(2006) James Herbert, Macmillan, £17.99, hrdbk, 600pp, ISBN 978-1-405-0-0520-3
James Herbert and Stephen King both had their first novels published in 1974 (The Rats and Carrie respectively) and, arguably, the American has had the greater success - certainly he has had more film and TV adaptations of his work - but this rather ignores the fact that the Englishman has long been a no.1 seller of horror fiction (despite stiff competition from the likes of Shaun Hutson), and that Herbert has been translated into thirty-five languages and sold more than fifty million copies of his work worldwide. It has been over thirty years since Herbert burst onto the scene with his rodent monsters, so the question now is, has he still got it? Both King and Herbert have had their ups and downs which, after more than three decades in the business, is hardly surprising. I encountered both as a schoolboy (I was twelve years old and received both books as Christmas presents in 1974!) and I have read every book by each of them right up to my, now, crusty forty-five years of age. Now this is just my opinion, obviously, but I have to say that of the two I think it is James Herbert whose work has weathered the years better and, furthermore, that it is Herbert who is still on top of his game, and King who has had the greater tendency to disappoint. Not that King is incapable of producing good work, mind you, just that Herbert has been, over all, more consistant. So let me answer the question I posed above: has he still got it? Yes, in spades, and then some...
The Secret of Crickley Hall is, on the face of it, a 'traditional' ghost story. Gabe and Eve Caleigh move into Crickley Hall in Devil's Cleave, a deep gorge that runs down to the fishing village of Hollow Bay, in Devon with their young daughters, Cally, 5, and Loren, 12, (and a dog called Chester, but no special treatment for that!) following the possible abduction or death of their son, Cam, who was 5 at the time, the previous year. Gabe is an engineer who is working for a company working on a tidal power scheme, called down to work on methods of lifting the turbines for periodic cleans. He brings his family to get them away from the disappointment of no news about Cam's disappearance. Crickley Hall seems OK, but there is a cellar door that just won't stay shut, eerie sounds in the night, and has a secret that stretches back to the second World War when it was used to house orphan refugees from the Blitz in London. What is known is that in "The Great Hollow Bay Flood" of 1943 all 11 children staying there, and their teacher Theophilus Cribben, were drowned and Cribben's sister, Magda, reduced to a seemingly mindless mute. What is not known is what life was like for the children prior to the flood, and what ever happened to the beautiful young teacher, Nancy? As the family's life is invaded by bad dreams, Eve seeks the help of a psychic and the children start to exhibit physical symptoms of their night terrors. And, at the same time, a survivor of the flood of '43 targets the Caleigh's in order to satisfy an old master... Loren and Cally are at risk and the fallout from that could claim the entire family.
It is testament to Herbert's lively writing that the 600 pages of this novel just flew past. And while some of this is formulaic, as one might expect, the book never drags or fails to deliver on the shocks. Do not be put off by the price, by the way, Crickley Hall was released as a paperback in 2007. Highly recommended.
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