John C Adams Reviews 'Haunted'

Haunted by James Herbert

(Hodder and Stoughton, 1988)

Today's 'Way Back Whensday' is the second of three posts in my weeklong special here at John C Adams Reviews on the theme of ghosts.

James Herbert was something of a fixture in horror during the Seventies, when he made a big impression on the scene with novels such as 'The Rats' and 'The Fog'. They were all pretty gory stuff, and I grew up on them. This novel, his fourteenth, focused more on the psychological side of horror with a fresh and fascinating take on the haunted manor house narrative.

David Ash is at the thoroughly sceptical end of psychical researchers, but his work is excellent and he's always busy. He receives instructions to visit Edbrook, a manor house inhabited by the Mariell family, who report ghostly phenomenon in their ancient home and want it investigated. Almost as soon as he arrives he realises that nothing is as it seems. Simon, Robert and Christina are adult siblings, their parents have died when they were still very young. They've been raised by their nanny, Miss Webb.

Ash is pretty cynical about ghosts on the whole, in part because his previous cases have revealed a human source rather than the supernatural. In particular, he was involved with a case where a church was apparently subject to demonic possession only to discover that it was the vicar staging the incidents. Ash absolutely refuses to accept that paranormal events are genuine, but the reader senses early on that the hauntings at Edbrook may be real and that the hero's worldview is about to suffer some revision. Via the flashbacks, the reader experiences enough of the previous events at the church to see how Ash typically handles a case with hardboiled professionalism that cuts through the misdirection and exposes as fraud claims of supernatural activity. But we also sense that this case will be different.

The psychological underpinnings of Ash's personal views are explored very sensitively by Herbert in a further series of flashback scenes that show him traumatised by a childhood incident where he nearly drowned and in which his sister died. He is haunted by her loss, not because he was responsible for her death but because she was such an evil older sister to him that he struggles with guilt at the complex feelings he has about her passing.

I loved the slow pace with which the truth about Edbrook was revealed and how this was linked to Ash's childhood trauma. There were many twists and turns along the way. The ending was a final twist of the best kind, where you could absolutely see how it had happened without being predictable. The whole experience was a very satisfying read.

This wasn't quite like the shorter, bloodthirsty earlier novels that made James Herbert famous and hugely successful as a writer. While 'Haunted' was still pretty horrorful, it had a gentler, ruminating feel as it reflected upon haunted house narratives, one of horror's best-loved subgenres. I love how Herbert's writing matured in that way over the decades.

David Ash was one of Herbert's favourite creations, and the hero of 'Haunted' appears in a sequel, 'Ash' which follows his career to a discreet and secretive luxury nursing home in the Highlands of Scotland.

On Friday I'll be posting the last of the three posts this week all on the theme of 'Ghosts'. It'll be a 'Weekend Watchers' review of the sitcom 'Ghosts' from the BBC, featuring the talented team from 'Horrible Histories' in a family comedy about ghosts living in an old manor house. See you then!

In the meantime, the comments section is open.

Many thanks to photographers Shahzin Shajid, Joshua Sukoff and Roman Nguyen for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

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