The Secret of Crickley Hall
By James Herbert. Hardback, Pan Macmillan, £17.99. ISBN: 1-4050-0520-3
‘From the darkness let the innocent speak so that the guilty may know their shame.’
James Herbert is not only Britain’s No.1 bestselling author of chilling fiction, he is also one of our most popular novelists in general, whose books have sold in their millions, and have been translated into 35 other languages. Little wonder, then, that the release of another book from him marks something of a highlight in any imaginative fiction fan’s diary. And this one more than most. Delayed so that Herbert could get the story exactly how he wanted it, we’ve had something like a year’s wait from the slated release date – building up the tension as much as he does in his stories. So, was it worth this long wait for The Secret of Crickley Hall? I’ll tell you after I’ve set the scene a little…
When the Caleigh family move into abandoned Crickley Hall, located in the usually beautiful countryside of Devon – near the harbour village of Hollow Bay, to be precise – they were hoping to make something of a fresh start. After their son, Cameron, went missing (an agonising situation for any parents, not knowing whether he was alive or dead) Gabe and Eve tried their best to get on with their lives. So when Gabe’s job brings him here, he thinks the change of scenery will do the whole family good. Their first clue that something isn’t right is the difference between the outside of the hall and the inside, like it was designed by two separate architects. Then there’s the creepy upper floor that was obviously once a dormitory, not to mention the circular well in the middle of the cellar.
The next giveaway is that their daughters, Loren and Cally, begin to hear noises (Swish-Thack!) and eventually see things – especially at night. If that wasn’t enough, the family dog runs off too, not the best of signs. More information is gleamed from the groundskeeper, local Percy Judd, who informs them that Crickley was built in the early 1900s and used by the government to house evacuees (all orphans) in World War II. But a terrible tragedy occurred when every single one of the eleven children died in a great storm and flooding one fateful day. Upon checking the graveyard at St Marks, they find the overgrown plot of the man who was their charge – Augustus Cribben – but only nine graves for the children.
As it transpires, Cribben and his sister were less than the perfect guardians, but what exactly happened to the children on that night, and Percy’s old flame, a teacher called Nancy, remains a total mystery. As the supernatural events escalate, drawing in both a psychic called Lili - who has suffered a tragedy of her own in the past - and ghost hunter Gordon Pyke, determined to debunk the idea that there might be ghosts active in Crickley, the story heads towards a conclusion that mirrors those events back in the 1940s. Will any of them find peace ever again?
Not to keep you in suspense any longer, the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this review is yes. Hell, yes. This book sees the welcome return of preoccupations evidenced in Herbert’s novels The Survivor, Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath, with a bit of The Magic Cottage and Others thrown in for good measure. Ironically, the movie this most closely resembles in terms of tone and mood is The Others, which itself owed a huge debt to Haunted. The children in danger theme is always guaranteed to evoke emotion in the reader, and here you have not only the two Caleigh girls, but also the little ones who passed away during the flood.
There are any number of spine-tingling set pieces to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck – an old spinning top brings on visions of the dead children, Loren being attacked in her bed and struck with the ‘punishment stick’, the swing attached to the tree outside growing out of control while Cally is on it, two bullies from Loren’s school getting more than they bargained for when they break in – but there are also some deep, and very real issues at the core of the book: like the different ways in which Gabe and Eve deal with the absence of their son (recalling scenes from the excellent Don’t Look Now); and the universal questions of what lies beyond death, and whether any of us will be able to rest until justice is done. Yes, some will no doubt compare the bits with the well to The Ring, but this is such a different story, and - I’m sticking my neck out here - infinitely more disturbing, though to say any more would be to give the game away.
Speaking of which, there are also the requisite Herbert twists near the finale, leading to a break-neck paced and satisfying conclusion. In hindsight we should be grateful the author still cares so much about his craft to take his time with the writing, if this is the evidence. A fine ghostly tale, that turns the conventions of the haunted house on its head, whilst still keeping the grand old traditions of Shirley Jackson and co. alive. Shhh…Do you wanna know a secret?
© Paul Kane
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.