By Christopher Fowler (Solaris; 2012)
Here England’s Christopher Fowler, who of late has focused largely on contemporary whodunits, returns to the genre that made his name. In Fowler’s HELL TRAIN an American screenwriter goes to work for England’s Hammer Studios in 1966, scripting a movie about an evil train that’s set to star Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Much of the remainder of the book is taken up with the particulars of that screenplay, related in novel form.
The set-up directly recalls that of Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove’s 1996 horror epic ESCARDY GAP (which was also related largely in the form of a writer’s imaginings, and likewise featured an evil train), and it’s not the only thing that feels derivative. The narrative cribs shamelessly from SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, THE SHINING and quite a few other horror novels and films from years past. Obviously that makes dramatic sense, seeing as how the tale is supposed to be a grade-B screenplay dashed off in a few days, but it doesn’t make the reading experience any less irritating. At least the novel is lively and fast moving in Christopher Fowler’s usual fluid manner.
The year of the story-within-the-story is 1916. The central characters are a pair of English couples whose ranks include an adventurer afoot in Poland, a Polish babe fleeing her stifling family life, a country priest and the latter’s dissatisfied wife. Both couples have the misfortune of boarding the Arkangel, a train whose ultimate destination is signified by the book’s title. All sorts of macabre shenanigans, presided over by an inhuman conductor, are in store, including internment in a coffin, dismemberment, a mutant insect attack and more.
My favorite parts of HELL TRAIN were the chapters set in the story without, in which the screenwriter protagonist meets with Hammer’s overseers and plans out the prospective film. As we know, that film was never made, with Hammer winding down its output in the late sixties before going belly-up in the seventies. It seems that Fowler intends for us to feel sad that the film of HELL TRAIN never made it to production, yet I found it hard to work up much regret over that fact, as it’s a diverting enough bit of grade-B mayhem but not much else.