You have to hand it to James Herbert. Ever since he debuted with The Rats in 1974 he has known how to shock a reader. Whether it’s with the relentless violence of his pulp masterpiece The Fog, or the surprising fairy sex of 2001’s Once, readers go to Herbert in the knowledge that even in one of his lesser novels there will be sequences of outrageous entertainment to make it all worthwhile. It’s these grand set-pieces that have helped Herbert become, as the marketing blurb on his latest novel Ash states, “The Number One Chiller Writer.”
With a prologue detailing the last thoughts of Princess Diana as she lies dying in the wreck of her broken Mercedes, Ash initially seems like it will be Herbert at his most outrageous. Unfortunately, by the time we discover – some 600 pages later – the late Princess’ connection to Comraich, the remote Scottish castle in which the majority of the story takes place, the novel has long since outstayed its welcome.
The problem isn’t the plot, which at first appears to hold a lot of promise. We are introduced – or reintroduced if you’ve read either Haunted or The Ghosts of Sleath – to paranormal investigator David Ash. According to the publisher’s description, Ash is one of Herbert’s “best loved characters”, although the truth is he could be any of Herbert’s tousled-haired, anti-establishment heroes. Ash has a troubled past and the obligatory drinking problem, all of which – apparently – makes him the perfect choice when an emissary of the Illuminati-esque group named The Inner Court turns up at his Psychical Research Institute looking for someone to investigate a haunting, and a grisly murder, at Comraich Castle – an asylum/retreat where the shamed rich and politically-troublesome go to live out the rest of their lives.
As per his protagonists, Herbert has always had difficulty with authority figures, so a hugely corrupt, aristocratic cabal is the perfect villain for Ash to run up against. Similarly, Comraich – with its wildcat-infested grounds, precarious drops, subterranean caves, and dungeon-like ‘care’ facilities – is a fine setting for a ghost story. But Herbert seems uncertain exactly what he wants his novel to be about. Myriad sub-plots and minor characters battle for attention without ever coming to the fore. The ghost story appears entirely incidental, having little purpose other than as motivation to get Ash to the castle in the first place. Even Ash himself seems less interested in doing his job than flirting with the castle’s resident foxy psychiatrist.
Indeed, it’s this lack of urgency that really damages Ash. The set-up is dispensed with in the opening few chapters, but it is then 100 pages or so before Ash actually reaches the castle. 100 pages in which not very much happens. The pacing remains an issue even after Ash begins his investigation. Herbert is to be applauded for attempting to give his secondary cast their own stories and characters, but too many of them fall flat. Ash’s romance with the aforementioned psychiatrist, Delphine Wyatt, is implausibly swift and gives rise to some awfully clunky dialogue (at one point, seeing Delphine pull a scarf around her face for warmth, Ash muses that she looks like “a sexy terrorist”). Wyatt’s own past sexual indiscretion with head nurse Krantz adds nothing to the story at all, and should really have been excised. Other concepts are introduced and then seemingly forgotten. Ash’s drinking problem is mentioned often, but never impairs his ability as an investigator – or a lover, for that matter – and towards the end of the novel it is more or less ignored. On several occasions Ash mentions that the atmosphere in the castle is affecting his personality – usually when he wants to excuse himself for doing something reprehensible, like punching a woman in the face – but this is never developed. Too much of the novel seems directionless, and in need of a strong editorial hand.
This is a shame, because when Herbert finally gets to the meat of the story there’s some genuine entertainment to be had. A mid-novel set-piece involving, variously, killer flies, a Serbian war criminal, a crashed lift and dungeon full of lunatics, is fantastic pulpy fun. As is the apocalyptic climax, in which at least one of Herbert’s myriad sub-plots finally pays off in spectacular fashion. It is safe to say that Herbert hasn’t lost his deft touch with a set-piece, but the nature of the story doesn’t allow him many opportunities to really cut loose the way he used to.
Some readers may also enjoy the various conspiracy theories that Herbert weaves into the mythology of Comraich Castle, although some – specifically a riff on the murder of David Kelly – are in fairly bad taste. True events are fair game for fiction, but only if the author has something to contribute to our understanding of the event in question. Here the true-life cameos are window-dressing at best, and cheap revenge fantasies at worst.
In many ways Ash shares several of its problems with Herbert’s previous novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall. Like its predecessor, Ash is massively over-written. Secondary character Cedric Twigg’s resemblance to Donald Pleasance is remarked on not once, not twice, but almost every time he is observed over the course of the novel. David Ash’s good looks, tousled hair and haunted eyes come a close second. Too many chapters simply summarise plot points that the reader has already worked out for themselves. Ultimately this leads to frustration and impatience. Long-term readers of Herbert’s work may find this baffling. After all, he has always shown a great understanding of pacing in the past. Alas, Ash is a fun 250-page romp trapped in the binding of a 700-page behemoth. It’s not a look that suits Herbert’s novels.
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