Christopher Fowler knows his horror film history. His recent novel Hell Train is set during the mid 60s, when Hammer studios was turning out a cycle of popular horror films starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a stable of reliable character actors. As our story opens, Screenwriter Shane Carter arrives in England to meet with Michael Carreras, the head of the studio. Hammer wants him to write a film for them. Carter has just worked with Roger Corman on his Poe films, and is looking for a new project. The catch is that Carreras needs the screenplay in a week, so production can begin quickly. What follows is Carter’s vision of the screenplay as the novel’s main story, with some brief interludes set while he’s writing the movie.
Aboard a mysterious train called the Arkangel, we’re introduced to a variety of characters whose fates are intertwined. Once you board the train, you can’t leave until you’re “tested.” A creepy Conductor leads the passengers on a trip whose destination may be…hell itself. Along the way, terrifying creatures and strange phenomena plague the passengers, some of whom are not what they seem. As they struggle with demonic forces, it becomes apparent that not everyone will leave this journey alive…and perhaps some people aboard are already….not among the living. And why does one of the passengers, a young woman named Isabella, seem to find the train so familiar?
Fowler pokes gentle fun at many of the classic Hammer films (and those of their contemporary competitors Amicus and Tigon) and throws in a freight car full of references & in-jokes for horror film fans. The main story set on the train is chilling; it’s an old school horror tale with some neat set pieces, and frightening moments. The novel is an expansion & re-imagining of Fowler's 2008 short story entitled "Arkangel." I would have liked to have seen more of the framing story, with Carter inter-acting with many of the Hammer films family, such as the memorable scene with stars Lee & Cushing. Fowler could have written an entire novel set within the horror film industry of the 60s, and that really could have been something. Still, this book is head & shoulders above most of what passes for horror fiction these days. If you’re a fan of 60s & 70s horror, and you're looking for some old fashioned, Creature Features style fun, Hell Train is a ride you’ll want to take.