Ash by James Herbert

1 October, 2012

Many years ago I read James Herbert’s Haunted and later watched the film. I don’t remember much of the book but I did think the film was pretty scary. Well, horror films never fail to terrify me. So when I was offered the chance to review Ash, the latest novel by James Herbert, I was intrigued to see what had become of David Ash, the parapsychologist whom I first met in Haunted. BBC is about to show a dramatisation of Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall and the nights are drawing closer. I was in the mind for something spookay!

In David Ash’s third case (the second is The Ghosts of Sleath which I haven’t read), we find him battered but almost recovered from his previous two encounters with the paranormal. A powerful, secretive organisation called the Inner Sanctum has requested his expertise in uncovering some sinister events that have taken place in a hidden castle in the middle of the Highlands, a place of refuge for the world’s wealthiest recluses. Or so they claim. With some misgivings regarding the secrecy surrounding Comraich Castle, Ash is soon on his way to the secluded castle where he comes face to face with some of history’s most notorious faces whom the world believes dead. With so much evil concentrated in one place, it is only a matter of time before a malevolent presence finds a conduit through which it can materialise and Ash must somehow convince the owners to evacuate the place in order to save lives.

To complicate matters, he has fallen for the resident psychologist Dr. Delphine Wyatt and so he must not only protect himself but other innocent people from the evil that is growing beneath the castle.

The premise sounded extremely intriguing and my memories of Haunted were pleasant enough for me to anticipate reading this novel. Unfortunately there were too many things that irked me for this to be an enjoyable experience. The writing style was fine but occasionally veered between being condescending to pedantic. There was too much information that sometimes I felt as though I was consulting wikipedia. I’m sure half of the explanations could have been cut without hindering the story in any way. The writing style was somewhat crude in places which I thought was unnecessary although I guess it scores on the shock factor. But I always assumed David Ash would be a conflicted, agonised man, but one with style. There was a lot of brand name dropping which annoyed me. Do I really need to know that Ash’s mobile was a Samsung? I don’t think so. And lots and lots of names of medical drugs and product descriptions which could have been edited out.

Herbert’s characterisation also leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from the stereotypes you would expect to find in mainstream horror, they often didn’t have continuity or acted out of character. Take Ash. For someone so jaded, he was pretty naïve at times. And he hovered over Delphine so protectively as though she was some kind of innocent lamb. Which didn’t make much sense since she had been working for the Inner Sanctum for 3 years administering sedatives to patients and conducting experiments which weren’t exactly legal. For a grown woman with a career, Delphine was a little too ‘wan’ and fragile.

There was also a bewildering number of urban legends from the Nazis to Princess Diana which were really interesting and I do think Herbert makes you ponder the consequences of evil and its many facets although with a rather simplistic view of redemption. Ultimately, Herbert tries to put too much into the story without providing a satisfactory explanation to the hauntings that are so central to the tale.

I’m sure this would make a great horror film and a perfectly good holiday read but it’s not one to read too closely. I’m probably being harsh but I think my exasperation stems from my expectations which were rather high. Although there were certain things that were chilling and lots of blood and gore, it didn’t really scare the pants off me (but even The Woman in Black, everyone’s favourite ghost story, didn’t do the trick). Maybe books just don’t scare me? Do also check out the reviews at Gaskella and SFX.

Have you read any books by James Herbert? And what’s your scariest read? Spill!

A review copy of Ash was kindly provided by the publisher.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.