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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

Dread Journey

cover image By: Hughes, Dorothy B. (female)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc.
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 275: PS3515 .U268 D74 1947
Contributor: R. King


Era: 1940s Author as on Cover: Dorothy B. Hughes Geographic Locale: on board a passenger train traveling from California to the East Coast via Chicago Date of Publication: 1947  |  Original Date: 1945 Setting: rural; one gets the sense that the passing terrain is rural, although there is discussion of the train approaching Chicago Motives: murder; film producer Vivien Spender murders Kitten Agnew, his creation, to get her out of the way so he can put his newest discovery in a leading role already contracted to Kitten. He also has tired of Kitten as a girlfriend, and wants Gratia, his new discovery, instead.

Plot Summary

As head porter James Cobbett watches and tends to their needs, several passengers traveling from California to the East Coast on the Chief passenger train while away time with drinks and conversation. When one member of their group is murdered, the others decide retribution is in order. Dread Journey, which can be classified as a Hollywood novel, focuses on the individuals on board the train as they learn about one another's lives, desires, failures, and fears while World War II rages menacingly behind the scenes. The atmosphere on the train becomes claustrophobic as the travelers consume alcohol, worry, and complain about their lots in life. The book was well-received in 1945 by some critics, who use adjectives like "frightening," "absorbing," and "exciting" to describe it. Elizabeth Bullock of Book Week (Sept. 16, 1945, p.15) notes "there is a great deal of suspense, but more important are the people involved and what happens to them. Other mystery writers may fall into stereotyped formulas after a few books, but not Dorothy Hughes."

Major Characters

Vivien Spender adult male, "admitted to 45", tall, broad shoulders, powerfully built, straw-colored hair, hearty voice, quick smile, wealthy, famous film producer, very evil, psychopathic murderer

Kitten Agnew adult female, Hollywood golden girl, long blonde hair, "big sulky mouth redder than raw meat," "typical Hollywood figure forced into the plain lines of the suit but not hiding the protuberances Hollywood affected. She was as artificial as a doll." Cynical, but seems to love life and live it fully. Kilowatt personality that lights up whatever room she enters; experienced, knows her way around; very famous movie star

Gratia Shawn adult female, very beautiful in a natural, non-Hollywood, innocent way. Slight frame, dark hair, humble, nice. A blank page ready to be exploited, both professionally and personally by film producer Vivien Spender; aspiring movie star

James Cobbett adult male, African-American, middle-aged, quiet, thoughtful, intelligent, with a competent air about him, great dignity; professional porter

Leslie Augustin adult male, "looked like a poet," unwell-looking although tanned; fair, fragile, soft-spoken; "hottest white bandleader in the business"

Mike Dana adult female, homely but stylish, unemotional on the surface but very sensitive and vulnerable within; gaunt, dark hair pulled back severely, lipstick matches her nails, wears slant green-rimmed glasses; extremely competent private secretary to film producer Vivien Spender

Hank Cavanaugh adult male, tall, lanky, "vague-eyed and stiff-gaited," hard-bitten, cynical, sarcastic, heavy drinker; clothes are worn and rumpled; well-traveled, world-weary journalist

Althea Spender adult female, lovely, with "a strange, flowerlike sort of beauty," fragile; deceased wife of film producer Vivien Spender, murdered by him after he tired of her; she is much in the background of the novel

Sidney Pringle adult male, viewed as an unpleasant little man, poorly dressed with "sleazy rayon socks slithering down to his ankles," cheap shoes (he can't afford better); "cheap, dumpy, sallow," "never looked clean," filled with self-pity and anger; failed Hollywood writer but author of a good book; heading East to "sell neckties" for a living



Level of Violence

three individuals are poisoned, but the events are not described in a graphic, violent way; rather they are mainly implied.


implied. A honeymooning couple in a nearby car is busy with one another (implied) while other men and women speculate about one another, are attracted or repelled by one another, and a murder occurs. The strange use of gender reversal in the names of two major characters (Vivien Spender, a man, and Mike Dana, a woman) is a puzzle rather than a resolution, other than perhaps referring to their inability to successfully obtain satisfaction in love. Odd (erotic) symbolism with a drink and cherry falling into sexually experienced Kitten's "black satin lap. The cherry was brightly embossed on the wide grotesque of the stain." Then she eats the cherry. Then she dies.

Gender Roles

generally traditional; if sexist attitudes exist, they have to do with the characters buying into the Hollywood myth of boy-meets-girl as the major motivation of an individual's existence.


the author is clear that the train's porter, African-American James Cobbett, is the only normal person among the main characters on the train. He is never referred to in any derogatory terms by others. Indeed, it is quite difficult to determine his race; it is not apparent or emphasized at all until about half-way through the novel -- unless 1945 readers assumed all train porters are African-American, which seems odd or progressive for thrillers of the time.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

alcohol is used pervasively throughout the novel, though this might not be too unusual for groups of bored persons traveling long distances on a train. In particular, Hank Cavanaugh drinks constantly, is often drunk, and drinks to forget the terrible things he has seen as a war correspondent. Drink is the major purpose/result of any social occasion in this book. No other drugs are mentioned.

Law Enforcement

there are no professional detectives, either private or official, in the novel. The characters discuss bringing the murder to the attention of the police when they arrive in Chicago, and Hank Cavanaugh knows a detective there whom he is certain will act to avenge the death of Kitten.

Added Features

this humorless Hollywood novel explores the shallowness of film culture as individuals grasp for materialistic fame instead of being content with their lives as is porter James Cobbett. Gratia Shawn is viewed as a nice person about to buy into, and be sucked dry by, the myth that Hollywood is the highest, most noble and artistic of endeavors. In this way, the novel does explore class differences as poor struggle to become rich celebrities no matter what the cost to their own humanity. Cobbett will remain on the train as a decent, steady family man, competent and professional, as others fleetingly go on with their mainly shallow lives. One may speculate as to whether they will learn something of value from their experiences during this terrible train trip.

Subject Headings

Motion Pictures/ Motion Picture Producers and Directors/ Actresses/ Alcoholism/ Murder/ Railroads - Travel/ Social Classes/ Paranoia

Psychological Elements

characters are mainly explored and described through their attitudes and secret anguishes. Paranoia, guilt, insanity, depression, substance abuse, neurological disorders all figure in Dread Journey. Kitten is paranoid because she knows she is marked for death by Vivien Spender, a psychopath who murdered his previous wife. Still she wants to marry him! Mike Dana is neurotic over her love for Spender, and feels guilt over the knowledge about how his wife (her friend) really died. Most major characters abuse alcohol, especially Hank. Despite his fame, band leader Les Augustin (who rose from poverty) seems depressed about life in general, as do most of the characters, except Gratia, an innocent who is about to lose her innocence.