The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert
Published by Pan Books (PanMcMillan) 2006
James Herbert is held with a great deal of respect in the UK: there’s quite a few horror readers out there who were weaned on the author’s The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975) from the 1970’s.
Since then (and twenty odd books later) Herbert’s current reputation is, well... odd. There’s been a few books that readers haven’t been too favourable of, and it seems that Herbert’s reputation as ‘Britain’s answer to Stephen King’ has not turned out the way many predicted it would. He sells very well, and yet whereas many general readers may recognise Mr King’s name, I doubt they would know James’.
So this is an interesting one for me. Having not really read any Herbert myself for about twenty five years, this most recent book (though a new book, his first for six years, is due imminently) shows both the strengths and weaknesses that may have led to this frustration.
The Secret of Crickley Hall is basically a haunted house story, in the same manner as, say, Shirley Jackson’s The Legend of Hill House or Richard Matheson’s Hell House.
The Caleigh family decide to move away from London for a while, following the disappearance of Gabriel and Eve’s five-year-old son Cam, a year ago. American husband Gabe thinks that Eve could do with a rest after her near-breakdown and the two remaining children, Loren and Cally, agree.
The family move to Crickley Hall, left empty after a couple of years. Though a large house in a seemingly-charming rural area, people, even renters, don’t seem to want to stay long. Soon after moving in, the family notice odd things around the hall: glimpses of ‘something’ moving along corridors, the family dog’s reluctance to be inside the house, the child’s swing in the garden that seems to move without a breeze, little puddles of water as if made by children’s footprints on the stairs....
And the point that it is so obviously a haunted house tale may be the issue. The creepiness here is highlighted from almost the first page as ‘odd some-things happen’. This happens so immediately and so clearly that my inner voice soon began to question: if things are that bad, why don’t you just leave?, but Herbert’s characters listen to none of my advice and soldier on, for the good of the children, the spouse, the family.
Now I realise that a reader should realise just by picking up the book that it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. Some readers will have bought it just because it promises, no, it is expected that that will happen.
The book however fits too many clichés. Whilst a reader can feel slightly comforted in knowing what’s going to happen next, that all the pieces are falling into place, some may feel that it is just too much ‘something we’ve read before’.
This déjà-vu was re-emphasised when we have the arrival of Lili Peel, a local psychic, who, when brought in by Eve, definitely feels presences. Reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s Eleanor Vance, Lili picks up on the presence of children and a darker, more malignant adult who seems to be stopping them from moving on. There’s a lot of filling in of back history as we read: the children were war orphans, kept in the hall when evacuated there in 1943. They were kept under the harsh regime by a brother-and-sister pairing of Augustus and Magda Cribben, whose punishments usually involved liberal use of the cane. A flood from the underground river there seems to have drowned Augustus and the children, but as the story continues, we find out other reasons.
It is quite nice to read something so ‘English’, though it tends to pander to the clichés rather than the reality. I did get the impression that the lead male character was an American for no other reason that it is something some readers (or target audiences!) would want – it covers a certain dynamic. And that is unfair, perhaps, but it can’t be a good thing when the inner cynic makes itself known so quickly.
Some of this Herbert clearly recognises himself: there’s a point where the family go to the local village where the folk there fit every horror staple you can think of: ancient local handyman with knowledge, busty barmaid, colloquial barman, stoic residents... even Gabe notices it when the family visit to the Barnaby Inn, in that sort’ve “Hey, this is like a horror movie!” kind of way. (Reminder - First rule of Hobbit’s writing: never, NEVER self-reference – it destroys the reader’s sense of disbelief.) There’s touches of other horror here: the interior monologue of a major character is like Anthony Perkins at the end of the film Psycho, to the point where some of the dialogue is near-identical.
The book is, at over 600 pages, too long. A shorter, tauter narrative would have kept the sense of unease going longer than it did. However, in this version, events are drawn out and recapped, mused on and deliberated, to the point where the tale moves from exposition to padding.
To its credit, the build-up to the climax is unrelenting. Even though it’s pretty clear to the reader that what’s going to happen isn’t good, Herbert keeps piling things on, just to make sure, until the ending. And the last part of the book was a real page turner, even when you thought you know where it was going.
Some readers will draw comfort from the fact that you get here pretty much what the reader expects. It’s done well enough and with enough skill to keep those pages turning. However, there will be others that will feel disappointed that there’s nothing here they’ve not read previously.
A book of conflicting results ultimately, then. The book delivers what is expected: it’s a solidly entertaining novel, logically written through to a satisfactory conclusion. But, for me, that’s all it does. The ending was pretty much what was expected, and fairly easy to work out from the beginning. Many will enjoy this combination of all the elements that make a haunted house tale, but I was disappointed that it was so obvious. There are others out there that are as good, if not better – I think I would recommend Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Stephen King before this one, as they leave more to remember afterwards.
The Secret of Crickley Hall passes the time, but disappoints at the end.
The book has been made into a BBC serial, due for transmission later this year.
Mark Yon, August 2012.
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