Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Someone queue up the AC/DC!

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....

Or 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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fishing for corpses

Well, back when I posted about another book by Mark Richard Zubro, I mentioned that I had 3 books by him checked out. One ended up having no renewals left, but I figured out I'd read it a while back. The other, Hook, Line & Homicide, I figured out that I don't remember reading at all. And since it isn't due back for another week, I read it.

Paul Turner, his sons Brian and Jeff, his lover Ben,  his former lover Ian, and his detective partner Fenwick and family, all go on a fishing trip in rural Canada. (Also in tow is nonagenarian neighbor, Mrs. Talucci, who leaves by boat to parts unknown for the duration of the trip.)

Anyway, Paul and Fenwick end up meeting Scarth Krohn, the local town bully while out for dinner. Scarth at the time is busy harassing the local First Americans in the restaurant parking lot. After Paul and Fenwick break up the fight, they become targets of Scarth and company's bullying, including a break in at their houseboat back in the marina.

Two days later, Paul's wheelchair bound son Jeff fishes Scarth's corpse out of the lake next to the houseboat.

Ian, the intrepid investigative reporter, starts digging around for clues, after finding out that 6 similar suspicious drownings have occurred on the lake, and interest is up in town, since Scarth's very affluent father is demanding an investigation. The local police chief is exceptionally racist and homophobic, and the local Ontario Provincial Police detachment is reluctant to do much because of the chief trying to get them removed from town. Said chief "rounds up the usual suspects (Billing Morningsky, the First Nations kid being harrassed earlier; Ralph, a kid who spent his youth being harassed by Scarth; and even Ian, who's been asking questions around town) and warns Paul and Fenwick not to investigate.

Needless to say, this provides impetus for the dynamic duo to get involved on the side, which tends to make the town seem like a an isolated Lovecraftian village well versed at hiding secrets. Mind you, the secrets are more drug dealing and internet porn than ancient gods from outside time and space, but....

Anyway, by the end we find out exactly what happened, and we know why Scarth died and why Scarth's on again off again girlfriend was foud beaten to death not far from where Scarth's body probably entered the lake. As well as a lesson on why gay folks should take self defense.

Really, the part that both amazed and amused me came towards the end when things like DOMA, the marriage bans, and even Matthew Shepherd get discussed. The publication date on this one is 2007, so it's nice to note that much has changes in a relatively short amount of time. In many ways, it's a bit like reading the middle three books in Tales of the City, wherein what was current at the time of the writing isn't so much anymore. While the issues might remain, they're no longer quite as immediate or as strongly opposed as they were at the time.

I'm kind of wondering if, had either of Zubro's series gone on a few more years, would the main characters have gotten involved with murder at their gay weddings?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Sartre was wrong

So, I finished Andrew Pyper's newest one, The Damned, while running around taking care of a few things this afternoon. Now, the last time we visited with him, we heard a tale that used Milton's Paradise Lost as a jumping off point to the narrative. In this, we're again in a similar vein, only more along the lines of our dear friend Dante and his Inferno. 

To be fair, I liked Inferno more than Paradise Lost. Then again, I wasn't fond of Purgatorio, and downright hated Paradiso. As Sartre famously said, "Hell is other people." But, Hell is also more interesting to read about than Heaven.

We're not quite touring hell in The Damned, and our narrator, Danny Orchard, is missing a Virgil to guide him. Danny is an author; his book The After was a best selling non fiction book about his near death experience following the nearly simultaneous death of his sister Ashleigh. Difference being he came back with proof of his experience, a watch belonging to his mother, who had been buried wearing the watch.

Ashleigh was not a nice person in life, and death hasn't seemed to particularly improve her sociopathic tendencies. This is the nicest way to put it. Ashleigh's ghost still haunts Danny, trying to bring him to her.

See, the story we get early on is that on their 16th birthday, Ashleigh invited "friends" of hers to follow her to an abandoned house in Detroit (the family lives in the suburb of Royal Oaks). The friend stopped following her on their bikes around city limits. Danny gets a call, and goes to find his sister trapped in the basement of a burning house that collapses on top of him as he tries to save her. Ash dies, Danny sort of dies, has his NDE, in which he finds himself on an elevator with his [still living] father, who gives him his mother's watch. Which he still has when he wakes up alive. Danny is given to believe that the After (the good part anyway) is more or less reliving your greatest day.

Which, as time passes, Danny ends up writing The After, moving to Boston, and speaking at various groups for folks who have died and come back. In one of the meetings we sit in on with him, we meet a lady who went to Hell rather than Heaven. She ends up committing suicide a few pages later.

Danny meets Willa and her son Eddie. Willa had a NDE during a break in that killed her first husband. They wind up marrying, despite the looming specter of Ashleigh over the proceedings. Ashleigh shows up during a picnic, in which we find that Ashleigh can give Danny a heart attack, and Eddie can see her ghost. Danny dies, finds himself in Hell for a bit, then wakes up to find he needs a heart transplant. (It should be mentioned here that much like Danny's original Heaven, Hell is also in Detroit.) Danny's death has also given Ashleigh more ability to reach across the boundary, we find out. We also get some background on why Danny thinks his sister was the way she is. It seems they were born dead, strangled by the umbilical cord. The mother made a prayer, the doctor's eyes turned read, the babies came back. Ashleigh claims she saved Danny from the river of ice and the people grabbing at them on the other side.

After Willa drives her car into a river and Eddie claims he saw Ashleigh pull the steering wheel, Danny winds up going back to Detroit to see if he can solve Ashleigh's murder. Which in turn leads to him finding out exactly how disturbed his sister was/is, and leads to the last part of the book, wherein Danny dies again, and chases through Hell trying to solve the last bits of the puzzle.

Really, I liked this one a bit better than The Demonologist. The ending isn't nearly as confusing, although there are still a few things left unresolved by the last page. The plot does borrow heavily from Dante, although the concepts in Hell resemble Clive Barker more than Dante. (Dante tended to organize Hell by sins; Barker presented a much more personalized punishment. In this, people tend to wind up some place away from from where they were happy. For instance, a pedophile winds up trapped across the street from a carnival.) Also, the dead in Hell are a lot less likely to interact with each other, although they will attack new folks, who smell of life the Damned can't really remember that well. We're told Ashleigh is considered a Demon, since she is one that can roam Hell, instead of being trapped by circumstance. There are also monsters that attack people in Hell. This being Detroit, they appear as Tigers. Also, the concept of someone coming back from death weakening the barrier is brought up, although it mainly relates Ashleigh being able to influence more every time Danny returns. And of course the concept that people on one side of the line between happy and bad afterlife can influence the other side by acts of great will.

Really, it's a good read. Not quite as thought provoking as some of the blurbs on the cover would lead you to believe, but there are things left for the reader to contemplate as the novel ends.