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BOOK REVIEW: ASH by JAMES HERBERT

Posted on: July 28, 2015

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I suppose, by doing this review, I wanted to perform my own small tribute to the late Mr Herbert, who passed away in 2013.  He’s one of those authors I seem to have been reading on and off all my life.  I remember my whole family seemed to be reading The Rats back in the 1970s, and I was utterly transfixed by The Fog, which still contains some of the most traumatic scenes I’ve ever read in horror fiction.  And then I sort of seemed to grow out of him.  In later years I re-discovered him, and enjoyed Moon, Others and The Ghosts of Sleath, which all seemed to be pointing to a more thoughtful, less in-yer-face kind of horror.

In his book Danse Macabre Stephen King described James as a grab-you-by-the-lapels-and-scream-in-your-face kind of horror writer.  I always found it interesting to compare the extremes of James’s writing, with the jovial, down-to-earth person I used to hear being interviewed on TV and radio.  There is a theory that some of the nicest writers are the ones who write graphic extreme stuff, because they get it all out on the page (which might explain why I’ve sometimes found sugary romance authors utterly arrogant, bitchy and intolerable!), and James Herbert did seem to fit that bill.  I was genuinely saddened to read that he’d died.

So is Ash a fitting swansong for him?  Yes, and no.  Weighing in at over 700 pages, some readers have complained that it’s too long, a 250-page novel expanded beyond breaking point.  Yes, there are parts that go on for far too long, and it does seem to take an absolute age for Our Hero to get to the castle, but I couldn’t help feeling that James was enjoying himself with this book, and wanted to take his time walking through it.

The story is intriguing.  Comraich Castle in Scotland is owned by  the mysterious Inner Court (no prizes for guessing this is meant to be an Illuminati-type group), who provide both a haven and a prison for powerful people who have cocked up in the outside world, and need to be removed from the scene.   Unfortunately, the castle is being plagued by supernatural phenomena, and so the Inner Court decide to call in parapsychologist, David Ash, to investigate.  I think it helps if you like conspiracy theories to enjoy this book.  I love them, so the story wasn’t a problem for me.  If you hate them, I think it’s fair to predict you won’t enjoy it, because James absolutely bungs the book choc-full with every modern conspiracy theory he could think of.  We don’t get Area 51 in the basement, but we do get Lord Lucan, Princess Diana, Robert Maxwell, Hitler’s secret love child etc etc.

The biggest problem with the book is the main characters of Ash and his love interest, Delphine.  Characterisation was never James’s strong-point*, and these two are as bland as it’s possible to be.  Ash barely registers as a person at all.  We are meant to believe he is some kind of James Bond of ghost-hunting, but we’re hampered by the fact that, by and large, ghost-hunting really isn’t very exciting.  Ghostbusters it aint.  And in any case the supernatural phenomena in this book tends a distant back seat to the far more interesting flesh and blood characters who pop up.  Delphine is also a wet rag.  She’s just too good to be true, and the scenes between her and Ash are just plum tedious.  I found myself skipping pages whenever she and Ash cuddled up.  Not because I’m a prude, but because these two are just so mind-numbingly dull.

Dialogue is also a problem.  Characters have Dan Brown-style conversations, where they impart reams of detailed information at each other At Great Length.  James is scarcely the first author to do this.  Dennis Wheatley was notorious for it, so was Susan Howatch in her Church of England novels.  People simply don’t talk to each other this way.  Delphine can’t even tell Ash where she comes from, without sounding like an encyclopaedia.  Instead of just saying she comes from Sao Paulo,  she seems to go on about how big each of the main cities are in Brazil.  You almost expect her to start wittering on about population statistics, geology, and flora and fauna as well.

What did work for me was the castle itself.  I loved it.  Some have complained that James does too much detail about the castle, but I didn’t mind, as I found I could picture it vividly, and some parts, like the eerie basement areas became very real.  There are parts in the novel that gives a touch of vintage James Herbert, in that he still knew how to pull out all the stops when required.  And there is one scene, where a sympathetic character dies, when I did find myself getting a bit teary-eyed.  Even though at the same time I knew it was all utterly far-fetched nonsense!  The action sequences are good, but have a tendency to go on too long, such as the big cats in the woods, and the final run-out through the caves.

But all in all, this was a good finale from the master of horror, and he even has a slight dig at himself towards the end, as that guy “who wrote all those books about rats”.  When collecting his OBE, James apparently told Prince Charles that he was writing a book about Establishment secrets, which caused HRH to go a bit red-faced.  James died a few months after this book was published (cause of death unknown), which ironically, from what I’ve read Online, is already fuelling conspiracy theories of it’s own!  RIP Mr Herbert.

* having said that, I’m currently re-reading some of his earlier work, and the characterisation isn’t bad at all.  I think it’s that sometimes the central couple aren’t usually very interesting, particularly the female lead, who tends to be an idealised view of a girl.  Plus, I think that with Ash James got a bit lazy.  The character of Nurse Krantz for instance is so obviously based on Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that at one point in the story he virtually says so!  Compare that with the sympathetic, more rounded view of Mavis the lesbian character from The Fog, written nearly 40 years earlier.

PS: someone on GoodReads has moaned about the Princess Diana part being in “bad taste”.  All I can say is, you don’t read James Herbert and expect everything to be tastefully done!!  I personally didn’t find it tasteless at all, but then again I suppose I’m not the sort to get romantic about the Royal Family.  In fact, there were times in this that I felt perhaps he should have pushed the envelope a bit further where they were concerned. Someone else has complained that Prince Philip wouldn’t use the F word. Oh please excuse my hollow laughter …

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