Hell Train by Christopher Fowler

January 3, 2012

Imagine there was a supernatural chiller that Hammer Films never made. A grand epic produced at the studio’s peak, which played like a cross between the Dracula and Frankenstein films and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors…

Four passengers meet on a train journey through Eastern Europe during the First World War, and face a mystery that must be solved if they are to survive. As the Arkangel races through war-torn country side, they must find out:

What is in the casket that everyone is so afraid of? What is the tragic secret of the veiled Red Countess who travels with them? Why is their fellow passenger the army brigadier so feared by his own men? And what exactly is the devilish secret of the Arkangel itself?

Back in 1989 I was an impressionable fifteen year old and I had just started to develop a passion for reading and a never-ending love for cinema. One of the first books I read, through what I thought at the time were adult eyes, was Roofworld by Christopher Fowler.

Meanwhile my introduction to horror cinema, via a wonderful horror obsessed grandmother, was the works of Hammer. Little did I realise some twenty-three years later these two seemingly unconnected events would find their way back into my life.

Hell Train starts with an intriguing premise. American screenwriter Shane Carter has left Hollywood and come to the UK during the ‘swinging sixties’, when Hammer Films are at the zenith of their popularity. He is given the opportunity to write a script for the studio. It is the story of the Hell Train, The Arkangel, he writes and this forms the main body of the novel.

I don’t want to give away too much plot detail but suffice to say that the four main protagonists fall nicely into the well-established stereotypes you would expect to find in many Hammer films. Just remember that Hell Train is meant as a homage and everything will make perfect sense. There is the innocent wide-eyed female villager, the womanising army deserter, a weak willed vicar and his over-bearing wife. Each character has their own secrets and flaws and these are revealed as the story unfolds. This is where a novel gets the opportunity to excel over the visual medium of film. Readers get a deeper glimpse into the motivations of the characters. We get to learn more of their back story and their reasons for boarding the train the first place.

Interspersed throughout the main narrative we get a few occasional jumps back to Shane as he continues to write. I have to admit the first time this happened I was so engrossed in the goings on aboard the Arkangel this caught me completely off guard. Kudos to Christopher Fowler, I had all but forgotten that this was a story taking place within the confines of another story.  It was also an unexpected and pleasant surprise to have the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appear in cameo. The suggestion of their proposed roles in the Hell Train movie was a particularly nice touch.

Hell Train is a visceral love letter to Hammer Films. If you have ever been entranced by any one of Hammer’s classic movie outings, then you will adore this novel. Personally the thing I remember most about my exposure to Hammer’s films was their constant use of bright vivid colours, especially the bloody reds. There is plenty of that here. It’s rare that you read a book that feels like it has successfully captured that feeling in its imagery. Hell Train feels like it has been written in glorious full screen technicolour.

The storytelling in Hell Train perfectly recreates the atmosphere of sixties horror cinema. With reverential nods not just to Hammer, but also to the portmanteau style film making of Amicus, every page contains horrific delights to discover. Characters are dispatched with the manic glee you would find in any one of the films. I’ll happily admit that within minutes of finishing reading the book I found myself on the Hammer Films website, keen to refresh my memory of their magnificent output and learn more about their contribution to the British film industry.

I’ve been waiting to read Hell Train since I first heard about it at the tail end of 2010. Now I can confirm, what I already suspected, that the wait was well worth it. This was a great novel to kick off 2012 with. Christopher Fowler continues to deliver expertly crafted, gripping work. Now all we need to do is convince someone over at Hammer that the film version of Hell Train really needs to be made. We’ll get Christopher Fowler to write the script and direct. It’ll be great.

Still have book vouchers left over from Christmas? Hell Train is published by Solaris Books and is available from 5th January 2012.

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