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.