All Aboard Diane Hoh’s 1992 Young Adult Horror Novel ‘The Train’ [Buried in a Book]

Trains as a mode of travel seems old-fashioned nowadays, but in storytelling, they remain a persuasive setting for tales of unease and suspense. The endless railroad does wonders for Diane Hoh’s 1992 young-adult book aptly titled The Train. By placing her characters on a cross-country tour with no handy means of escape, the author underlines that feeling of being trapped with not only strangers but also your worst fears.

This Point Horror entry takes place at the tail end of August right before the new fall semester starts up at Parker High School. Thirty students in total are participating in this end-of-summer school trip from Chicago to the West Coast, and the final destination is San Francisco. The main characters are Hannah Deaton, Kerry Oliver, Mack McComber, Lewis Joseph Reed and Jean Marie Westlake. Hannah, who is the story’s protagonist, is wary of trains; she’s already thinking of what could go wrong before they take off. Of everything she imagined, though, Hannah didn’t expect there to be a coffin on board.

Hannah and best friend Kerry go into the baggage car to retrieve something of Kerry’s when they find, much to their horror, the dreaded object in tow. What makes their discovery even worse is the fact that this coffin apparently contains a former classmate of theirs, a social outcast nicknamed Frog. Now knowing this wooden death box is only feet away from their own compartment, Hannah and Kerry panic. Not necessarily because there’s a corpse aboard — no, they’re forced to remember their bad memories of Frog.

The Train starts to feel like a lot of classic teen slasher movies, namely Terror Train and, to a lesser degree, Prom Night and Happy Birthday to Me. What these movies and Hoh’s book have in common is the act of revenge and the weight of guilt. Here Hannah’s friends start confessing to the bad things they did to Frog when he was alive and before he perished in a car accident not too long ago. Mack first explains how he’s responsible for Frog’s loathed nickname. The transfer student’s full name was Frederick Roger Drummond, but upon writing “F. Rog-” on a chalkboard on his first day, Mack made a joke about his name spelling “frog.” Then there’s Kerry, who laughed nervously when Frog asked her out. Although, his offer was more of a threat, seeing as he told her she’d be sorry if she turned him down.

Frog — Frederick Roger Drummond — dead at seventeen, killed in a horrible, fiery crash not far from her house.

Kerry’s boyfriend Lewis comes off as the worst of the bunch as he reveals how he personally wronged Frog. In gym class, Frog overheard Lewis bad-mouthing him to the coach, and Frog, being the hothead he is, was suspended for his aggressive response. As for Jean Marie, she lied when Frog approached her about joining the school newspaper. “I took one look at him and knew I couldn’t use him,” she admitted. After absorbing the others’ confessions, Hannah said she didn’t have one of her own to share.

Readers will expect a whodunit with The Train. And once Frog’s ex-girlfriend Lolly Slocum is nearly strangled to death during a tunnel blackout, that is exactly where the story is heading. Despite the evident danger and the culprit remaining at large, however, the school chaperone, Ms. Quick, allows the trip to continue. Lolly is escorted back to Chicago, but everyone else is left to ponder the identity of the strangler and the possibility that one of them could be attacked as well. Could the assailant somehow really be Frog, who Hoh suggests early on, or are his pals Eugene and Dale avenging him? 

Whoever hurt Lolly eventually targets Hannah; she’s knocked out and put inside Frog’s coffin at one point. This whole scene provides some of the book’s best description as Hannah wakes up in the box, slowly realizing where she is. Her claustrophobia sets in, and readers feel it along with her. That sense of terror lingers long after Hannah escapes the coffin, but now she doggedly asks the most obvious question — where was Frog’s body when Hannah was inside his coffin? From here on out, Hannah tries (and fails) to convince everyone Frog has returned to hurt them.

Up until someone is literally thrown from the train, the antagonist keeps the chaos to a minimum. They lock Mack inside a shed during one of the train’s stops — this was after Mack thought he saw Frog on the street and followed him — as well as nicks Lewis’ neck with an ice pick during a movie. There’s also the disappearing Frog corpse in Kerry’s bunk bed, which naturally vanishes as soon as Hannah alerts the others. The attacker is then finally upgraded to a full-blown killer once they toss Jean Marie off the train. At long last, this development forces Ms. Quick and the other adults to pull the brakes on the trip.

Still, was moving a body any more horrible than strangling someone or trying to suffocate someone in a closed box or splintering someone’s flesh with an ice pick?

Hannah only gives up on her wild theory about Frog being alive and hunting them down when she spots what she believes is his body in the coffin. She sees it through a crack in the lid, but a glimpse of his “rat with wings and bared fangs” tattoo all but confirms Frog is indeed dead. So if it’s not Frog tormenting Hannah and the others, who else could it be? Eugene and Dale aren’t active enough in the story to be considered genuine suspects. And it’s highly doubtful anyone among Hannah’s friend group is guilty, either. Who ends up being the perpetrator, though, comes as a surprise. What is even more shocking is how Hannah is to blame for everything, according to the bad guy. 

Following Jean Marie’s death, Hannah gets a big shock back in her compartment. There waiting for her is Lolly, who never went back home to Chicago after strangling herself. The theatre kid managed to go undetected by hiding in the train’s crawl spaces, and thanks to her makeup skills, she pretended to be Frog’s dead body. Frog’s coffin, which he was never inside to begin with, was something Lolly purchased and had shipped to Frog’s parents back in San Francisco. She wanted them to feel shame about sending him away in the first place. Still infatuated with Frog, Lolly carried out her late boyfriend’s grudges and killed the girl he really loved, Jean Marie. As for Hannah, Lolly never explained the specific reason why she and Frog were angry with her. That’s something Hannah does herself.

All this time, Hannah has been saddled with guilt about something she did to Frog, and it’s only when Lolly attacks her in San Francisco does she come clean. As they wait for Ms. Quick and the police to come deal with the aftermath, Hannah tells her friends how she wronged Frog.  After impulsively inviting him to her party, mainly out of pity, Hannah disinvited him once he showed up with Lolly. Five minutes later, Frog died in a car crash. So, this isn’t quite a Prom Night situation where the characters were punished for a serious misdeed like murder. They were all awful to Frog, yes, but they also didn’t kill him.

The Train is a fast read and a well-paced thriller about obsession and remorse. Instead of a still-beating heart ticking away beneath the floorboards, a person’s troubled conscience is set off by an empty coffin. The characters aren’t too likable, even before finding out what jerks they are, but allowing them flaws and texture gives their harrowing story more mileage.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

the train

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