Some books get you on their side before you even open the cover. It may be because it’s by a favourite author whose previous work has set you alight, or because its subject matter has your imagination tingling. Sometimes the cover blurb may have given you the impression that the book you’re holding knows just what you want and has promised it’s going to deliver in spades. At least you hope so.
The cover of Christopher Fowler’s latest novel is a painting by Graham Humphreys – one of the All Time Great British horror movie poster artists. [I grew up seeing Graham’s work outside cinemas and on VHS cassette box covers, as did anyone who went to see the Evil Dead and Nightmare On Elm Street movies on their original release (except for Elm Street 2 – that got banned. I’ve got it, though and it’s a beauty). I also grew up watching Hammer horror films and reading Christopher Fowler’s fine short story collections and novels, which brings us very neatly indeed to Hell Train.] The combination of Fowler and Hammer, topped off with Humphreys’ delicious cover, both wins over and sets expectations high without reading a single word.
Having been sacked by AIP, Shane Carter arrives at Bray Studios looking for a job writing for Hammer Films. It’s 1966 and the studio is at its peak. They’ve just finished making Frankenstein Created Woman and The Mummy’s Shroud is nearing completion. After a quick meeting (and cup of tea) with a cigar-smoking Michael Carreras, Shane lands a job writing a new Hammer film which, with typical expediency, needs to be delivered in the next five days.
And then we’re off, the main part of the book being the novelisation, of the screenplay Shane has been contracted to write. There are a couple of intermissions along the way where we get to see how Shane is getting along and also a particularly delightful casting session involving a horde of familiar faces, but the bulk of the novel is all about the story Shane is writing.
August 1916. Nicholas Castleford, rakish ne’er do well and general Jack the Lad has ended up far from his home city of London, having conned his way through Poland and across the Carpathian border to end up finally in the tiny dead end town of Chelmsk. Like so many a Hammer hero, particularly of their later period pieces like Scars of Dracula, Nicholas finds it impossible to stay out of trouble where the local attractive womenfolk are concerned. It’s not long before he needs to leave the place fast with his latest conquest, the pretty Isabella, in tow. Unfortunately it’s close to midnight and the only way out is to board the train, the Arkangel (a name anyone who has read Fowler’s short story in the Ash-Tree Press volume ‘Exotic Gothic’ will be familiar with). Nicholas is warned by every local he’s met to stay away from the Arkangel in the traditional grand Hammer muttering peasantfolk manner: “Something comes at midnight. Something that looks like a train.”
Of course he doesn’t heed their warnings and soon he’s on board, along with an English couple who’ve found themselves lost on a touring holiday. Thomas is a minor clergyman from Henley-on-Thames and Miranda is his elegantly frustrated wife. Both of them are due to get more than they bargained for.
It doesn’t take long before the four of them realise that they’re not on an ordinary train. In fact, in a plot twist that must have Milton Subotsky smiling down from whichever part of portmanteau heaven he’s currently residing in, it turns out that the train tests the very worst of people’s personalities and, if they are found wanting, takes them straight to hell. Needless to say all of our characters have personality defects, that the vehicle they have boarded intends to exploit, and it’s not long before Thomas and Miranda are asked to look after a coffin in the cargo hold, one which apparently contains the deceased remains of a member of a European Royal family. Despite the coffin being sealed tightly a series of events occurs that leads to the release of the kind of monster that will bring a tear of nostalgia to the eyes of fans of the work of R Chetwynd-Hayes at his very finest.
To say any more would spoil the surprises Mr Fowler has prepared. Hell Train is a very fine book indeed, and one of a type the genre needs more of right now. On the down side there are a couple of typos (entomologist is consistently misspelled as etymologist in Chapter 38) and as far as I’m aware Nigel Hawthorne was never in a Hammer film, but these are very minor gripes indeed. Hell Train is an absolute pleasure to read, especially if you’re a Hammer fan [I had imagined who would most likely be playing the characters if it were a 1967 Hammer film before the casting session chapter and was delighted to find I got most of them right]. You don’t need to know anything about the history of British horror films to get a huge amount of enjoyment out of this sensational thrill ride. Thank you Mr Fowler – let’s have another one of these timetabled soon.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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