Off The Rails


Having just finished the new Bryant & May (except for what I call ‘the gloss’, which is a final  once-over to look at the language and make it a little more fluid and graceful) I was thinking about all the projects I have lined up, and wondering what was my favourite book to write. And actually, I came back to ‘Hell Train’, partly because it is so perversely bonkers, and partly because I got to write some dream scenes, including a climactic moment in which Peter Cushing and Christopher discuss the script.

I like stories about trains; ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’, ‘The Ghost Train’, ‘The Signalman’ and Martin Edwards’ terrific compendium of classic train mysteries. Even ‘The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery seemed great at age nine.

I thought the idea of ‘Hell Train’ would kill any chance of an overseas sale (a novel about a script Hammer never filmed!) but it was enthusiastically picked up in Germany. Anyway, here’s a moment in which the young writer is taken to meet Michael Carreras, the producer and director who was the son of Hammer’s founder. I’d been in their old offices (my mother was one of their legal secretaries) and it was so delightfully old-fashioned that it really felt from another time. Here’s the excerpt:

‘We’ve a decent library, and of course you could take the screening room if you’d like to reacquaint yourself with some of our past pictures,’ she offered. ‘There’s a spare office next door, and I’m sure we have an old Imperial lying around. That is, you do type?’

‘Of course.’

‘Because some of our writers prefer longhand and it makes things so much more difficult.’

Shane felt as though he had slipped through the looking glass into a land where films were made on nothing more than polite handshakes and good intentions. He turned to Carreras, who was glowing, thoroughly pleased with himself. ‘Is there any particular subject you had in mind?’ he asked.

Carreras thought for a moment. ‘Well, it should have all of the Hammer trademarks, I suppose,’ he said. ‘An exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences. Supernatural apparitions are always good – they give the lighting boys a chance to show off. We like rules; don’t go up to the castle at night, that sort of thing. There’d have to be something for Christopher. He’s terribly tall and grave, doesn’t really handle comedy roles, but he has a wonderful presence. He’s a terribly good baritone, but we’ve never found the right singing role for him. The rest is mostly atmosphere, and we can supply that by the bucketful. You know the kind of stuff, swirling fog, upturned caskets, villagers lost in the woods, fainting ladies in low-cut corsetry. Plenty of blood of course, although you’ll have to run those parts by me. I have a pretty good idea of what will get through.’

‘Did you have any thoughts on the subject matter?’

‘Well, Peter and I were talking about that the other day, and we rather liked the idea of a train,’ said Carreras finally. ‘Think you can manage that?’

‘I’ll start today,’ said Shane.

11 comments on “Off The Rails”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    It’s a brilliant book, Chris. I love all the little bits of Hammer fact into it. I have a copy of Marcus Hearn’s ‘Hammer Horror’ (£1, from my local library, hardly read – what a crime), as well as the follow up ‘Hammer Glamour’ – it has Madeleine Smith (if you wanted my dad to watch anything, you just had to tell him that Maddie Smith was in it) on the cover, looking, for want of a better word, ‘yummy’. I believe you mention the canteen in ‘Hell Train’, and I do recall reading that when Christopher Lee was making ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’, that he had to eat by himself when wearing the full monster make up, as he looked like a road accident. Your description of the Hammer way of doing things is spot on. I’ve always loved everything to do with Hammer Films, and, of course, I love ‘Hell Train’.

  2. Roger says:

    “He’s a terribly good baritone, but we’ve never found the right singing role for him. ”
    “Dracula. The Musical.” Another missed opportunity.

    I haven’t read ” Hell Train”, but I remember reading a short story years ago – by Robert Bloch, I think – about a train to Hell – was that the inspiration?

  3. Linda Ayres says:

    I liked the bit about being dead but English and needing a cup of tea and s decent biscuit

  4. David Ronaldson says:

    I’m planning to re-read Hell Train as Halloween approaches: was it “Spanky’s Back in Town” in which you had the peasants, the baby, the forest and the wolves? Classic Hammer scenario.

    I got into reading about trains and travel when I read the opening chapter of Paul Theroux’s “Great Railway Bazaar” in a collection of train writing while at school. Any sign of a follow-up to the “End of the Line” collection?

  5. SteveB says:

    One of my favourite books!
    I’d love a nice limited edition hardback (hint) 😉

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t know the Hammer films (a too restricted childhood, I imagine, and not wanting “scary”) but I did enjoy Hell Train once I was in the right mood. Definitely planning a re-read for the end of October (don’t mind scary now).

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – nowadays, the Hammer movies don’t seem frightening, but when, in the late 1950’s, Hammer made their first Frankenstein and Dracula movies, they were the first not to shy away from showing blood, gore, acid baths, shotgun wounds, stakings, etc., in full bright Eastmancolor. Audiences loved it. Critics despised it. Universal Films, who owned the rights to the classic film monsters, saw the truckloads of cash flowing in, and gave Hammer free rein to use their monsters, and so Hammer’s still startling version of The Mummy was made. Hammer movies always look far more expensive than they actually were – I would use the word ‘Lush’ to describe the set design. A great crew, with some of the very best technicians, sound men, cinematographers and directors available. A ‘Rep’ company of supporting actors, that you’d enjoy looking out for in movies, and starring actors who were always good enough to make you believe in whatever weirdness they were appearing in. Messrs. Cushing and Lee, of course, and the likes of Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, and Andrew Keir. The latter starring in 1967’s ‘Quatermass And The Pit’, is simply superb.
    If you have never seen a Hammer movie before, one, that for me, would be a good introduction, would be 1960’s ‘Brides Of Dracula’ – ignore the title, Dracula only appears in a recap at the beginning – this movie tells a great story, and looks utterly ravishing.
    The Christopher Lee Mummy film is superb – his mummy is actually frightening, fast, and inhumanly strong, and has a great moment when Peter Cushing thrusts a spear right through it – no CGI used!
    I’m a fan of these movies, if you hadn’t already guessed. My parents would go and see them on the strength of seeing the word ‘Hammer’ on the listings page of the paper, regardless of what the movie was, back in the 1960’s. That’s how loved these little movies were. Seek some out – they’re good clean fun, made by people who loved what they were doing.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and the ‘Portmanteau’ movies made by Hammer ‘rivals’ Amicus during the 1960’s and 1970’s are worth an hour or two of your time. They attracted some big stars to appear in them, too. The very best one, in my opinion, is ‘From Beyond The Grave’, starring Peter Cushing as a sinister shopkeeper of few words: “Nasty!”
    being one. Four customers. Three try to fiddle the shopkeeper. They regret doing so. One plays fair, but still regrets his purchase. This is one of the rare films that gave me bad dreams after seeing it – the last segment, ‘The Door’ to be precise.
    The other horror films I’d urge you to watch would be the two ‘Doctor Phibes’ movies which are clever, beautiful to look at, and in places, laugh out loud funny. Similarly, ‘Theatre Of Blood’, for the same reasons. All three star Vincent Price, enjoying himself immensely.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for that, Ian. I’m taking notes.

  10. jfolgard says:

    It’s still one of my favourite books (especially at the end of the year), including the excellent cover art too.

  11. Jan says:

    It was the lovely quality of the colour that I liked about the Hammer films.
    Not so much the Kensington Gore but the great colours of costume, backgrounds.

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