As a huge fan of James Herbert in my youth, I’ve eagerly ploughed through many of that leading British horror author’s works. From The Rats, through The Fog and The Magic Cottage, Creed and of course Haunted, the book that launched the career of paranormal sceptic investigator David Ash, I always found his works terrifically entertaining, mixing a balance of genuine scares with highly approachable prose and healthy injections of splatterpunk.
So it was with a great deal of excitement that I anticipated the arrival of Ash, the third book that features David Ash, coming just a little shy of two decades after his last outing in The Ghosts of Sleath. Given my enthusiasm for this title, I was slightly concerned when it was delayed by more than a few months, but packed away my qualms and worries and took faith that all would be okay. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Ash is not the book I had hoped to it be, and on reading it I was left quite empty and a little sad that the author allowed this work to be published.
Ash opens with our erstwhile investigator called upon to deal with a matter of utmost secrecy for his associate agency. The goings on here are more than a little cloak and dagger, and the precautions taken to keep things covert raise a few eyebrows. Whisked off by jet to the isolated and looming Comraich Castle in some far-flung corner of Scotland, Ash soon discovers why. Whilst the paranormal entities that haunt the castle are of an undetermined malevolent nature, many of the castle’s inhabitants are not, and are definitely of the uncertainly evil variety.
There’s lots going on here at Comraich; enough for several different books, infact. And at times that’s what I felt I was reading – a grossly unplanned marriage of different novels thrown into the blender for our reading attention. At times highly political, at others veering into social diatribe, the text is a more than a little bit all over the place. And thrown in, possibly intended as being for good measure, occasional paragraphs that I recognise as having come from the Herbert stable, but then I couldn’t be too sure as I was just a little confused at what was going on elsewhere.
Given the conspiratorial nature of events I don’t want to plod too much into regurgitating key plot elements for risk of ‘spoilers’ but let’s just say that Cormraich is an elite institution for some of societies most taboo citizens. And a few of those mingled in with the fictional characters have roots firmly tied into the non-fictional. It’s a device often used by authors, but here in Ash it clashes so very hard with the horror and paranormal aspect that the author is trying to pull off that it completely obfuscates it.
It’s not just that confusing harmony that made Ash a hard tune to digest; the book is long, and really could’ve benefitted from better editing in that regard. As with some of Stephen King’s latter books, Ash definitely suffers from bloat; after all, who dares edit a great? Right? Wrong. This work really would’ve benefitted from a good few cuts of threads and plots. And then it might have been much more readable, but as it is it really is quite convoluted and so very, very clunky.
As hinted upon, those elements of the paranormal and horror are generally carried off with sufficient aplomb, but are ultimately ruined by the rest of the book. The various goings on are either a little bit too formulaic, or require the reader to suspend disbelief just a little too much as regards ideas that the author’s trying to pull off. Yes. Even for a reader of more than plenty of the supernatural genre.
I am saddened by Ash, I must admit. I am a Herbert fan, have been for three plus decades. I recall seeing his books with shiny, excitingly scary covers dominating shelves in W H Smiths as a child, wanting to grab them and read them, and being too young having to wait until I was a teenager and then allowed to read them, but then not being disappointed when I finally got to do so. Alas, here, in producing a readable horror book Herbert has stumbled from his usual high quality works.
Addendum to above review:
The above review was written just several months before James Herbert passed away. I’ve always been a huge fan of his works, as my various other reviews on the site, tweets and similar show. I had toyed with the idea of removing the review on hearing news of his passing, but on talking with several friends decided that was definitely not the best thing to do and would be disingenuous in regards my appreciation of his greater, life’s body of work.
Herbert’s writings were hugely influential upon my reading habits as a youth, and subsequent growth of appreciation for the wider horror fiction genre. I remain a huge fan of his works, but as the above review shows, wasn’t a fan of this particular book. Nonetheless, I wanted to add on re-reading the above that Herbert was a giant in the genre, and we readers of the darker stuff are so much poorer without him.