The Ghosts of Sleath

16 Dec

Just as Stephen King is regarded as the best and most popular living American horror writer, James Herbert is arguably the finest living British author in the horror genre. A contemporary of King’s, Herbert also made his debut at around the same time – the mid-seventies – with his horror novel Rats. A chilling disaster novel featuring giant, man-eating rats, Herbert’s first book is very different from many of the later books which cemented his reputation at the forefront of supernatural fiction. Today, he is better known for supernatural scares rather than the science fiction horror of Rats and his other early novels, The Fog, Lair and Domain. The Survivor and Shrine, for example, are ghost stories, whilst in Haunted Herbert introduced the psychic investigator and ghost hunter David Ash, who was later to reappear in The Ghosts of Sleath. Other novels by Herbert could almost be classed as straight thrillers, with few traditional horror elements. Books that can be included in this category are The City, Sepulchre and Spear, all of which include conspiracy theories or unsolved mysteries at their heart. All of this demonstrates that Herbert, like King, is actually a hugely versatile as well as talented writer, not restricted by genre labels. Another thing that Herbert has in common with King, as the recent BBC adaptation of his novel The Secret of Crickley Hall shows, is that he is fast becoming the darling of film and TV.

Herbert released a new novel virtually every year from 1974 to 1988 and has remained reasonably prolific ever since then, perhaps because, in his own words, he is “very insecure about being a writer” and feels that he must write in order to avoid falling out of the habit. It is the reading public that have benefited from this impressive work ethic, and Herbert’s books regularly top the bestseller lists. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to generate strong emotional responses – not always limited to fear – in the readers of his works. He is also a tremendously cinematic writer, able to describe characters, places and scenes in graphic detail. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Haunted, Rats and The Survivor have all been turned into feature films. Herbert novels are always hugely atmospheric – whether it is the devastated streets of post-apocalyptic London in Rats or the brooding menace of Crickley Hall, Herbert excels in injecting life into some of the darkest and most disturbing settings in fiction. As a reader you are hooked from the outset, drawn through to the story’s ultimate revelation – one that will usually, needless to say, stay to chill your mind long after the book has been laid aside!

Picking out the very best Herbert novels is rather like selecting your favourite ice cream – all of them tend to be delicious in their own way. In Shrine, Herbert explores his Roman Catholic heritage with the story of an apparent miracle which turns out to be something much more sinister. The Spear deals with a neo-Nazi cult in Britain and an international conspiracy which includes a right-wing US general and an arms dealer (it’s basically a well-written version of one of Dan Brown’s books). ’48 is an alternative history novel set in 1948 in which the Second World War ended with the release of a devastating plague by the defeated Hitler and, like The Spear, features British characters who sympathize with the Nazis. If I had to pick a favourite Herbert novel, however, it would have to be anything involving the paranormal detective David Ash. Much-copied since, Ash has, since his introduction by Herbert in the 1988 novel Haunted, investigated haunted houses, family curses and vengeful ghosts galore. In The Ghosts of Sleath Ash discovers a terrified community in the Chiltern Hills gripped by horrors and terrorized by ghosts from the ancient village’s long history. His most recent adventure in Ash, released earlier this year, takes him to the mysterious Comraich Castle, secluded deep in the Scottish countryside, to investigate a strange, high-profile case: a man has been found crucified – in a room that was locked. Despite an intriguing premise, I have to say that Ash is not quite up to the standard of Herbert’s earlier books but, having said that, very few modern horror novels that I’ve read recently are. His early novels, at any rate, are well worth a look – whether you’re a fan of horror or not.

5 Responses to “The Ghosts of Sleath”

  1. The Paranormalist - Renae Rude December 19, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve read nothing by Herbert. I’ll remedy that in the new year.

    • anilbalan December 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      I’m sure you’ll like him 🙂

  2. Nicola Kirk December 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    I too have read Ash and I have to agree, it was an easy read, but not quite the usual rip roarer I’ve come to expect from James Herbert.

  3. Dawning December 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Hey, I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Check out my post at First Award – The Versatile Blogger Award/
    for details about what to do should you accept. Congratulations!


  1. Anibalan’s Ghost Cities: New blog post The Ghosts of Sleath « Hugh Paxton's Blog - December 16, 2012

    […] The Ghosts of Sleath […]

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