Welcome, ladies, gentlemen and fellow horror lovers, to this month’s Carry on Screaming post. Each month I’ll be reviewing a vintage British horror novels and reflecting on what was happening in both the horror genre and the news in the UK at the time. You can read previous posts in the series by clicking on the ‘Carry on Screaming‘ category.
Something deadly is stalking the corridors of the King’s Cross train, preying on passengers. Commuter Mark Davies has been attacked and thrown from the train. Now he must team up with Ghost Train obsessed, ex-policeman Les Chadderton, before the predator disembarks for wider pastures.
Title: Ghost Train | Author: Stephen Laws | Publisher: Sphere | Pub. Year: 1985 | Pages: 341 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review
‘Ghost Train’ was the first novel by Stephen Laws, who published a number of books in the 80s and 90s (and a couple since 2000). He’s more akin to Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker than many of the other authors featured so far in Carry on Screaming. His books blend gore and psychological horror to great effect, with a Northern (UK) vibe and convincing characters. These are well crafted novels written with brain and heart rather than Guy N Smith style schlock-fests churned out to make a quick buck.
‘Ghost Train’ tells the story of Mark, a man haunted by two events from his past. As a child he and a school friend were attacked by the owner of a ghost train and as an adult he fell from a speeding train and suffered severe injuries. Months after the second event he is drawn back to Newcastle station where his unfortunate journey began, desperate to remember exactly what happened. As the plot develops he meets a policeman investigating his accident who reveals that a series of bizarre attacks and incidents have taken place on the same train line.
The book isn’t entirely successful, the mix of folklore and contemporary horror didn’t always work for me and the escalation of events at the end felt a bit rushed. When it’s good, though, it’s brilliant. The scenes of terror are often extremely effective. They’re nightmarishly bewildering, chilling, horrific and wonderfully tense. Laws throws in a number of new attacks with unrelated characters. These aren’t necessarily essential for the plot, but they are chilling and grimly enjoyable. Best of all, he captures the terrible fear of the unknown. Mark knows that bad things have happened to him, but he doesn’t know exactly what they were. His frantic search for the truth is gripping and genuinely scary. Like Mark, you need to know what happened, whilst fearing that the reality will be too much to take.
I’m adopting a slightly different rating system for my Carry on Screaming review, because, let’s face it, vintage horror novels are about more than just the quality of the actual book.
Book: 4 out of 5
Cover: 4 out of 5 – Whilst it doesn’t have the impact of some of the more out there covers of the 70s and 80s., this one is really well executed.
Nastiness: 4 out of 5 – It can be graphic at times, but it’s the psychological impact of the horror that really makes it work.
Sauciness: 2 out of 5 – A little of this, but not much
Cover promise vs delivery: 4 out of 5 – This one matches the cover perfectly, it’s a blend of modern and ancient, slick and chilling.
Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 18/25
What else happened in 1985?
Looking at the headlines for 1985 throws up a number of themes that still feel very relevant today.
The long-running (it’s still going) soap opera ‘Eastenders’ started in February 1985. 12 year old me was delighted by the launch of the Sinclair C5 – an electric vehicle that didn’t have the impact of Tesla (they stopped making them later that year), but was still pretty cool. The Live Aid concerts of that year had greater popular success, although many would argue that they haven’t had any greater long term impact.
It was also the year that British Telecom announced it was phasing out the iconic red telephone boxes . At the time the scrapping of something seen as quintessential British caused an outrage. Years later you can still find them, although phone boxes are pretty rare full stop nowadays.
It was a good year for horror films generally. One of my favourites, ‘Day of the Dead was released, along with ‘Creepers’, ‘Demons’, ‘Re-animator’ and ‘Return of the Living Dead’. British horror fared less well though, with only a few movies making it out and none of them being that successful – ‘Doctor and the Devils’, ‘The Bride’ and ‘Lifeforce’ being notable and barely remembered failures.
British horror fiction did a little better. More volumes of Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’ were released, along with his first novel ‘The Damnation Game’. James Herbert published his serial killer novel ‘Moon’ and Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Cold Print’ hit the shelves.
Next up, the first in a long running series of vampire weirdness, Brian Lumley’s ‘Necroscope’