Posted on December 27, 2012 by Monica Valentinelli
Available at Amazon.com
James Herbert is a horror writer who hails from the U.K. He’s been compared to Steven King and, for the first time, his work is available stateside. The novel I read, ASH, is a reprint through Tor Books.
Herbert is a multi-novelist with almost two dozen books out in the wild. (Sadly, the author does not have an official website, or I’d link to it for you so you could see his bibliography of published works.) This is the first time I’ve read Herbert’s work; this type of story is more my fare than a continual stream of blood, guts, and gore. ASH begins with a mystery and a haunted castle. The main character, David Ash, is a ghost hunter and parapsychologist who works for the Psychical Research Institute. His abilities give him an edge and we, the reader, find out more about them as the story progresses.
In many ways, Herbert reinvents the meaning of “haunted castle” in this book. Layers of secrets upon secrets twist and turn into winding conspiracies in and around Comraich Castle. Between the many staff members, like Senior Nurse Rachel Krantz, and the castle’s notorious “clientele,” there is no end to the horrors (or surprises) lurking here.
David’s job is not to worry about the real life conspiracies here (a fact that often gets him into trouble) but to uncover the hows and whys of a mysterious death — a ghostly crucifixion of an inmate. I felt this conflicted motivation was fairly realistic and gave the character a grittier aura; because Ash is supposed to be confined to one path, his curiosity often gets the better of him. Only, some of David’s questions intersect into the deepening mystery of the haunted castle, taking him to dark places that he barely survives.
My favorite character, hands down, was not David — but Cedric Twigg, a dying assassin. His story, along with a few others than weave into the main plot, really brought out a sense of horror. Here was a man who could not be redeemed (nor was he seeking it) but, by the end of the story I found myself rooting for him, the lesser of two evils.
The omnipresent conspiracies that are part and parcel to Comraich Castle provide ASH with a geo-political backdrop that spans the globe. These prey upon the story, playing around with what you think about [insert evil dictator or world leader] here. Are there people in the world scarier than the ghosts? Are they (the living) always worth saving? Maybe, maybe not. The emotional impact of the political story arc was a little lost on me since I live in the U.S.; foreign policy isn’t tops on our twenty-four hour news cycle’s list of “must see” reporting. Certain references, like the Queen, don’t have that emotional gut punch for me — even though I’m familiar with how the structure works. I feel that Herbert writes both aspects into the story (e.g. horrible, terrible world leader conspiracy and the machinations of British government) as a great way to appeal to more than one audience. I liked the politics, when present, because it added more teeth to the story. However, I also liked the straight up thrill ride as ASH explores more and more of the sprawling castle and its grounds.
Masterfully-written, both male and female characters are extremely diverse and unique. My only criticism is that I didn’t like the relationship between Delphine and Ash — I just didn’t buy her naivete. Mind you, part of that comes from personal preference moreso than the way Herbert designed her; the other is that I found their relationship to be distracting to me. I wanted to know more about the castle and the Inner Circle and didn’t care much about the staff — other than to discover how they played into the overall mystery.
Was I scared? I did have nightmares one night, so if that’s any indication then Herbert gave me quite a fright. However, like all satisfying horror stories, it concludes in a way that leaves you begging for more.
If you like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or other authors in a hard-nosed almost “noir” vein, then James Herbert’s ASH will be a great addition to your collection of terrifyingly good paranormal investigative mysteries.
Review by Monica Valentinelli