The Secret of Crickley Hall
by James Herbert
Review by John Berlyne
Macmillan Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1405005203
Date: 06 October, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In my review of James Herbert's novel, Nobody True back in our September 2003 issue, I wrote of the author's crucial and formative influence on my youthful reading. Herbert and Iain (M) Banks over all others, were the two authors whose early works I read and re-read time and again during my teens. Eventually, of course, my reading tastes widened and my palate developed, and so nowadays it's always interesting to read contemporary works by Herbert and Banks and to consider how both their writing and my reading has changed over the years.
The Secret of Crickley Hall is the latest of James Herbert's spine-chilling horror stories to hit the book stores, part of a long pedigree of books that stretch back to the seventies. In that time, Herbert has sold consistently well, but he's never really been recognised by the genre luminaries - no Bram Stocker awards, no International Horror Guild recognition. Why is this, I wonder?
Certainly James Herbert has been at this game a long time - and it shows. By this I mean that Herbert knows his market and he knows intimately how to craft a story that will give his readers exactly what they want from one of his novels. At the same time, there is a danger that with each new work it becomes harder and harder to re-invent the wheel - how does one prevent the work from appearing formulaic, with tricks and devices used so often that any surprise the reader hopes to experience in the story simply becomes nullified. In the case of Crickley Hall, which for all it's recognisable Herbert atmosphere and creepiness is a stodgy, over-long and largely predictable novel, the formula is impressively simple, but, it pains me to report, is also tiresomely clichéd.
The Caleigh family moves to the country where the father – Gabe (an American!) has taken on some freelance work, ostensibly to get his wife and two daughters out of the city. The family needs this change of scene for they are still grieving for their five-year-old son who, a year or so ago, went missing and is now presumed dead. Not by the mother though – Eve Caleigh (who blames herself for the boy's disappearance) clings to a shred of hope that he still lives.
Given this set up, where else would Gabe install his family but in a big, isolated country house with a seriously creepy atmosphere and an equally dark history? Way to go Gabe! To signal a touch of this creepiness, Herbert has the family dog unsettled by the atmosphere. (Pets can sense things, after all.) Add to the mix a humble, hoary old gardener archetype, complete with an ooo-aaar accent and immediately there is a device to relate in long expository flashbacks, the terrible goings-on alleged to have taken place at Crickley Hall during the war. "It was them oooorrrphans, see. Murrrrduuurrred, they was!" (I paraphrase.)
It's not hard then, even as you're reading it, to envisage how the story pans out – the house itself is clearly haunted. The family is put through a number of increasingly unsettling night terrors (banging doors, creepy shadows, cold spells, dancing lights &etc - pretty standard ghostly stuff) and whilst the wife pegs everything as supernatural because, due to the probable death of the aforementioned son, she is vulnerable, the husband shows his vulnerability by remaining resolutely grounded in rational explanation. Herbert drafts in a psychic (called upon by the wife) as a device to ratchet up the tensions between the couple, but the psychic herself is just another insipid and clichéd background artist, reluctant though compelled to help and recovering from an experience at "bad séance".
Have no doubt that The Secret of Crickley Hall is creepy as hell in places, but overall it's disappointing too. I remain a hugely respectful fan of James Herbert's work and in this latest novel it's clear that he's still got it – whatever it actually is. I guess the question though is whether or not it is an "it" I am still interested in reading.
Taking my own nostalgia for times gone by out of the equation though, The Secret of Crickley Hall is inescapably a creakingly slow and ponderous read and about one hundred and fifty pages too darn long. To my mind, it's a haunted house tale that could easily have been written any time during the last thirty or forty years – only the occasional contemporary cultural reference gives it a feeling of now. As a chunky chiller it will serve to entertain a wide audience who will enjoy the easy style the author continues to successfully employ in his work – but that can also be interpreted as catering to the lowest common denominator. This is not ground-breaking stuff - not like The Rats was all those years ago. Rather it is a pallid affair, deemed, I suppose, to be what the wider UK horror market wants to read, and probably accurately so. This in turn may well exemplify exactly why the UK horror market is so depressed right now. The Secret of Crickley Hall has made me a little depressed too.