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’.**

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert: The Devil’s in Devon

Considering that this book was originally published in 2006, it has not lost the ability to entertain and enthral. I first read it back then and enjoyed it immensely. While waiting for Herbert’s next book to find its way into my hands (The Ghosts of Sleuth) which is another David Ash story, I decided to re-read this tale of terror set in the Devon seaside.

I have been a huge James Herbert fan since his “pulp” days. Pulp meaning stories that scared and revolted, sometimes at the same time; Herbert’s speciality back then was delivering his horror with all the power of a solid right cross. Then while you were reeling from that first punch, he’d swiftly follow-up with an uppercut. As Stephen King put it in his 1981 analysis of horror Danse Macabre: “Herbert likes to grab the reader and scream in his or her face if he needs to…” Anyone reading his earlier works would agree.

The Rats, Domain, Lair, The Fog, The Dark, et al; all scared the crap out of me and made me a fan for life.

Herbert then started changing his style of horror. He started slyly mixing in sophisticated touches with an enviable élan. The first book (in my opinion) where he deviated ever so slightly from his standard formula was his first David Ash book Haunted. The scream in your face scares were still there, but the right-cross was delivered by a gloved fist. The bare-knuckle crunch was softened and the story benefited from it.

Magic Cottage followed this new formula and Herbert has never looked back. I will say that I do miss the old books with the almost overabundance of gore and the constant shattering of social taboos that was his speciality back then. But not enough to turn my back on an author that I rank right up there with the illustrious Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and Richard Laymon.

The Secret of Crickley Hall tells the story of the tragic Caliegh family. American Gabe Caliegh and his English wife Eve have lost their son. When an exhausted Eve took their son Cameron and sister Cally to a park in London, Eve fell asleep; when she woke up, Cally was screaming and Cam was gone. Gabe, Eve; their 12-year-old daughter Loren and Cally all go to the Devon seaside to a village called Harbour Bay to live in Crickley Hall for a year. A sort of “time-out” for the family while the anniversary of their missing son and brother grows nearer; unfortunately they could not have picked a worse place to have a break from the stress of their grief.

Crickley Hall was the centre of a WWII scandal that had been hushed up by the authorities. Eleven evacuee children drowned amid rumours of mistreatment by their strict “Christian” guardian and his sister. A dank, dark house that still reflects the pain and horror of those long ago victims; a place never occupied for very long because of its oppressive atmosphere; where Gabe and his family will end up fighting for their lives when the past makes its startling revelations known.

Like a fine wine, James Herbert doesn’t just get older, he gets better. He is still adept at delivering that one-two punch that will shake you and make you look uneasily over your shoulder while reading his prose. When Herbert was younger he was a Heavy Metal enthusiast and on every interview I ever saw him do, he wore the uniform of the Metal Rock fan; a black t-shirt, blue jeans and long hair. His books at that time could be said to be the  literary equivalent of the Heavy Metal rock genre, hoarsely screaming horrific images through his writing. If that is the case, then he has learned to include the backdrop of symphonic and operatic arias which help his “rock” style of writing reach sublime heights of fear, terror and a creepy uneasiness.

If you haven’t read this book keep an eye out for it at book stalls and shops. It’s a damned good read and when the climax occurs, you’ll wipe your sweaty forehead and release a sigh of satisfied relief. The BBC did an adaptation of the book for television, which I have not seen, but as usual I would recommend reading the book first. A real 5 star read

The author James Herbert showing off his OBE.

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The House Next Door (1978): Architectural Southern Horror

The House Next Door (film)
The House Next Door (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will admit up front that if Stephen King had not written about The House Next Door in his own book Danse Macabre, I would have never heard of Ann Rivers Siddons let alone read her book.

King’s Danse Macabre was a look at horror as a medium in radio, film, television and literature. Before I go into Siddons book, I’d like to recommend that you have a peek at Danse Macabre (or hell, why not go all out and read the whole book). You might just find that he writes about some old friends or, like my own experience with the book, make some new ones.

Ann Rivers Siddons was born in the south and she still lives there. She writes southern based literature and does so very well. She does not write horror novels and except for The House Next Door she hasn’t visited the area of Southern Gothic stories.

The House Next Door is set in a modern day southern suburban neighbourhood. The books main protagonist is Colquitt Kennedy and although she is later joined by husband Walter, she alone is the one who recognises the threat that the house poses.

Coquitt and Walter are a childless couple who are rapidly approaching that time of life that is referred to as middle age. They are happy with their lives and do not miss having children. The Kennedy’s are the very picture of mediocrity. She has a part-time job and maintains her house, garden and pets equally. She is the more social of the married couple and she is to a degree, vain,  superficial and unchallenged by life.

The Kennedy’s live next to a  lot that has been, for years, vacant because building a house there would not only be difficult but expensive. The lot is wooded and too ‘wild’ to be turned into a building plot.

That changes with the arrival of architect Kim Dougherty. A charming and brilliant young man who has developed house plans for the plot next door for a young up and coming couple, the Harrellson’s. After initially feeling annoyance that they hadn’t bought the empty lot sooner, Colquitt and Walter warm to the young architect and they visit with him while the house is being built.

When the house is finished it is breath-taking to look at. It looks as though “it is literally growing out of the ground.” The Harralson’s move in and thus begins the first of several inhabitants of the house paying a horrific price for living in it.

The story is broken down into three families and the destruction of each when they move into the house. Colquitt and Walter become unwilling witnesses to the house and the way it destroys those drawn to it. Even the architect Kim is not safe from his creation.

The families are the Harralsons, the Sheehans and the Greens. Each family pays a higher price than the preceding family. It’s almost as if the house has developed an appetite for bloodshed, pain and death.

Colquitt and Walter finally decide that they must do something about the house next door and as a result become social pariahs in their own neighbourhood.  They then realise that the action they will have to take must be and drastic and final.

Siddons writes a haunted house tale that will grip you and make you want to discuss it with everyone. It  is a book that clings to your memory like day old custard. It amazes me that she hit the ‘horror ball’ right out of the park with her first horror novel. She knows her territory and the folks who fill it all too well.

Being born and raised, for the most part, in the south I felt that Siddons picture of life in southern suburbia was spot on. I also felt as though I had known most of the people that she wrote about.

Thankfully, I’ve never known a house like The House Next Door and hopefully I never will.