Published on April 17th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
The Secret of Crickley Hall – James Herbert
I won’t deny that the last minute addition to my reading list this week was fuelled by author James Herbert’s untimely death, but I will say that it was lingering on the invisible underbelly of it.
As one of his later books and written in 2006, the Haunted house thing has been done to death and then some, to the extent of necrophilia by now. Even the newest medium of videogames exhausted the theme long before Herbert had the bright idea to jump into horror’s spitoon.
But as ever, Herbert manages to turn simplistic ideas into an engaging story and compelling read. The Secret of Crickley Hall is set in Devon in a secluded house located in a gorge near a small quite town. A small family, two daughters and Gabe and Eve, whose son went missing the previous year have started to rent the large house while Gabe is working locally. Trouble soon starts a-brewing when the family dog up and leaves and the daughters are terrified at night by the odd sounds and happenings from the hallways.
So pretty traditional haunty housey fare, but the treatment renders it more memorable than its peers. It’s rather hard for me to pinpoint exactly the reason why it works, or what it is that Herbert has done. Herbert is by no means a writer of technical brilliance nor does his style inherently lend itself to horror’s purpose. The premises to his stories are mostly bland and the progression isn’t exciting or unique. So why does this book… work? At all?
I think that James Herbert’s main skill lies in believable and relatable characters, once again nothing especial, but that’s the key. The characters are people we can accept without hesitation. The characters from The Rats and Lair are people without any special character traits or extravagant histories, I think that even in America that should be relatable, hence Stephen King’s declared love for Herbert’s work, in fact the title of British Stephen King is completely apt, as like King both authors have character centric horror dramas that tackle heavy themes that are easily still encounterable by the audience.
Let’s not also forget that the Haunted House genre in British Literature has been dead since Henry James, making the characters of some of England’s memorable haunted stories, largely irrelevant and polarising to modern readers. America is the home of the modern haunted house film and Japan of the haunted house game. Both countries use their specialised techniques, slasher and psychological respectively as the main drive for both the horror style and the narrative is shaped around it (or vice versa).
The main themes in Crickley are religion and child abuse, and to a lesser extent casts a glaring eye on war-time Britain and the societal flaws of the era.
The thorough treatment of his themes starts with children, the young 5 year old son is missing, a horror for any parent. It deals with obviously the loss of the child and the pain that inflicts on the people around, but also the lack of knowledge of where the child is, this means no closure for the parent and also preys on the general fear of the unknown, the blame of the loss on the parent and the guilt they would obviously feel as well as fear of future failures and the rest of the family’s (and by extension, society’s) perception on them and their inaction and finally also that the reason for their child’s disappearance is never known so there is still a possibility of someone wandering around nicking kiddies, and this is just the missing son.
The children of Crickley Hall and their untimely deaths during a flood in 1943 and the children currently living with their parents at the hall are where the main focus of horror lies, like with the missing son, Herbert manages to incorporate other elements of horror aside from the fear for children in with it, which is good for people with hearts of obsidian like me, because there’s nothing worse than reading horror that’s afraid of itself, you never get that with Herbert, he had a sense of direction and never shies with the aggressive approach to some hard subjects. He lets you know that you DON’T know where the limit is. There’s nowhere he wouldn’t take you.
This is especially true for the religious themes, it’s not a vindictive attack or even an appraisal on Christianity, but it does use common and known issues that some Christians are known to experience as a plot device, such as Religious mania and self-punishment, as well as abuse of power.
I come from a non-religious family so the concept of religion scares me greatly, particularly the kind of twisted logic that Herbert explores in this novel set in a small town where religion seems to thrive most often.
I guess this was even less of a review than usual, but as mentioned the development of characters and themery is the main attraction, not something easily illustrated in a simple review. It’s quite odd that this is the third thing I’ve written about in the past week with “secret” in the title, this being the only one worthy of sporting the name.
The book is a lengthy 620 pages and contained a significantly less amount of sex than I expected and have seen in previous Herbert novels which I found to be pleasantly gratuitous. However there were a couple of bits where I found myself surveying the bus to ensure I didn’t have a conspirator.
I probably wouldn’t recommend this to a first time Herbert reader as its refrained style could give the wrong impression about a writer who more frequently lies on the glory side of the line when it comes to horror fiction, but for fans of horror and his previous works, it’s a great read with some great concepts of paranormality and scares in.