by Christopher Fowler
Published by Solaris, 2012.
The recent revival of Hammer Films (The Woman In Black, The Resident, Wake Wood) has been very welcome but for most folk it’s still the output from its heyday in the 1960’s that fascinates. So Christopher Fowler’s novel Hell Train, set in that world of swinging sixties Hammer, should be a delight for fans but does it live up to expectations?
Ostensibly a novel about a Hammer film script that was never made, the book is actually made up of two interwoven narratives. The story of the scripts creation, set in the Hammer studios at Bray, introduces us to many of the key Hammer figures both on-screen and behind the scenes and although clearly fictional there is some lovingly accurate portrayals of the people and places that brought those fantastic films to our screens.
But it’s the Hell Train script itself which takes up the bulk of the book. Set in wartime (First World War) eastern Europe the plot introduces a cast of characters thrown together by circumstance to seek refuge on the Arkangel, the last train out of town before the invading forces arrive. Only problem is none of them know the train’s final destination although the title may give the reader a clue. It’s an action packed trip as the passengers face various trials, often with very unpleasant consequences. The portrayal of the threat of devastating war is nicely balanced against the even greater, supernatural threats faced by the passengers giving the whole book an ominous air.
The main characters are interesting, most with their own flaws which form the basis of the tests as they are pitted against the supernatural forces guiding the train. The Eastern European background is a clever nod to the anonymous villages which crop up in many Hammer films, complete with ageing inn owner, his innocent daughter and a cast of suspicious locals. It’s an example of the clever nods to the original films that work very well in the book. It’s easy to imagine Michael Ripper as a villager in the opening scenes or one of the many Hammer beauties (mmm….Caroline Munro) as his “innocent” daughter.
A couple of things didn’t work so well for me. One, the gore is often turned up to eleven and while Hammer films had a reputation for (Kensington) gore it looks pretty tame these days, the scenes in this book would not be out-of-place in one of the Saw films. That might be explained by the script supposedly being written to give the censors something to cut but for me it slightly contradicts the feeling of authenticity. The second issue is length, not the length of the book but the length of the scenes from the film. Hammer films benefited greatly from brevity but the scenes in this book do feel like they go on too long, again breaking that spell of Hammer authenticity.
Plus points are definitely the clever nods to the workings of Hammer and the resurrection of some of the key figures involved at the time but a couple of minus points for the film script itself which appeared to be written with a modern audience in mind rather than the recreation of the lost Hammer classic it purports to be. Never the less an enjoyable trip back to a classic period for horror and a very enjoyable book in its own right, one that Hammer fans will thoroughly enjoy.
Rating 4 out of 5