RIP James Herbert (8 April 1943 – 20 March 2013): Ash to Ashes

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My good friend John Mountain over at Written in Blood was kind enough to “inadvertently” inform me of author James Herbert‘s death. I’d been “out of sync” with real life matters and in so doing had missed the news of Herbert’s untimely death on Wednesday the 20th of March this year.

He will be greatly missed.

James Herbert was initially an art director for an advertising agency (courtesy of Wikipedia) before becoming a full-time writer. A writer who designed his own book covers and did all his own publicity. He was also a writer who used to “scare the pants” off me and his other faithful readers.

With his novel The Rats and the subsequent sequels to it, Lair and Domain, he gave me an almost pathological fear of English rats. His vermin villains were bigger and smarter than your average British rat and in 2008 when I visited my daughter in her first apartment at Uni and saw a rat as big as a small dog, it wasn’t ringing the council that first sprang to my mind, it was James Herbert and his über scary rats.

Stephen King once said of Herbert that he was the type author who “grabbed his reader’s lapels and screamed into their faces [sic]” and his early books did just that. Who can forget the images that his scenes of horror evoked?

The legless dog stumping towards the letterbox in The Dark; the harsh headmaster who has his genitals cut off in The Fog; and as mentioned above, the rats in The Rats.

But his horror story skills evolved over the years, just as his novels evolved. He could tell a damned fine fantasy horror story and stories that, although steeped in the horror verse, were more sophisticated and complex than his earlier works. He had made the transition from the “pulps” to the slick world of mainstream horror fiction.  I have read every book published by James Herbert and loved them all.

But my favourite books of Herbert’s dealt with David Ash. The guilt-ridden paranormal investigator who fought an internal battle against his own psychic abilities. The man who was haunted by first his own sister and later by an entire family of ghosts in Haunted; then an entire village in The Ghosts of Sleath  and finally with the ghosts (?) in an exclusive madhouse in Ash; his last book published just before his untimely death.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing James Herbert on late-night telly. He has come on some program not to plug his latest book, but because he a was a rock fan who was actually touting his favourite bands next tour. He wore a heavy metal t-shirt and his hair was long and he seemed like one helluva nice guy.

I remember thinking, ‘That’s James Herbert??’ The guy who has managed to scare the hell out of me in almost all his books? I was shocked at just how nice the chap seemed. Herbert, who was awarded an OBE  in 2010, was an author who never really quite believed his success and never really felt comfortable with the praise and adulation that his books brought about.

I am, rather sadly, reading the last book of Herbert’s (Ash) and while reading it I can’t help but ponder a world without James Herbert. His books sold over 42 million copies worldwide (Wikipedia) and he has been a personal favourite of mine ever since I first picked up one of his books (The Fog – 1975) in 1982 from a USAF base bookstore.

Apart from my heartfelt sympathy for his family (his wife and three daughters) and close friends I’d like to express my own fond farewell. “So long mate, I say mate because in my mind I feel that anyone who can so consistently entertain and scare the bejeezus out of me is a friend.  You certainly brought more than your fair share of talent to the party. You will be missed by me and millions of other people around the world. Rest in peace mate.”

RIP James Herbert (8 April 1943 – 20 March 2013).
RIP James Herbert (8 April 1943 – 20 March 2013).

The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert: David Ash Revisited

I don’t know why I didn’t realise that I’d read this book before. I mean the odds were in favour of it most definitely; published in 1994 by an author I adore. It should have rung a bell, but did not. So when I saw a hardback version of the book for sale in Tesco’s book section, I got excited.

When I got home and googled the book I saw that it was another David Ash book, the first since his appearance in Haunted. I did think it odd that the book had been published in 1994. This fact alone made dredge my aging memory banks and nothing came up. So I excitedly reserved a copy with my local Library and within two days, it arrived.

Unfortunately, the first paragraph of the book brought memories cascading back and I knew before I’d finished the second sentence that I’d read it before. I was not too upset; I am, by my very nature, a “re-reader” of books. I will revisit my favourite author’s offerings again and again. Usually finding something I missed the first ten times I’ve read the book. I read very, very fast and tend to “skip” read a lot; I get caught up in the action and  furiously flip pages to reach the end of the story.

The Ghosts of Sleath features David Ash who, when we last saw him, was in a bit of a bad way. For the Ash novice, David is a psychic. He works for a paranormal institute and has an on-again-off-again affair with his boss Kate McCarrick. He’s an alcoholic whose speciality is debunking ghosts and haunted places. The vast majority of the paranormal “professional” world; psychics, mediums and seers hate him.

David is very good at what he does.

This is the second of the David Ash books and we can only hope that Mr Herbert has a few more Ash tales up his sleeve. His character is interesting and flawed and not especially nice but, like his boss Kate you find yourself drawn to him. His sister drowned when he was a small boy and he has been haunted by the incident and her ever since. It was his connection with his sister that got him involved with the hauntings at Edbrook; hauntings that threatened David’s sanity and his life. (Haunted 1994)

The beginning of the book sees David waiting for the ghost of the Sleep Angel at a retirement care home. The “angel” has been responsible for three deaths in the home so far. David catches the “ghost” who is in fact not dead but very much living in the guise of a staff member of the home. Objective accomplished he reports to Kate and is told to visit Sleath, a small village that is being plagued by several spectral visitors.

When David arrives at Sleath, he finds a picture postcard rural English village that is almost hostile to outsiders. When he sorts out lodging for his stay he finds the owner of the pub/inn is pleased at the prospect of having no more than one guest. Visitors to Sleath are not welcome. In fact, as David finds out from the local vicar’s daughter Grace, they purposefully stay out of tourist tracts. They want no visitors of any sort.

The atmosphere at the village is not hostile, it is just non-caring. They don’t interact with strangers. The people emit a sort of secretive feeling to David, who senses that the village may have more than one thing to hide.

While investigating the spectral visages David will: fall in love with Grace; realize that his sister still haunts him; meet an Irish psychic named Seamus Phelan who seems to know a lot about Sleath and David. He will also find out that ancient evil never really dies. As events begin to escalate, he also learns that Seamus only shows up when an area is about to suffer mass casualties of the living sort.

By the end of the book, David will find out what it is that haunts Grace and the village; and now him.

This is a great little read. Nothing spectacular or else I’d have remembered reading it the first time, but it is typical Herbert. A dash of gore, a few frights and a lot of  “looking over your shoulder”  moments in the book; The Ghosts of Sleath is a good follow on from the book Haunted. If you like a good scare, pick this one up and read it.

Author James Herbert circa 1994.

**This is the next to last post before the big 500. It’s your next to last chance to give me a suggestion for my 500th post. Just sayin’.**