Book Review: Hell Train

PrintE-mail Written by Jon Towlson

Review: Hell Train / Author: Christopher Fowler / Format: Paperback / Publisher: Solaris / Release Date: Out Now

Fans of Hammer will love Hell Train, Christopher Fowler’s homage to the glory days of the Britain’s greatest horror movie studio. Hell Train comes on as the ‘greatest supernatural chiller that Hammer never produced, a grand epic that plays like a cross between Dracula and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’.

Shane Carter is a washed-up Hollywood scriptwriter who comes to England to sell his wares to Michael Carreras, chief executive of Hammer Films. It is 1966. Hammer have produced a string of phenomenally successful horror films, but the wind of change is beginning to blow as American distributors are starting to show concern that Hammer’s brand of Gothic is becoming old hat to the new generation of youngsters looking for more contemporary thrills.

To his surprise, Carter is commissioned to produce a script that will appeal to the new breed of film-goer, but he is given only five days in which to write it. The only stipulation that Carreras gives him is that the story must be set on a train…

From its opening chapter set in Bray Studios, Fowler evokes the era of Hammer beautifully. Carreras is presented as an avuncular figure, dedicated to the quality of Hammer’s output but concerned with the threat from young upstarts Amicus and Tigon. Carter’s process of writing the screenplay and his presentations to director Freddie Francis and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee forms an intriguing fictionalised documentary wrap-around story which intersperses with the story of the script itself – set aboard the Arkangel, the titular Hell Train, carrying the souls of the undead as it hurtles through war-torn 1916 Eastern Europe towards its final destination – Hell.

On board is rakish British army deserter, Nicholas, who, along with Isabella, an innkeeper’s daughter with whom he is planning to elope, is fleeing the wrath of villagers and Isabella’s jilted fiancé. Two more English tourists, the Reverend Thomas Wellesley and his discontented wife, Miranda, are forced to board the strange train to escape the approaching Russian army. Watched over by the mysterious Conductor, the four passengers are each obliged to enter into a wager with the Devil in a bid to save themselves, or face the rest of eternity riding the Hell Train.

From this premise Fowler creates a phantasmagoria of surprisingly gory set-pieces as the four passengers battle the bizarre emissaries of Hell, which take the form of a veiled Red Countess, a giant flesh-eating insect, a blood crazed army brigadier and the reanimated corpse of a Carpathian monarch, known as the Biter.

The Arkangel is an intriguing character in itself, and as Fowler reveals its satanic origins, Hell Train starts to take on allegorical meanings, referencing the mass slaughter of the First World War, the Holocaust and the genocide of Bosnia. Fowler doesn’t overload Hell Train with this, but the idea of waging with the devil is there in the background throughout. Plot wise, Hell Train resembles Euro-production Horror Express (1972) and the Amicus-produced Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) more than any Hammer film. But that is all part of the in-joke: as Carter finds his ill-fated script in ‘development hell’, increasingly falling victim to the rivalry between Hammer and the other studios, he begins to realise that he, too, is waging with the devil.

All aboard!

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