As a youth I loved watching Hammer Horror flicks – a habit thankfully that’s continued to this day. They are delightfully creepy, superbly melodramatic, absolutely kitsch at times, but nonetheless passionate in their attempt to output a unique tranche of terror onto the big screen. So it was with some delight that I dipped into Hell Train by Christopher Fowler to discover a most impressive tribute to this slice of ghoulish cinema.
With a title like Hell Train you can rest assured that this is an unapologetic ride of terror. Set around the time of the First World War, the Arkangel train, which passes through its Eastern European stations at midnight on the 8th full moon of each year, is a monstrous steam and iron behemoth. As it journeys on it collects an unusual assortment of passengers, and those who board soon realise that the cost of a ticket on this locomotive could come at a price far higher than they might’ve bargained for.
In true Hammer-aplomb you’ve a gaudy collective of English types ready to be plucked off one by one, not to mention an assortment of locals and sundry others to be dispatched – or cause dispatching – in the price of chilling B-movie efficacy. A decent amount of attention is given to all, and appropriate back-story, without becoming bogged down. This keeps things fresh and action packed and this really is a page-turner indeed.
Whether it’s fighting with the locals of some rustic backwater, or avoiding the predatory advances of a bloodsucker in the luggage hold, there’s not a moment for quiet reflection on this journey. From the roguish Englishman adventurer Nicholas and the object of his affections Isabella, less plucked from her local village than chased out, to dilettante social climber and vicar’s wife Miranda and her naive, put-upon husband; here is a cast put under the press indeed. Everyone, however small a role, has an angle that’s interestingly reflected upon.
The train itself is as much as character in this book as its collection of eclectic passengers. With its demonic frontage ‘its boiler hot, its smokestack belching cinders’, this is indeed as Fowler puts it ‘a diabolical machine, thundering through the turbulent night, pistons pumping, steam building pressure, lights a flicker.’
In just a few paragraphs the Arkangel is cemented with mystery mythos, and given a pedigree of terror the likes of which makes it suitable for a voyage for the damned indeed. Things get more interesting, as it begins to ‘test’ its passengers. And as for its conductor, what is the deal there?
Fowler weaves an interesting thread throughout too – and one reflective on the tribute which he is pouring out in the back-story of a scriptwriter whose endeavour we understand Hell Train’s main story to be. It provides excellent context not just to the tale, but also to what I interpret as a greater goal of Fowler’s tribute in reflecting upon the bigger picture of, well, these glorious moving pictures.
Fowler has distilled all of those elements of the Hammer film, but most importantly he has also captured the spirit, sense of adventure but also passion for the macabre that so encapsulated the goals and aims of the hardy studio. In the element of the writer setting about a task of writing to deadline I got a hint here of the film The House of Long Shadows which coincidentally starred several Hammer alumni. To digress briefly, that film itself was based upon Earl Der Biggers 1913 mystery novel Seven Keys to Baldpate – and though not a horror I’d definitely recommend reading also.
For a book that’s giving a huge head-nod to films that could quite often have formulaic plotted screenplays, Hell Train is far from being such. This is an unashamed billet-doux to a bygone golden-age, but it’s also a very enjoyable, adrenaline-fuelled horror read and definitely worth checking out.