The Survivor (1977) James Herbert

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A 747 crashes down near Eton and all passengers and crew are lost. All, except for Keller the co-pilot, who miraculously walks away from the crash site unharmed with no recollection of what caused the crash. In his quest to remember he turns to priests and psychics while the ghosts of the dead roam the village green. Soon enough the townspeople are caught in James Herbert’s familiar episodic format where every death scene is a minor biography of the victim.

The Survivor was Herbert’s third offering and he was clearly trying to extricate himself from the effective but limited format that made his first two novels a success. Does he manage it? Not entirely, since he keeps slipping into the old habit every other chapter. The chapters with Keller trying to find out what happened work very well until the very end, but the episodic death scenes feel forced, with the spirits of the dead lashing out at random people who have nothing to do with anything. There’s some undeniably neat horror there, such as a wife slowly poisoning her gay husband, but the scenes are so disparate with all the fat school kids and the vicars that they barely stick together.

But whenever Herbert breaks free of the format, he’s doing a good job. The crash, the introduction of Keller and some of the horror, such as when Hobbs the psychic mauls himself, are a long way from The Rats. The Survivor isn’t quite the departure Herbert probably hoped it would be; his next one, Fluke, about a man reincarnated as a dog, on the other hand, would probably be a step too far.

Generally speaking The Survivor is vintage 70s Herbert, quick-paced, well-written horror that introduces supernatural elements to his oeuvre (The Rats and The Fog having derived from science fiction). That transition is seamless, with Herbert getting the mood and the atmosphere spot on. It’s also still a slim volume, the bloat would come later. The resolution of the story, the mundane reason for the crash, is, however, a major letdown, a dull explanation that shouldn’t possibly have taken so long for the investigators to figure out.

The Survivor is a noble attempt, but whereas The Rats and The Fog were direct, merciless double punches on the reader’s nose, The Survivor is confused about itself, what it wants to be and where it wants to go, much like Keller the titular protagonist. There is progress, however, and the novel does loudly declare that Herbert would later be much more than just a one-trick-pony.

*** (3/5)

The Magic Cottage (1986) by James Herbert

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The old, quaint cottage of the title is the opposite of the Money Pit in that it actually repairs itself and heals small animals to boot. Having come far from the quick-paced fireworks of The Rats or The Fog, The Magic Cottage finds Herbert in a more eloquent but no less effective mode.

A couple, guitarist Mike and illustrator Midge, purchase the old Gramarye house out in the country after its previous owner, old Flora, kicks the bucket. The house is in a very bad condition but somehow very appealing to Midge, so money (lack of which is resolved, should we say, magically?) and keys exchange hands. The couple hires renovators to fix the myriad problems, only for the repairmen to discover there’s not much to repair. Small things begin to occur, an injured bird heals overnight, shadows lurk on the outskirts of the house and Mike has hallucinatory experienses in the round room, a large room that happens to be, you guessed it, round. Also, their next door neighbours reveal themselves to be affable cultists led by a nice-mannered American, but of course being cultists they are out for blood, or at least the land the house stands on. The battle for English real estate is on.

Herbert knocks it out of the park with the narrator, Mike. Mike’s voice is smart, but not too smart, his reactions to the events unfolding around him realistic and relatable. He’s not a manly hero, most of the time he’s stumbling around like any of us would, even when he nobly takes on a group of punks accosting some of the younger cultists early in the novel. The cultists aren’t badly drawn either, coming across as sensible folks, as cultists always do, I guess, before their masks fall off.

It’s the narration that keeps the novel going, even when the plot itself stumbles towards the end as it becomes wrapped in theories of what magic is (probably realising this, Herbert has the narrator laugh uncontrollably at some of the mumbojumbo spouted by the head cultist). The Magic Cottage isn’t a major horror novel, there’s barely any horror in it, not to mention Herbert’s trademark gore, but it’s a pleasant, well-written little novel in a wonderful setting that slowly unwraps its secrets and delivers where it counts.

**** (4/5)

Haunted by James Herbert

hauntedA skeptical ghost hunter goes on a mission in Haunted, a 1988 novel by James Herbert. Arriving with some emotional baggage of his own, the ghost hunter soon discovers that ghosts are real – and that they want vengeance.

It’s the first appearance of Herbert’s ghost hunter David Ash, who would go on to further adventures in The Ghosts of Sleath (1994) and Ash (Herbert’s last novel, 2012). Ash believes in natural explanations, that all apparitions and similar phenomena can be explained by drafts, leaks and other such faults found in old houses… and the rats, the rats in the walls, perhaps?

Invited to Edbrook Hall by the three Mariell siblings, Ash’s investigations soon take a sour turn as he glimpses a girl in white around the premises, supposedly a ghost of the family’s long-dead younger sister. Revelations follow revelations, and in the end even Ash’s own family history comes into play.

At a mere 228 pages Haunted is a quick read. Herbert keeps the chapters short and his language blunt. The otherwise effective narrative is interrupted by two jarring flashbacks that would’ve probably been more effective as a prologue. Incidentally, that’s exactly how they were handled in the movie adaptation of the story (1995).

Ultimately it’s a ridiculously far-fetched tale, even for a ghost story. The big twist itself is great; it’s the motivation for the events that is glaringly beyond belief. Herbert’s writing saves a lot, but whereas his sentences are brisk, sharp and clear, the plot is a convoluted, murky mess.

The movie adaptation from 1995 adds some story and makes it all a bit sexier, but both versions follow the same basic outline.

** (2/5)

The Rats by James Herbert

RatsnovelThe titular rodents attack in The Rats (1974), the first novel by British horror stalwart James Herbert. Both a classic of the genre and surprisingly modern for its time, The Rats rises above common B-movie trappings due to the quality of Herbert’s writing. It’s not Shakespeare, of course, but writing good pulp horror doesn’t require a bard, it calls for a different sort of writer.

The tale is set in the familiar mold of H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds (1898); a singular event blooms into a society-wide calamity, all the while observed through the eyes of one unassuming everyman character. Here it’s Harris, a teacher, who learns of the beasts when his young student is bitten by one. More attacks occur with increasing violence, first it’s children, then outcasts of the society, finally everybody.

Herbert fleshes out each victim before passing them on to the rodents. The small vignettes burst with details, painting a cinematic tableau of 1970s London. Herbert keeps things short and sweet, recognising that the readers are not here for a social treatise. There’s just enough to make the victims interesting, then it’s off to the rats they go.

The rats themselves are a seething mass of fur and claw, overcoming their victims by their sheer numbers. There’s a splash of eco-horror in the story; common London sewer rats get supercharged thanks to another, possibly mutated larger breed brought to the UK secretly from New Guinea. These big bad rats are portrayed with human qualities, they often stare at their victims and seem to anticipate their moves.

The attacks are vicious. Babies, moviegoers, animals at a zoo, all fall prey to gnawing teeth and gripping claw. A particularly impressive sequence of events takes place at an underground station, told from the viewpoint of several characters. First it’s a man on the platform, then a station worker, then people on a passing train, then the station master. With each changing viewpoint Herbert ups the ante. The reader knows what’s going to happen, but the joy is in discovering how Herbert pulls it off. The Rats might seem deadly serious on the surface, but inside it’s all fun.

The Rats launched a fruitful career for James Herbert. In the eighties, the novel itself spawned a movie and even a computer game. It also made horror stories about animal attacks popular – the familiar formula keeps reappearing through the 70s and the 80s, only the animals change. Herbert himself followed up on the furry creatures in the sequels The Lair (1979) and Domain (1984). However, as a standalone original The Rats is unsurpassed. Its strength is that it’s exactly what it says on the cover, a story about rats. Herbert works within very tight limits, but within those limits everything is primed to perfection. There’s a beautiful simplicity to a novel that sticks to its strengths with such tenacity, such single-minded purpose. If any book can survive a nuclear apocalypse, it’s probably The Rats.

***** (5/5)