In the far distant past, before there were private jets or even private-ish first-class cabins, the rich and famous would travel between New York and Los Angeles by train. The glamour and crazy-making nature of the cross-country journey was immortalized in the great screwball comedy Twentieth Century, starring John Barrymore as a down-on-his-luck impresario and Carole Lombard as his onetime protégé, who’s since shot to success under her own steam but has the misfortune to board the train he’s traveling on. A desperate Barrymore hilariously uses every trick in his bag to win her back in order to revive his fading career.
Dorothy B. Hughes’s Dread Journey, first published in 1945, reads like Twentieth Century’s dark mirror. The author puts another, more sinister Hollywood producer, Vivien Spender, on a Pullman train from L.A. to New York with both his latest discovery, whom he wants to star in his version of The Magic Mountain, and his brassy ex-protégé, Kitten Agnew, who’s still under contract for the same role. Despite Spender’s best efforts to release her, Agnew won’t go quietly. Spender is a colossal egomaniac who hides his ruthlessness behind an affable exterior, but those who know him aren’t fooled. Beneath the clink of cocktails and forced laughter from Agnew’s ineffectual group of friends, a slow drip of fear and unease seeps onto the train.