So, I picked up a book recently that that I assumed was a bit like Snakes on a Plane, wherein one only needed the title to get an idea of the plot.
Because, with a cover like this, what else could one expect?
Certainly not this....
Anyway, gif soup over with, what I found reading Christopher Fowler's Hell Train was a narrative much better than the title or cover art would allow anyone to assume.
We start in 1966 as an American screenwriter currently on the outs with Hollywood's horror factories with such luminaries of shlock as Jack Nichelson, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price, makes his was to the UK to try his best to get a job writing at Hammer Studios. Hammer, of course, would be the UK studio behind schlock starring such luminaries as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Usually featuring Dracula, boobs, and blood. Shane, our writer friend talks a bit to Michael Carreras, the most senior production assistant he can find at Hammer. (This conversation also fills in the gaps on what was slowing killing Hammer Studios and their competition.) Michael gives Shane a week to write a script with the help of the busty Emma.
What follows is almost a portmanteau as defined by the studio towards the beginning. In this definition, a portmanteau is a bit like, say, Creepshow, where several individual stories are told with one book ending story to tie them together. In this case, Shane's script writing brings us out of the narrative that is his script on a few occasions.
.The script, however, is the main thrust of the book. In true British horror fashion, we start off in small village Romania not long after the start of The Great War. Romania is about to start a civil war as Bulgaria and Transylvania are set to invade. Nicholas Castleford, a British ne'er-do well in Romania scamming money for the most part meets a nubile young virgin named Isabella at her father's Inn in Chelmsk. Since no more trains run out of Chelmsk for the evening, Nicholas is of course stuck. Isabella, of course, is betrothed to Josef, who works at the local foundry. Hearing rumors of both the armies coming to town that night, and rumors of a train running at midnight, Nicholas convinces Isabella to accompany him back to London via the mysterious midnight train.
It takes a bit of doing, mainly since the locals as well as the armies attack around the time the train rolls in. But Nicholas and Isabella do wind up on the train, along with Thomas and Miranda, a married couple on holiday to celebrate Thomas's new assignment as a Vicar in a small town. The Conductor doesn't take money for tickets, merely choosing who's allowed on by those he thinks the train can win against.
Because, yes, in a book called Hell Train, I'm pretty sure everyone can take a stab at what the name of the obscured last station is. The trick is that the train will challenge each living passenger with their own deepest flaw. If they lose, they get round trip tickets for life. If they win, well, no one's ever one, so why bother asking about that?
In between scenarios on the train, we get to meet the Hammer cast, all discussing what roles they'd like to play in the movie. For those of you who have seen a Hammer film, you'll probably already be picturing some of the stars in the suggested roles.
It's a fun read, and the sacrifice that starts the games on the train is breathtaking in its use of setting to have fun with history. (Basically, the first death is a former Austrio-Hungarian chauffeur who had to fill in for the regular driver in Sarajevo when Archduke Ferdinand went visiting. However, when he got back to Vienna, the regular driver got all the blame for what happened.)
Like most Hammer films, neither the end of the script nor the very end of the book itself make a heck of a lot of sense. However, the path to get there is well worth the ride, filled with a rather fun homage to 60's horror films and the trade offs made to get stuff past the censors.