Hell Train is a gleeful romp of a horror novel, one that might not send you to bed a nervous twitching travesty of your former self, but instead a pleased, amused and not exactly sleepy person, destined to wake up slightly late and miss your bus – not that you’ll really mind that much.
Author Christopher Fowler has provided even the most casual fan of Hammer films with a cheeky, knowing love-letter to the studio, including a cover that could grace a cinema foyer. He even uses the framing device as a means to deliver a meta-joke about framing devices. This is playful, funny stuff, but strewn with enough fictional Kensington gore, cleavage and violence to appeal to fans of both camp and horror. The mayhem would far outstrip the budget of a Hammer film, and this is also referenced in the dialogue.
The framing device is that of an American screenwriter coming to Britain to write a film for the studio, hoping to halt their fading fortunes, and the bulk of the story is a prose version of his movie idea. We get cameos from real life figures behind the scenes, including Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and a melancholy end lamenting the decline of a much-loved studio. Here the author has a character question whether or not the Hammer films’ appeal will last, or if they’re just “Fairy tales starring middle aged men”.
Hell Train is an homage to these films’ enduring quality, and while it is a fun, undemanding read, it is not a book I am likely to return to. It has, however, convinced me to seek out more of the studio’s output, which is surely one of its aims.
Fowler is most famous for his Bryant And May series, which you may have found in the crime section, but they belong to the ‘Peculiar Crimes Unit’, and Fowler is among a group of authors who have mined Victorian literature for characters and scenarios to reference, rework and borrow.
There’s even a quote from Kim Newman on the cover, and a bunch of quotes from illustrious contributors to the fantasy and crime genres on first page, where Time Out states that Christopher Fowler would make a good serial killer. I disagree. He would make an entertaining serial killer if he were in a movie, because he certainly knows his inventive, spectacular death scenes. In terms of not getting caught, though, I think he’d be hard pushed not to be noticed by someone, but you can guarantee he’d supply some witty quips for the press when they came for him.
Set in the fictional Eastern European country of Carpathia, Hell Train is the story of Isabella, a beautiful maiden destined to become a housewife and live out her days having seen little of the world outside the industrial town of Chelmsk. Naturally curious, she has seen things she wasn’t supposed to, and as the First World War threatens to disrupt her country’s neutrality, she finds herself fleeing the town with a handsome rogue, a vicar, and his wife. All three are English. All three are deeply flawed, and not a little arrogant.
Nicholas, the philandering braggart, sweeps Isabella off her feet with promises of London, only to board the midnight train the townsfolk will not speak of, accompanied by a bickering couple, attempting to flee a war zone.
The train is, of course, the titular vehicle, and is, of course, a weapon of Satan against all that is right and good in the world. The explanation for this is as entertaining as it is melodramatic as it is lengthy, but that’s not really what the story is about. Exposition is wielded like a big camp weapon, the idea of a train being consecrated to the Devil is obviously ludicrous, but treated with such reverence and bone-crushing glee that you can’t help but be simultaneously enthused and appalled.
What we get, essentially, are four separate but interweaving stories, as our four main characters are tested by the train. If they fail, their souls stay aboard the train forever. If they win, the train might not play fair. Every now and then the chapters – brief, cliffhanger laden – cut back to the writer staying at an inn, having a fling with the studio secretary, talking with her about the story, discussing the directions it might go in, and then the story accelerates off in those directions, further than expected. It’s a portmanteau, but not as we know it.
The Englishness portrayed here is very much a negative thing. Snobbish, small-minded and ignorant, it is only Nicholas who approaches redemption, but his personality flaws show through right till the end. You end up feeling a similar emotion to that of seeing Richard Hammond after his crash: you’re glad he’s alright and on his feet again, but that doesn’t mean he’s suddenly likeable.
More clear cut are the Vicar and his wife, who even when tortured by the forces of the damned remain defiantly English, bickering with each other and exposing huge character flaws even as they are attacked by surprisingly blue blooded monsters with a thirst for human blood. The good ol’ horror tropes of amoral behaviour resulting in punishment are very much in place, and the resulting set pieces are actually completely out of the reach of most contemporary film budgets, let alone those of the late 50s.
Once the blood starts flowing, it never really ceases, with the dead souls on the train called to die over and over again in order to strain at the morality of the living souls on board. Twists and turns ensue, diverting the flow of the plot, as heads explode, bosoms heave, and flesh putrefies. That noise you can hear is the long, satisfied scratch of a pen ticking boxes.
While the book is fun and fast-paced, I wouldn’t say it was especially scary – more of a short-term thrill, and some of its horror references may go over some readers’ heads. Reading it as a pleasant diversion, however, is definitely recommended, and it will almost certainly lead those of you who aren’t already fans to seeking out some of Hammer’s output, be it from its renewed current version or from its past glory days.
I’m fairly confident anyone who does will wish to thank Mr Fowler profusely, assuming he hasn’t dowsed them in dog piss and thrown them down a badger sett. It sounds like the sort of thing he might do.