A while back, I mentioned that the only train story I could remember from my childhood gave me the creeps. I included a picture of The Little Engine That Could.
However, The Little Engine That Could is not the exact book that made me so uneasy in my youth, although I must say that the clown in the green polka dot suit gives me a bit of the fidgets. No, the book responsible for so many sensations of apprehension and dread is actually called The Pony Engine, which is either an earlier version of the same story, or something from a parallel universe that somehow found its way to our Earth through a rip in the space-time continuum.
The other day, a copy of The Pony Engine mysteriously showed up at the Bottom Shelf, so I bought it and brought it home to remind myself of some of the more scary moments in my youth.
I don't have too much of a problem with the cover. I just have a few questions that have gone unanswered for the last 45 years:
1. Why is that bear dressed like an engineer? If he is indeed the engineer, why isn't he in the cab, driving the train? Why is he sitting out front with his legs crossed? And why exactly does he even have his legs crossed?
2. Why is that girl sitting on the smoke box? Isn't that kind of really dangerous? Not to mention extremely hot? She's not even wearing trousers, for crying out loud.
3. What's that stuff coming out of the smokestack? It looks to me like maybe that girl dumped a thousand sparklers down there.
4. Why is there an infant on this train? This is a circus train, right? Is this baby somehow part of a circus act? Do they toss it to and fro on the trapeze? Does it crawl under an elephant's foot or into a lion's mouth? I just don't get it.
5. What kind of animals are those? Why are they strange colors? What kind of circus is this, anyhow?
But, as I say, that's not the creepy part.
This is the Express Engine that refused to help the Weak Old Circus Engine after it broke down because, says the Express Engine, "I can't bother with you. I pull only the finest trains."
The Express Engine has slightly evil eyes, which is mildly disturbing. But that's not the creepy part.
This is the so-called Lone Engine, who refuses to help the Circus Engine because, in his own words, "I've done enough. I need a rest." It is a very grouchy looking train and I wouldn't want to ask it for help. But that's not the creepy part.
This is the creepy part. This is the train that haunted me for years. This is the Rusty Dusty Engine that complained it wasn't strong enough to help.
Well, along comes the Pony Engine to save the day, but there's just something, something subliminal or something, in this picture that really gives me the willies. Or maybe it's just a cumulative effect, one picture of horror after another, building up until the breaking point. I can't think of another book from my childhood that causes such uneasiness in me. I know this is supposed to be a story with a moral, a great lesson, but the only lesson I learned from it was no way am I going to ask people for help. It's too scary.
There's another version of this story I'd like to get. It's the 1930 edition of The Little Engine That Could, illustrated by Lois Lenski, the same person who wrote Policeman Small and The Little Airplane and all those cool books, plus many others. Isn't it friendly and non-scary looking?
A first edition of this book sells for over $500. Now that's creepy.