England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).
Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.
Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.
It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.
The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.
I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.