The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Locked in a tight race along the tracks (319 pages)
Publication: January 1, 2012 from Solaris
Premise: Shane Carter, a recently unemployed America script writer, is invited to Hammer Films to discuss writing a script. He is given a week to finish it, and turns to an old board game in the studio's library for inspiration. The script seems to take on a life of its own, combining the suspense of any good story with the flavor of an old horror film. Carter's players must confront their weaknesses on a train bound for a destination scratched off of every map, and the stakes are nothing less than each rider's soul.
Warnings: All the gore you'd expect from an older horror movie; everything from bloody bodies to rotting corpses grabbing at the living to suicide.
Recommendation: Give this one a go if you're looking for a very different framework. If you're really into Hammer Films or just classic horror, definitely pick it up.
What makes this one daringly unique:
With a first sentence of "It looked like a house from a horror film, and it was," Fowler takes control of the reader's attention to establish the beginning of a constant focus on the interplay between illusion and reality. It's the perfect theme for a book centered on the writing of a script for a studio that thrives on special effects, and Fowler never pushes it too obviously. Shane Carter comes in, agrees to write a script by the end of the week, and ends up in the studio library for quiet when he spots a board game called Hell Train; since the production executive had mentioned being interested in something about trains, Carter tugs the box out. In the next chapter, a young girl starts playing a board game of the same title. She had found the box locked in her attic and labeled "Do Not Open," but she cannot resist her curiosity and soon notices that the village on the game board looks exactly like her own town of Chelmsk. The train moves into darker territory with each card she draws and finally bursts out of the board. The narrative's next target is Nicholas Castleford, a man who belongs in respectable London society but has had to run from it after causing one too many scandals.
Nesting narratives this way could come off as flat, since on some level the reader is constantly aware that the main story is only a script, and that the characters were never truly real. Instead, however, the characters shine in part because of their unreal edges; Carter is writing each and every one of them to save his own career and help restore glory to Hammer Films, so the war for the characters' souls is also a sort of war for the future. Larger and flashier studios can afford to spend more, teenagers aren't shocked in the same way they used to be, and Carter wants to give the studio one last glorious hurrah. Even without an extensive knowledge of the history of Hammer Films, Fowler's research really shines. Things like the way the studio keeps disguising the same house, or the casual decisions about casting from the same crew of actors that appear in every movie, feel utterly genuine. The people there feel friendly, like a family all devoted to the same dream that's losing some of the sparkle that used to keep it afloat, and seeing actors with recognizable names on-screen, even briefly, helps anchor the story in a real time and place.
The grounded flavor of the studio narrative layer helps make the story of the film feel even stronger, with a sense of slowly growing horror that feels both more and less real. The characters are clearly archetypes: an adventurous rake, an innocent but curious village girl, a weak-willed vicar, and his stubbornly greedy wife. Even the slightest familiarity with horror movie tropes lets the reader know who has the best chance of living through to the end of the movie, but the story is compelling anyway as it unfolds the layers of mystery about the train's origin and destination. Fowler also manages to and create images that really come off the page. The Red Countess's introduction in particular demonstrates this; within a few tight paragraphs of description, you can picture the dangerous seductress in her fine clothes, flickering between beautiful youth and something darker. The Conductor shines mainly for his uniform and the demeanor that comes with it; he radiates enough authority to intimidate even those who feel entitled to whatever they want, and can stand steadily through every bump and twist in the train's route. His expressions of calm disdain become ever more eerie as the passengers are in more danger, unable to escape the net that he's weaving.
Folk superstitions are everywhere both in this literary genre and in horror movies, but the train manages to feel genuinely eerie and original, perhaps in part because trains haven't seeped into popular storytelling consciousness the way ideas like werewolves and vampires had. When Nicholas asks people in Chelmsk about the rumors he's heard of a train that leaves at midnight, they nearly all shudder and deny that any such train exists. A young boy says that it exists but is dangerous: "Mustn't look at it. Turn away when you hear the rails sing. Cover your ears when you hear the whistle." The train comes at midnight on the eighth full moon of every year, starting in the mountains near Chelmsk and going off into the night. Every map on the train has the destination vandalized or scratched out, and anyone alighting before the destination to escape his or her trial will die. The inexorable momentum of it makes an interesting counterpoint to the normal horror dynamic of hapless victims trooping up to a house of horrors; each of these people chose to get on the train to escape from danger, and they all have to fight for their lives against the dangers on the train while they rush to the much greater danger ahead.
The train itself is very nearly a character in its own right, opening and closing doors in order to steer people around during the tests for souls. Sometimes it wants people to be around as props in each other's trials, but at other times it forces people to be alone and will even regrow parts of a lock as people are trying to bash it open to get free and aid each other. From outside, all the cars appear to be empty, but the inside is full of blank-eyed Carpathian peasants who won't intervene even when people are running for their lives. The mysterious Conductor provides guidance and exerts some measure of control over the servants of the train, but sometimes he seems willing to simply listen and wait for people to come to harm on their own. When people are ripped to pieces under the train or die in monster attacks, he simply stands by and waits to collect his winnings. No one has ever escaped from the train and passed their test: the passengers who are fully under control are dangerous, but not as much so as those who still retain some measure of free will. These intelligent passengers, the Red Countess among them, are more creative and harder to spot than the servants and frequently want to harm any new passengers on the train for pleasure or for their own benefit.
The red pen:
Although the nested narratives are elegantly constructed, they start to fray to an extent near the end. Fowler does such a good job of making the horror movie tropes feel real and emotional that the more surreal ending lands with a bump, reminding the reader that this is a movie script being devised by a writer on a deadline. The story arc seems to slide away from its own rules after Isabella's trial for her soul; her own actions are vivid and brilliant enough to belong in an actual movie, but as soon as she finishes the story takes a sharp left turn towards the bizarre, pushing back towards the source material of the board game and the oddly pat flavor of a happy ending. It's hard to say if it ended too quickly or just needed a slightly different spin on events, but something about the closing felt off; possibly a cross between too grandiose for a horror movie and too abrupt to really provide audience closure. That impression was compounded by the closing of the outermost narrative, Carter's final script discussions with the production executive. While the idea of the ending worked, it was explained oddly enough that it fell flat; a little more hinting at how and why things went the way they did in one of the more filler-flavored sections could have done a lot to smooth it out.
While the characters work perfectly well as archetypes who happen to be real people with pasts that they regret and memories they'd like to lose, Isabella strikes a slightly false note. Carter outright says that he wants his female lead to more than scream, that he wants her to be just as memorable as any male character, but she doesn't get to that point until quite late in the book. She starts out as a normal village girl, just bending to Nicholas's ideas and providing advice, and on the train she gets in a rut. Something odd happens, she remembers a fragment of a story that she heard as a child, Nicholas asks about it, and she says that it's just superstition. The conversations feel so repetitive that they might bore an actual audience, though when she does get the chance to show her cleverness and grit, it really does pay off. Until that point, though, she just feels too much like any good-natured village girl who we're told is curious but just seems to be there as the innocent one who doesn't have enough shadows in her soul to deserve the fate that the train brings.
On a similar note, the eventual revelation about the train's origins and destination didn't pack the punch that it could have. The initial mystery has a seemingly obvious answer, and the story angles in that direction in such a way that there aren't really many surprises. In the beginning, we see that an engineer lost fingers during construction and then died from the infection of either cheap grease or the train's own taint; it's a wonderfully dark moment, and it unfortunately tops the later revelations about the other suffering that the train has caused. In some ways, the unveiling of the truth feels like ripping a mask off to find a nearly identical face underneath; there's not enough of a twist to it to be truly satisfying, and any script with as many blood-curdling or tragic moments as this one had really needed an ending cut to fit that sort of buildup.
Most of the chapter breaks work well to reinforce the cinematic suspense and pacing that would keep an audience riveted to the screen, but occasionally they start to seem like they're there just so all the chapters will be roughly the same length. The worst example is probably during the story of Franz, the passenger who triggers the train's dark entrapment. He boarded the train without knowing where he was going and needs to unburden himself to the Conductor; the story he tells ends up having the best sense of poetic inevitability in the book, but it's broken into three pieces with a somewhat pointless dramatic line at the end of the first two chapters and the Conductor keeps interrupting to tell him to speed up and get to the point because time is running short. Since this story is the catalyst for the train's slow entrapment and temptation of the other passengers, the stopping points with each chapter feel forced and unnecessary; they detract from the otherwise great tension building as the passengers start to sense the danger.
All things considered, this is the sort of thing that I'd love to see authors try more often: unusual structures, exceptionally tight pacing, suspense, and each character being cracked open to be weighed and measured. The plot went a bit off the tracks near the end (ha), but it definitely did the job of creating something that doesn't feel like anything you've ever read before.
Prospects: Hell Train is meant to stand alone, but Fowler has also written quite a few other novels. I've had quite a few people recommend his Bryant and May mysteries to me as the best thing they've seen in that genre recently, so I may have to wander over to that section sometime soon.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~If you want danger on a train and are willing to put up a narrative told in sharp flashbacks, try the anime Baccano. One of the stories takes place on a train called the Flying Pussyfoot (which is hilarious enough on its own), and the passengers are fleeing attacks that they can't escape while the train is moving.