Paperback, 320 pages, $8.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
All aboard Hell Train – a novel that is metaphorically akin to two first-class tickets for the price of one. Author Christopher Fowler has a devilishly good time playing with his literary train set. He toys with the conceit of a-story-within-a-story, and does it one better; engineering the narrative’s curvy trajectory with expertise and glee. Shifting back and forth between England’s Hammer Film Productions circa 1966, and a proposed screenplay set during World War I, the book revels in cinematic citations.
When American scribe Shane Carter accepts a paid commission to write a film for Hammer Productions, he meets such luminaries as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and producer/director Michael Carreras. Carreras is trying to restore the studio to a former glory; the days when its Dracula and Frankenstein movies were all the rage. With Amicus Productions threatening Hammer’s supremacy in horror films, and Roger Corman doing Poe on a shoestring in The States, Carreras is looking for fresh creative blood. Carter concocts a tale about a train of the damned; an allegory for the Great War, set in Europe during that period. His story employs a framing device: a child’s board game which features a sinister model locomotive. As a little girl plays, the characters of the game become the basis for screenplay’s personages.
The passengers are a very colorful group. One is literally so: The Crimson Countess, who is garbed all in red. Seductive and menacing, her moniker alludes to more than a rouge fetish. The “c” alliteration which defines her crops up again in this laundry list of cloths that begin with a “c”: “She was surrounded by luxurious fabrics – cotton, calico, cambric, cheviot, chiffon, chenille, crepe de chine, cretonne…”
In a less whimsical passage, the disconcerting attributes of The Countess are described: “Her voice had the depth of maturity, but the edge of youth. There was something unsettling and decadent about it.”
Another baleful traveler is known as The Biter; a nasty nipper who devours its prey: “When it bit, it took out crescent chunks, leaving teeth marks in its victim’s flesh like pie crusts.”
Worst of all, though, is the vehicle itself. Careening through Carpathia, it teases and torments those onboard: “The train was like a mechanical trickster, opening and closing passageways at will, manipulating all those held within its grip.”
One who is less malleable to the train’s machinations is Isabella. A pure and feisty village girl; she has connections to the railway that give her an advantage in combating the inherent evil. She is determined to beat the Devil at his own game.
Does Carter’s script get accepted and change the course of Hammer’s history? The answer’s not terribly relevant. The fun is in the journey; rather than in the arrival at the station. Hell Train is a highly delightful ride, populated with vivid characters; both real and imagined. Christopher Fowler finely executes a narrative of many layers, and delivers an entertaining read in the process.