Ash by James Herbert: The Final Journey

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I will admit that I had no idea that another David Ash book existed until I read the obituary-type articles after James Herbert died this month. Despite my obvious shock at the news that one of my favourite horror writers (he has always had a place of honour in my very small stable of great horror master’s) had been dispatched to the great unknown realms of death, I was intrigued  enough to buy an eBook copy for reading.

As a grand finale or final gesture, it was the best David Ash story yet. Although, if you look at the reviews on Goodreads, it appears that I am in the minority of readers who actually enjoyed the book. I am left wondering if those critical of the tale even read the same tome that I just finished. It is, to be frank, puzzling.

In this last ever David Ash investigation, David has been obligated by his employer Kate McCarrick to find the cause of the violent hauntings at Comraich Castle; a sanctuary for the criminal rich who can afford it. Run by the shadowy and overly influential Inner Circle, the castle’s dangerous spirits have already injured one paying guest and the spokesman for the Comraich, Sir Simon Maseby wants the haunting stopped at all costs.

While travelling in the Castle‘s private jet, David meets Dr Delphine Wyatt, the exotically beautiful psychologist who works at the retreat and who will turn out to be his only ally in his upcoming battle with the ancient evil that is trying to destroy Comraich Castle. An evil whose power has grown beyond all expectations and is aided by a living evil who also wants to destroy the Castle and all those in it.

James Herbert’s last book has everything but the kitchen sink in it. He has returned to his roots as a writer and once again has grabbed his readers by the lapel and screamed in their face.

I loved it.

His story of the intrigue and the corruption that permeates the government and the royal family is mesmerizing. The depiction of the “inner circle'” group who orchestrates the cover-ups that prevent the royal’s and the government from horrific publicity is, quite frankly, scary on its own. Add to this the evil that has grown so powerful that it can harm living beings and influence their actions makes this mix of terror damn near too scary for comfort.

There are a bunch of Scottish wildcats who “haunt” the hunting grounds around the castle that will give you nightmares and they are just a small portion of the evil things that lurk in the shadowy recesses of the castles halls and dungeons.

I could not turn the electronic pages fast enough as I became immersed in David Ash’s last ever case. When I finally reached the end of the book, I let out a sigh of relief and sadness as I realised that I’d never again get to vicariously live through any further David Ash adventures.

I am going to miss James Herbert’s prodigious output of work, he averaged a book a year, and not once was I unimpressed with his story and the originality of his plots and the comfortable feelings that his characters evoked. Unless of course they were scarily evil then the feelings that they generated were not of a comfortable ilk.

In my humble opinion, which is the only opinion that I can have, it is the best David Ash yet. It is always a very bittersweet experience reading the  last ever adventure of one of your favourite characters. I had the same feeling when I read the last ever Travis McGee book. Of course that was slightly different as I read the book before I’d learned of the author’s (John D MacDonald) passing. But the feeling was the same when I thought of the book.

So Rest In Peace David Ash, may you never be forgotten as one of the most believable creations of the fertile mind that was James Herbert.

A real 5 star ending to a 5 star character.

Author James Herbert promoting his last book on the bbc September 2012.
Author James Herbert promoting his last book on the bbc September 2012. RIP James.

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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