary - The Dead Witness; or, the Bush Waterhole
---1873: Clarke, Marcus - Pretty Dick
---1974: Stead, Christina - Street Idyll
Index of short stories under review