First published back in November of 1973 under the title ‘Down-Bound Train’, British author Bill Garnet’s debut was later re-released in March of 1988 under the alternative title ‘Helltrain’.
On the 24th September 1971, the famous Golden Arrow set off from London Victoria Station heading out to France. On board, five passengers came together in the cabin that they had been assigned to. The paths of their lives converging together for this one particular journey...
Reverend Sullivan Staymore had been the headmaster at a Catholic boarding school for last ten years. During his time at the school he had administered a strong hand of punishment to any pupils he believed were veering outside of the lines he set. He believed in discipline – the harder the better.
And for fourteen-year-old Evelyn Price, the discipline handed down to him from the Reverend was as wholly unjustified as it was sadistic. The young boy had only been at the school for a year, and already he had fallen under the stern eyes of the headmaster. And, for no reason other than the reverend’s whim, Everlyn had been dubbed an “evil little brat” by the headmaster and given eight hard thrashings by the headmaster’s unforgiving cane on his soft young rump.
But it wasn’t the cane that finally broke the boy...it was the utterly unjustified accusations. The relentless tormenting by this cruel and callous man, who had been given the charge of looking after these youngsters. And to the reverend’s absolute delight, his accusations of drug-taking, drinking and smoking finally broke the lad; pushing him into a severe seizure that finally finished the meek young boy off.
But that was yesterday. Today the reverend has a train to catch. He’s off to attend an Ecumenical Conference in Rome. And so on the morning of the 24th September 1971, Reverend Sullivan Staymore boards the Golden Arrow and takes his seat in the empty cabin.
Meanwhile, thirty-two-year-old Ann Cross is at Victoria Station, waiting to board the Golden Arrow. Her life, having led her up to this point, had been an eventful one to say the least. After running away from home at the tender age of just fifteen, she arrived in London where she soon found work as a waitress in a dingy little café. Having succeeded in obtaining a job by maliciously orchestrating the unwarranted firing of the previous waitress, Ann Cross learns a valuable lesson that would go on to mould the course of her life from that moment on. And it’s not long before she’s walking over whoever she needs to in order to move up the working ladder. From a copy typist, to a secretary, to the assistant for the leading account executive - Jonathan Ewing-Gore.
But Ann Cross wasn’t happy to just sit back and not keep on moving up. And so, using the same devious and uncaring attitude she had used to get her where she currently was, at the age of just twenty-two Ann Cross succeeds in wrecking her boss’s life and then takes his job. From there she moves on to start up her own firm, using blackmail to secure a healthy and rewarding client base. But the underhanded moves of Ann take their toll when her damning accusations drive one of her victims to suicide. But of course, there is no guilt from Ann Cross. And so she moves on with barely a passing thought for the man.
And then she marries. Following the birth of two children, Ann decides she’s finally had enough of her husband, Frank, and files for divorce. And so, wishing to get away from the tension of the divorce, Ann Cross books a ticket for the Golden Arrow – destined for Paris. A trip that will see her in the same cabin as a mild-looking old Reverend.
Meanwhile, also making his way to board the Golden Arrow at Victoria Station is twenty-five-year-old Bill Armstrong. A man who up until recently had no job, heavy debts, and to top it all off, was on the verge of losing his girlfriend. But all that would change when he bumps into his old school friend, Bertie, who as it turns out, was doing rather well for himself.
But Bertie had something of a thorn in his side. A thorn in the shape of an even wealthier man who had snatched away his girlfriend. A man who, in a slightly drunken state, Bertie offers Bill Armstrong five grand to kill. Money that could completely turn Bill’s miserable life around.
And so, Bill Armstrong found himself on a narrow country lane, outside of the luxurious country home of the man Bertie had asked him to kill. From there a chaotic sequence of events ended with the haphazard death of Bill’s target and a successfully completed mission.
But upon arriving at Bertie’s house to collect his money, Bertie comes up short on Bill. A problem that Bill is far from happy about. And after taking half the money owed to him, along with a gun from within Bertie’s safe, Bill decides that’s good enough for him at the moment and takes off for pastures new.
A break to the South of France seems like a good idea for the newly-turned amateur hitman. A trip that sees him boarding the Golden Arrow and joining two other travellers in the first-class cabin.
The final members to board the Golden Arrow and take their places within the same cabin are Doctor Robert Latimer and his ten-year-old daughter Felicity. For Felicity, joining the passengers in the cabin instantly has an unexpected bonus. For young Felicity Latimer is a sensitive. She can sense evil just from being in the same room as it. And upon entering the cabin onboard the Golden Arrow, the young girl had picked up waves of blackness from all three of the people sharing the compartment. An evil that delighted her. More so, an evil that thrilled her with something edging towards lust. For she was far from an angel. In fact, she thrived on evil. And she had killed. Whilst her own father was fostering thoughts of murdering his wife, Felicity went ahead and did the job. She killed her own mother. And she owed it all to The Voice that came to her from within her head.
And now here she was, sharing a cabin with her father and three other passengers who all reeked of evil. Her father was set to travel to Dover to attend a medical conference, and she was simply joining him on the expedition.
But the train’s next stop would not be Dover as scheduled. Instead, as the five passengers would soon learn, the train is destined for hell...
There’s no denying the fact that the novel has been penned from one hell of a simplistic idea – five ‘evil’ people board a train that unbeknown to them, is destined for hell for where they will finally get their comeuppance. That’s it in a nutshell. The rest is just fleshing out.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the tale is spent detailing the backstories for these five passengers. Indeed, Garnett goes to great lengths to create detailed and suitably believable characters, whose deviant lives have brought them to this very point – taking a trip on the Golden Arrow train.
Indeed, it’s not until a good hundred pages or so of the novel has gone by before the train even pulls out of the station. Up until then Garnett has been solely concerned with setting down the five principal characters of the tale, detailing at length their despicable lives and the self-centred ‘evil’ that has consumed each one of them.
Within this, Garnett tells each individual character’s backstory separate from the others (other than Dr Latimer and his daughter’s which are told together), sectioning off the first two-thirds of the tale by each character’s story. The end result feels a bit too simplistically engineered, with such a rigid and unadventurous construction.
The writing itself is far from skilfully accomplished. It’s bold and simplistic, getting straight to the point of the matter, without ever really setting much of a scene or creating any substantial atmosphere. However, this is all to be expected with such a typically lowbrow pulp-horror novel. And what the novel lacks in skilful writing it makes up for in hilarious similes. Oh yes, Garnett’s a veritable master at conjuring up the most ridiculous comparisons. One particular simile comes to mind (still after all these years since reading the novel) whereby the Reverend’s eyes were said to glimmer like fresh rabbit droppings in the morning sunlight (or something to that effect). Absolute genius!!!
Although laced with its own witty charm, the novel doesn’t really draw in much entertaining interest until the train sets off and (quite unbeknown to them) they are finally on their way to hell. At this point Garnett starts to slowly work upon creating hints of a creepy atmosphere, with a bleak and gloomy landscape passing by outside the carriage window. When the fog comes and the real horror of the situation starts to become apparent, then Garnett really starts to get the pulp-horror fires burning. That said, there’s not really any in-your-face gore or over-the-top horror, just an escalating situation of unfolding horror and mounting tensions between the five passengers escalating by the minute.
There are a few moments that work surprisingly well within the tale. And it’s these sparks of (ever-so-slightly) sinister imagination that really rescue the novel from being an otherwise dismal piece of borderline rubbish. When the five characters realise that they are alone on the train, and their resulting fear starts to burst into anger at each other, the result is as entertaining as it is just-that-little-bit chilling.
Outside of a painfully predictable ending, the novel concludes with a short epilogue that sends the tale off with a witty 80’s horror movie ‘and-back-to-reality’ ending. It works and it wraps the whole story off nicely.
All in all, don’t go into the novel expecting much. It’s far from a literary classic. But it has its small merits as well as brief moments that work well for it. So I’d say, for its short length, it’s definitely worth a shot.
The novel runs for a total of 186 pages.
© DLS Reviews