Fanzine Classic
Gerard E. Giannattasio

How much detail should be put into
a model railroad layout?

Wading Brook Center
March 22, 1973

Dear Paul,

I have broken up the Miskatonic Valley Railway. I was able to save most of the equipment and am rebuilding as a division of the Southern Pacific.

I told you a little about the Miskatonic Valley in my earlier letters. You pointed out that my conception of the region -- formulated to allow the operation of a realistic model railroad -- differed substantially from H.P. Lovecraft's. Regrettably it did not differ enough.

I finally built in N gauge which as a scale of 1:160. A six-foot man is represented in N by a figure the size of your pinky nail. My first locomotive, an Atlas model of an RSC-2 diesel, is only four inches long. I would have preferred to work in HO, which is four times as large, but lacked the space. This was fortunate: if I'd modeled in HO, I'd probably be dead.

Your criticism that Lovecraft would hardly have recognized my models of Dunwich and Dean's Corners is a valid one, but not for the reason you intended. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" took place in 1928. My layout represents the same area sometime after 1960. It is unrealistic to expect that the upper Miskatonic Valley would remain unchanged -- particularly in the period of expansion after World War II. The MV Ry. is entirely dieselized and my interpretation of the region is, I believe a justifiable one.

I was careful to follow Lovecraft explicitly, at least as far as space limitations would allow, in geographical matters. Round Mountain's lower slope was constructed using "Mountains in Minutes" and blended into a painted backdrop. The Miskatonic River is suggested in the foreground by a few inches of shore and two boys fishing from a short jetty. One of the layout's gems, and a setting constructed with Lovecraft in mind, was the Whateley homestead. HPL would have been delighted with this miniature essay in early American architecture, but it proved to be my big mistake. Everything would have been fine if I hadn't modeled the Whateley farm.

The only space I could find for my layout was in the guest room which occupies half the attic (the other half contains my bedroom). I convinced my parents that I could set up an entire railroad empire without interfering with the room's major function of hosting guests. It took some planning, but I made good on the promise.

The door to the guest room is in the north wall. Dunwich, measuring four feet long by eighteen inches wide, lay along the same wall. Dean's Corners occupied the east wall. This section of the layout was three feet by fifteen inches. Because the door is hinged so as to open against the east wall, Dean's Corners is set back from the angle of the wall and door about a yard (thirty-six and one half inches, if you're counting).

To bridge the gap between Dunwich and Dean's Corners, I built a foot wide lift-out section. The two permanent parts of the layout were designed to accommodate this module by cutting the sides flanking the doorway at forty-five degree angles. The lift-out slid firmly into place and, with a little careful adjustment, the tracks would line up perfectly.

Connecting Dunwich and Dean's Corners was important in order to insure realistic operation of the Miskatonic Valley Railway. Dunwich represented a junction between the MV Ry. and a narrow-gauge logging road (to have been modeled later using Z gauge track). Its industries consisted of a sawmill, lumber yard, printing plant, cannery, and the Comte d'E Mine. Dean's Corners had a textile mill, foundry, paint factory, furniture factory, chemical plant, and the CAS New England Handicrafts Company. In addition the division yards were located in Dean's Corners with a small engine facility in Dunwich.

There were freight and passenger stations in both towns, but the residential district of Dean's Corners was confined to a group of false front flats merged into the painted backdrop. I had more room in Dunwich. The two stores, bar, guest house, and four private homes there were scratch built, based on prototypes which I photographed and paced off on trips to New England last summer.

Using a simplified waybill system described in a model railroading journal, I was able to set up switching operations among the various industries and run freights between the two towns. With the set up I then had, I would have been able to enjoy realistic model railroading for years without repeating the same series of procedures.

There was only one further thing to be done. The lift-out connecting Dunwich and Dean's Corners was a utilitarian length of plywood painted slate gray in color and with two lines of track running across it on cork roadbed. That was where I put the Whateley farm.

To make up for the heavy industrialization of the towns, I outdid myself. I splurged five dollars for Wabash Valley Model's limited-run Mail Pouch Tobacco barn kit (so named for the chewing tobacco advertisement on the model's side). I weathered it extensively. There was no farmhouse kit on the market which was a fit mate for the barn when I was through with it, but on a railfanning trip last fall I came across THE prototype. Oddly enough I found it in Pennsylvania. It's Graeme Park, a fieldstone house in Horsham. The two-and-a-half stories building is over two centuries old, predating the Republic. The gambrel roof, the two tall chimneys, the very shape and size of room and stairhall roared "Lovecraft."

Due to space limitations, I halved the size of the original Graeme Park, cut the number of chimneys to one, added a one-story wooden shed, and connected it to the barn by means of a dilapidated breezeway. The austere, dignified Graeme Park facade with its colonial windows and Georgian door contrasted eerily with the wooden lean-to barn. I added a split rail fence, a herd of Preiser cows, lichen and wire trees, and the Merten farm figure standing with a scythe.

You're probably about to stop reading this letter and dash to your copy of Lovecraft's original to see what relation my model of the Whateley farm bore, if any, to the real thing as imagined by HPL. I'll save you the trouble: The flat surface of the lift-out precluded Lovecraft's prototype which was built into a hillside. With Graeme Park as the germ, I feel I created a structure eminently Lovecraftian in ambiance. When it was complete I knew I had a dwelling which would have delighted both HPL and the decayed branch of the Whateleys. As it turned out, I was at least half right.

I finished the last bit of scenery on the lift-out two weeks ago Tuesday. With the Whateley farm in place, I could operate, for the first time, a train from Dean's Corners to Dunwich through continuously scenic countryside.

For the inaugural run I chose my Con-Cor model of Alco's PA-1, perhaps the handsomest diesel ever to run on American rails. The Miskatonic Valley Railway had two distinct color schemes: dark green with yellow trim for freight power and a special war bonnet paint job in gold and emerald green for varnish. The PA-1, with its gold nose sweeping back into a gleaming green carbody, was the pride of MV Ry. passenger power. It was lettered "The Miskatonic Valley Route -- Serving Central New England" in white dry transfer decals. This particular train, The Pilgrim Mail, traveled the upper valley on a daily schedule. The PA-1 pulled a consist of two cars, a combine for passengers and baggage, and a railway post office/REA car.

The Pilgrim Mail reached Dunwich right on time. There, because the narrowness of my layout does not allow proper turnaround tracks (the Southern Pacific division is going to have turntables), I dropped the PA-1 and sent it to the Dunwich engine house. Power for the return Pilgrim was provided by a model of a Baldwin Locomotive Works Shark Nose, also in the gold and green war bonnet of MV Ry. varnish.

The switching operation at Dunwich kept me quite busy. Not only did I replace the power, but an express reefer bound for Aylesbury had to be added to the consist. As a result of my concentration, I failed to notice what was going on at the Whateley farm.

It wasn't until the return Pilgrim, bound for Dean's Corners and Arkham, left the Dunwich station that I noticed the strange happening down at the old Whateley place. The Dunwich Horror was happening down at the old Whateley place, that's what was happening down at the old Whateley place. It was Wilbur Whateley's twin brother who "looked more like the father than he did," to quote Lovecraft's own description of the beast.

I can't describe how it looked. My eyes sort of slid around it like raindrops around a duck. The creature was in constant movement. Even while standing still he writhed like a jug of multicolored night crawlers. As I watched, the Pilgrim reached the Whateley lift-out and headed for Dean's Corners. When the Baldwin came abreast of the farm, a tentacle lashed out from the seething, eye-bruising mass to send both engine and consist flying.

The Shark Nose hit the floor with a sickening crack. The three cars flew completely across the room, bounced off the wall, and ended on the guest bed.

Had the creature been any bigger, I suppose that I would have been terrified. But in N scale, even a monster "bigger'n a barn" is none too big -- especially when a barn fits snugly in the palm of your hand. The Horror stood less than two feet high.

My stunned amazement changed to rage as I considered the week's worth of evenings which had gone into painting the Shark Nose.

The Dunwich Horror turned and headed for my model of the township which was its namesake. It didn't stalk -- I guess it couldn't in such a small scale -- it sort of jiggled obscenely down the right of way. All I needed was a scale model monstrosity loose among my painstakingly scratch built structures. I stepped to the layout and backhanded the Horror.

The mini-minion of the Great Old Ones staggered. My hand burned as if I'd struck a red-hot stove. I hopped back. The in-scale monster, recovering from the blow which slammed him against the painted backdrop (against and into and then out again), tried to come after me, but seemed to be limited to the layout. He waddled back and forth along the edge, chittering angrily. Then he swung about and made for Dunwich.

My right hand stung and the entire back of it, from the first joint of the fingers to the wrist, was blistering up. I stood there, at a safe distance, wheezing in pain and gritting my teeth in fury as the tiny s.o.b. began to stomp my carefully constructed village into shreds of balsa wood, tatters of cardstock, and splinters of polystyrene.

It was probably my instincts as a model rain fan which prompted me to disconnect the power pack, pulling out the plug with my foot. I didn't want to go near the on-off switch located on the control panel by the Dunwich section of benchwork.

As soon as the plug came out of the wall socket, the creature began to fade -- slowly at first, then all at once he was gone without so much as an afterimage.

I stood looking at the wreck of Dunwich for a good, long while. Finally I collected the pieces of The Pilgrim Mail and deposited them in the Dean's Corners yard.

Then I plugged the power pack back in.

The Dunwich Horror reappeared as it had vanished: suddenly palely visible, then slowly gathering into eye-twisting color. It began to move; I pulled the plug. The creature wailed and faded.

I did it again: same results.

I had him.

With the power still off, I lifted out the Whateley homestead and set it on the floor. Downstairs, I bandaged my hand. When I returned to the guest room, I had a heavy-duty trash can liner.

I smashed the Whateley farm completely: stomping and ripping. I spared nothing -- the barn, the house, the trees, the miniature cattle, and the plywood backed homosote board -- everything went into the trash bag. The tables were turned and I was the monster. I tore the signs from the Dunwich and Dean's Corners stations. The crushed houses followed into the bag. After some hesitation I decided to destroy and discard all the structures built specially for the Miskatonic Valley Railway. That included the Comte d'E Mine and all the private homes. This wasn't as much of a sacrifice as it first appears: the mini-Horror had already destroyed most of the scratch built models.

I had four diesels, including the wrecked Shark Nose, lettered for the MV Ry. The small industrial diesel which worked the sawmill-lumber yard complex was still lettered for the Pennsy. The combine and rail post office/REA cars were in Southern Pacific livery, but two of my cabooses were decorated for the MV Ry. I put all the Miskatonic equipment into the carryall I use to transport stuff between the layout and my basement workshop.

My hand was still stinging, but I managed to paint out the MV Ry. lettering on the six models. Since then I've repainted them all in Southern Pacific colors.

Fortunately, this happened on Tuesday. We have our garbage collected on Wednesdays and Saturdays. By the time I was finished tearing up the Miskatonic Valley Railway, it was long after four and the rest of the family was in bed. I put the trash can liner out on the curb and sat up the rest of the night nursing a triple scotch and keeping an eye on the bulging plastic bag. The village sanitation truck arrived a little after six.

The Baldwin Shark is still in my parts box. Its plastic outer shell is melted half through. It's unrepairable, but I keep it around. I'd put it on the rip track behind the San Cosme engine house on my new layout, but I can't think up a logical explanation for its condition for visible model fans.

All the best,

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© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"The N-Scale Horror": © 1981 Crispin Burnham. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Eldritch Tales # 2 (1981).
Graphics © 1998 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: October 5, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004