Thursday, September 6, 2012

James Herbert's "Ash" (2012) - a book review



"The World Grand Master of Horror cordially invites you to an idyllic Scottish retreat with beautiful rooms, luscious gardens, a breathtaking view... and a basement full of secrets."

I don't often write book reviews, but since "Ash" is the very latest novel by my favourite horror author, James Herbert, I thought I'd better say something about what kept me occupied for nearly two days instead of watching more DVDs.

Because "Ash" has only been available to buy for less than a week now, I'll try to avoid giving too many spoilers just in case you are less ignorant than me and still like to read books. I read the Kindle version of "Ash" because, basically, I don't like to leave the house unless I really have to. I also swore to give up collecting the hardback first editions of James Herbert's novels after how appalling "The Secret of Crickley Hall" turned out to be. I still can't believe that "The Secret of Crickley Hall" has been turned into a BBC TV miniseries which is due to be shown this year around Hallowe'en. Out of all of his books to dramatise, they certainly chose one of the weakest. I will, of course, still watch it and review it eventually.

Even the worst James Herbert books are still better than anything by Stephen "I-can't-do-endings-so-I'll-just-add-a-monster-spider-or-the-devil" King, so I was hoping that he was going to completely amaze me after not publishing anything since 2006. With all the delays, probably due to various rewrites and edits, I'd been looking forward to reading "Ash" for over a year. The same thing happened with "The Secret of Crickley Hall" so, the longer it took to appear, the more concerned I got that it was going to be another disappointment.

While definitely not as horrific as James Herbert's earlier novels such as "The Rats" or "The Fog", "Ash" still had several good moments. Unfortunately they were few and far between. The trouble was that it all came across like a YA horror novel rather than something truly terrifying for adults, and I felt like I had read most of it before. Bearing in mind that I'm one of the few who has read all of James Herbert's books as they came out over the years, the similarities to "Others" plus the "meta" references to "The Rats" at the end were a bit of a let down which most new readers wouldn't notice.

If you want to know how thoroughly I read this book, let me just tell you that there was a printing error early on with the word "table" missing the "t" at the beginning: "Pritchard didn’t rise but extended a hand across the able." It was the only one I found, so fair enough, but as with all James Herbert books, I devoured this thing and somewhat foolishly hung on every word.

Although "Ash" more than made up for the lacklustre "The Secrets of Crickley Hall", it was still overlong, kind of stupid, too far-fetched, and several chapters full of reworked conspiracy theories were unnecessary padding. The chapter involving a policewoman provided some of the most unnatural dialogue and exposition that I've ever had the misfortune to read, and its placement in the story was ill-timed. It didn't help that the most important subjects of that chapter then turned up immediately afterwards with no mystery left to who they were whatsoever. In fact, with the details then hammered home yet again for the hard of understanding, the dumbing-down was quite obnoxious.

There were even a couple of stylistic annoyances which reminded me of the earlier "'48", but I'm willing to bet that James Herbert did that for an in-joke. The biggest problem I had with "Ash" was that the whole thing seemed to be either the script for a really bad movie or a badly written parody of everything James Herbert has written before. The plot was so weak that, if I wanted to, I could write a synopsis of the entire story in one sentence and save you the trouble of reading this book at all, but I won't.

I've never liked the David Ash character or, to be completely honest, any of the main characters in James Herbert's novels. The Pan Macmillan site calls David Ash "one of James Herbert's best-loved characters" which I assume to mean that James Herbert loves that character because I don't know of anyone else who feels that way. Really, how can you love a character who is distant, often hypocritical, and whose internal monologue is a mass of inconsistent self-doubt and guilt?

The vignettes in the novels have nearly always been more interesting than the main action, but, alas, they felt censored somehow in "Ash" compared to the really raw and perverted scenes of, for example, "The Fog". Were they toned down intentionally or has James Herbert just become a lot tamer as he's become an old man? His written style certainly hasn't improved either because, if I didn't know any better, I would swear that "Ash" was a piece of fan fiction written by a twelve-year-old for other twelve-year-olds. Really, it was that bad, In fairness, most of his books had the same style, but I didn't notice when I was younger. I read most of them between the age of eight and twelve-years-old myself.

Imagine, if you will, that someone took four other James Herbert novels, namely "Others", "Sepulchre", "The Spear" and "Domain", pulled out all the pages, stuck them all back together in a random order, added a ton of boring stuff about the British Royal family, and tied it all together with the David Ash character who appeared to be a rewritten version of Kelso from "The Jonah". That's exactly how "Ash" was for me and don't even get me started on how predictable it all was. I even noticed the obligatory reference to James Herbert's wife when she appeared as the preferred physical type of a former priest/IRA member. How touching.

I did find it slightly amusing that James Herbert was so stuck for characters that he named one of them after the computer from "Family Fortunes" and created a living version of "The Visible Man" anatomy model for another. The tastelessness of the latter character's identity will undoubtedly come to bite James Herbert on the ass especially when coupled with the disrespect he showed to the Royal family in this book. I assume James Herbert only put them in because he recently got an OBE. He'll probably lose it just as quickly if the Royals ever read this guff. Not that I even care since I've never had any respect for the Royal family either.

I found "Ash" particularly revolting for other reasons. Since I love cats, it was because of the wildcat-filled chapters (55 and 56) that, lamentably, after spending most of my life as a James Herbert fan, he caused me to never want to read another of his books ever again. These chapters were almost as vile as something by Nick Sharman and definitely up there with the Mattie Devore moment from Stephen King's "Bag of Bones" which made me throw the book across the room and vow never to read another thing which that author ever writes either.

As far as scary books go, "Ash" turned out to be more like some kind of political/spy novel rather than a ghost story especially with its inclusion of a hitman who was repeatedly said to look like Donald Pleasance. The fat man in charge of Comraich Castle was, in my mind, the spitting image of Auric Goldfinger. Blofeld and Goldfinger in the same novel? This was more James Bond than James Herbert. The secret organisation with their private jets, helicopters, heavily-armed platoon of security guards, assassins, and "The Prisoner"-style retreat were hardly original. The setting just wasn't scary and the descriptions in the gorier scenes were rather tame in comparison to the overwritten descriptions of everything else.

Its ending noticeably owed more to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" as far as the main protagonists were concerned although, with three further epilogues, one reeked of contrived horror movie finales, and the truly final, more comedic scene delivered what is undoubtedly James Herbert's own message to his once loyal fans.

James Herbert has always appeared to be a very nice man in TV interviews, but ever since he made a fortune from his last great horror novels of the early '80s, the increasing contempt which he has shown for his readers through his poorly written books has been extremely disappointing.


"Ash" was released on August 30th, 2012. I don't recommend that you buy it unless you are a diehard James Herbert fan, but if you're not, by all means still go ahead and find out for yourself just how low "The World Grand Master of Horror" has sunk as a writer. With the novel currently at number two in the UK's "Bestselling Books" chart, either the marketing worked very well or British people have become very stupid and/or desperate for something new to read. What a shame.

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