Saturday, 20 April 2013

Turned to Ash

I've written about my disappointment with a James Herbert book before and so maybe I should've learned my lesson and not read another of his books.  But this time I thought it'd be difference.

I've said before that "Haunted" is one of my favourite horror books.  It's short, simple and has a rather good ghost story with very little padding.  It's subtle and interesting.  It was followed by "The Ghosts of Sleath" which wasn't dire, but certainly wasn't as good as "Haunted".  And then the third in the trilogy - "Ash".

I had high hopes.  I thought "this could be another Haunted" and so I sat down to read it.  It's a fairly large book - seven hundred or so pages.  And it was awful.  Truly awful.  Oh - just a warning - there will be spoilers in what I'm going to say below - but if that puts you off reading the book, then thank me for saving you from wasting those hours of your life...

So, the premise starts off pretty well.  A secretive organisation has a Scottish castle, miles from anywhere, and people who want to "disappear" can pay a fortune to live out their final days there.  It's a great premise, and I'm sure something really interesting could've been done with it.  But the story quickly runs away from the interesting premise by including lots of references to real life people who have disappeared or died young.  Princess Di, Hitler, Robert Maxwell, Gadaffi, Lord Lucan, ... it all got a little bit silly, to be honest.

There are three fundamental problems with the book.  The first is that it all got a bit "Dan Brown".  Of course, the prose was nowhere near as amateurish as that in a Dan Brown book (although, and I hate myself for saying this, it did come close at times...) but the whole "secret society" and "trying to explain mysteries in the real world" thing grew tiresome really pretty quickly.  About halfway through the book, the premise was almost forgotten as it became swamped in cameo appearances from real-life characters, all of whom aren't around anymore to defend themselves or sue.  It soon moved from a exploration of an interesting "what if" scenario into trying FAR too hard to make the whole thing seem plausible.  Intelligent readers are capable of willing the suspension of disbelief and going with the premise without the need to keep throwing in reference to real-life events.  If anything it made the whole thing seem less realistic...

The second issue I took with the book was that it was written more like a screenplay than a novel.  Rather than slowly unravelling a story, it jumped from set piece to set piece.  It felt as though the emphasis was on how good those scenes would look on film. Explosions.  Falling lifts.  Weapons flying through the air.  It would make a great blockbuster movie - but the dialogue would be terrible.

The final issue is maybe the most fundamental.  And maybe it is a consequence of the other two.  But the ending was terrible.  The story built and built and then about halfway through the book, it became silly.  Silly and obvious.  There was no tying up of loose ends.  There was no clever twist.  There wasn't even really a proper explanation of why the place was haunted in the first place.  It all just ended with a few explosions, the ghost of Princess Di, some spiders and a ridiculous scene with the Queen and Prince Philip.

I guess my greatest disappointment is that I know James Herbert was capable of more.  Some of his books have been fantastic, and I'm sure there was more left.  It's a tragedy that he died earlier this year.  He was one of the great horror writers and some of his books are brilliant examples of the genre.  It's just a crying shame that his final book was quite so bad.

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