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I've read and enjoyed most of James Herbert's books up until now. Indeed, he's one of the few authors to have genuinely scared me, at the point I realised the location of an army of rats in ''Domain'' was between the tube station I was getting off at and the office I had to walk to. Herbert's two previous books featuring parapsychologist David Ash were pretty good, so I was looking forward to the third, simply titled ''Ash''.
There are strange goings on at Comraich Castle, with the normal poltergeist type activities of cold spots in rooms and the lights inexplicably dimming having escalated into a resident being found pinned to the wall of his room by his own blood and innards. David Ash is sent in to investigate, but he is warned that he must work alone and in secrecy, as whilst some of the residents of Comraich Castle are not ghosts, they are considered long dead by the outside world and that world must never know of their continued existence.
The basic idea behind the story is intriguing and the mixture of fiction with real life names and the stretching of fact works rather well. Although the main focus of the story is on the job Ash is at Comraich Castle to do, I found that the little snippets of the residents' back stories added a little bit extra and I found myself enjoying those minor diversions just as much as I enjoyed the main story.
Herbert usually writes at a fairly frantic pace and the same is true here. There is none of the waiting game that seems to happen in TV shows like ''Most Haunted'', as Herbert keeps enough plot strands going that he can skip between them to keep the pace high. Ash seems to be an attractive force for the evil inhabiting Comraich Castle, as if it realises that he's there to cause trouble. This results in him tangling with all sorts of nasty beings, from wildcats to spiders to flying battleaxes. The human forces in charge of the Castle are also a little suspicious of the questions he keeps asking as well, as David Ash can't let any secret, real or paranormal, remain hidden.
There were a couple of aspects of the book that I felt took the edge off it slightly for me. Ash's relationship with Delphine was played up to a little too much and many of his feelings towards her were based in his back story which relies on the reader being an existing James Herbert fan to appreciate fully. This was only a minor issue for me, as I'd read the books prior to this one, but for a newcomer to James Herbert, the foreknowledge required may take the edge off what turned out to be a significant, if more developed than it perhaps deserved, sub-plot.
I was also slightly unhappy with some of the events towards the end of the book. James Herbert is a renowned horror writer for a reason, but towards the end the book seemed to veer a little away from horror towards a more Hollywood action film style ending. Given that there was a fair amount of imagination required to meld semi-factual pieces with fiction throughout most of the book, parts of the ending were a bit of a disappointment. The pace certainly held up, but I wasn't entirely convinced by the direction it took.
It was the pace and the basic idea that kept me reading more so than the execution. This is Herbert's longest book and it feels like he's run into the same problem as Stephen King and Dean Koontz before him in that longer isn't always better. That said, apart from David Ash's back story, this isn't a bad introduction to James Herbert's work, as it has enough to keep a reader interested and it's not going to be too unsettling to someone unused to the horror genre. But for the experienced horror reader that I am, these were the same things that took the edge off it slightly and this makes it poor value at a cheapest price of £3.99 plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace whilst the book is still only available as a hardback.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
I've been a fan of James Herbert for years and have read 98% of his work, if not 100% of it. In recent years however I've been left disappointed as this once prolific author has really slowed down his output, leaving fans like myself with no option but to re-read his older work - something I don't really like to do as there are so many books waiting to be read that re-reading always seems like a waste of my time. So imagine my delight while browsing on Amazon one evening to find Herbert's latest novel, Ash, available for the Kindle priced at just 20p - I couldn't click 'buy' fast enough and immediately started reading.
David Ash you might remember as one of Herbert's occasionally returning characters; a skeptical paranormal investigator who has (in previous instalments of the 'Ash series') seen so many terrifying occurrences that it's really had a huge effect on him. He has developed alcoholic tendencies and can't rid himself of the image of his much loved girlfriend being flayed alive, while Ash himself looked on helplessly. He hasn't completely wallowed in despair however and has continued to work for the Psychical Research Institute, a company owned by his friend (and sometimes lover) Kate McCarrick - Kate worries immensely about his fragile state of mind and tries to protect him from the harsher investigations, but when she is approached by an old friend who needs her best investigator she is forced to bring Ash in.
The case involves some quite spectacular hauntings in Comraich Castle, a secretive retreat in Scotland where only the most important (and rich!) members of society can visit - the caveat being that a visit must comprise the rest of your natural life, mainly to prevent the secret of this castle from coming out but also because many of the residents are wanted for heinous crimes so would go directly to prison if they made themselves visible again. Comraich Castle has its own staff at every level and it's a sign of how desperately the ghostly events are affecting them that they ask for outside help in the first place. Ash isn't keen, and even less so when he realises he will be required to stay at the castle for a period of time with no contact with the outside world but he goes anyway and quickly finds himself in the centre of paranormal activity which is getting more and more deadly as the hours pass.
It's a really exciting story, drawing me in within the first few pages. I already 'know' David Ash from previous novels so was pleased his character wasn't explained in too much detail from the beginning of the book, and this is no disadvantage for those of you who haven't read The Ghosts of Sleath as his story is cleverly related as the chapters go on through use of flashbacks and musings from the man himself. It's apparent from our very first meeting with Ash that he's a troubled character, his initial appearance in the book being a cliched late entry to an important meeting with his boss and Ash having the requisite dry mouthed hangover that you expect from this sort of male lead. Kate doesn't appear often in the story and I thought that was a shame as she's a very strong and likeable female character, having a fabulous relationship with Ash which I'd have loved to have seen developed further. The only other female character of note is Delphine, an eminent psychologist and the only member of Comraich staff who really seems to care about the patients and residents of the castle. I actually found her character to be quite irritating and overly needy at times, I just couldn't warm to her at all even when it became apparent that she was one of the (few) good guys in the story. Her main charges are a mysterious young man whose identity is a shocker revealed towards the end of the story and a pair of incestuous twins, who form part of the backdrop to the story but are not particularly important characters in their own right.
I love the way James Herbert does this, creates interesting characters and threads them through the story with only the view of killing them off at the most opportune moment - the twins are an excellent example; we meet them, learn their tragic secrets and then read of their violent death at a point where a death is necessary for the shock factor but the author doesn't feel the need to sacrifice one of his main characters. There's a lot of death in this novel, and these deaths are often (nay, always!) gory and done to create the maximum feeling of shock or revulsion in the reader - this isn't a book for the faint hearted, but then if you're that kind of person you probably won't be reading James Herbert anyway! The story itself is crazily fast paced, it all unravels over the space of just a couple of days - I had to keep stopping and asking myself how many times Ash had slept to suss out the timescale of events!
I particularly loved the way Herbert brought real people into the story as residents of Comraich Castle, I don't want to name names here as it will spoil some comical little surprises - keep a close eye on the text during the Comraich dining room scenes and you'll find yourself recognising names and descriptions left, right and centre. Great stuff from Mr Herbert which gave the fictional story an amazing kick of reality and relevance.
The tale rushes ahead and Ash, as the main protagonist, is usually at the fore. It's reasonably simply written and very easy to follow thanks to clever writing without too many unnecessary interruptions, the bulk of the action takes place within Comraich Castle itself so while there are quite a few characters jostling for your attention you don't find yourself having to remember different locations too (which I find is the one thing that a lot of horrors fail on, shifting the story from place to place and not letting the reader settle in one place long enough to feel comfortable). It helps that by it's very nature, a castle is huge so there are plenty of already spooky sounding areas for Herbert to elaborate on and make sound as terrifying and as dank as possible - the final few paragraphs use the castle setting to full advantage and make it incredibly exciting, to the point where I just could not put the book down towards the end and carried on reading until the early hours despite knowing I had to get up for the school run early the next day!