The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert
Suppose you were going to plan the writing of a ghost story set in a “haunted” house, there are an almost inexhaustible supply of possible details you could include. It would all start with the house itself. It would have to be in a fairly isolated location. Perhaps the physical approach should be limited, say by having to pass over a narrow foot bridge. Ah, then there could be a racing, not to say roaring, river running through a narrow gorge. There could be forbidding cliffs. The whole atmosphere would have to be filtered through a lot of rain. Even when the rain ceases, there would have to be an air of dampness contributing to a general lack of a welcome as you enter the house. It will feel chilly. The lights will not work reliably. There will be a cellar door that’s found open even though the occupants are careful to ensure they always lock it. In the cellar, there will be a well that drops down to the river below. Perhaps there will also be an old mangle and other things that look strange in the dark — not including the generator that’s supposed to kick in when the lights fail, of course. There may be odd small pools of water on the floor of the main room in the hall and climbing the stairs, suggestive of footprints. Noises will disturb the quiet of the house. A swing in the garden may seem to be occupied, perhaps by a child. Animals will shun the place. No-one will stay there long. Even the ladies who come in once a month to keep the place reasonably clean prefer to work in pairs. Perhaps a local will tell the newcomers something of the history of the house. A local psychic may be persuaded to offer advice as a general sense of menace begins to affect the newcomers.
And that’s us just getting our imaginations warmed up. When we want to make it all really spooky, there can be so many ways in which we can hint more than show. The more vague the descriptions the better. It allows the readers’ imaginations to fill in the gaps.
I confess to starting off The Secret of Crickley Hall thinking it was overly ambitious of James Herbert to believe he could sustain such a story for more than 600 pages. Indeed, it’s all meticulously catalogued as the point of view shifts from one member of the family to another and then to include the psychic and others. There’s such a lot of detail and, in a sense, a relentless pursuit of the next hint or event as the days slowly pass. Yet, for all my misgivings, I ended up hooked. Yes, James Herbert is somewhat ticking the boxes of all the standard elements in a classic ghost story but, for all there’s a certain lack of originality, there’s some remarkable craftsmanship on show. The devil, they say, is in the details and by their accumulated weight and effective deployment, they slowly build tension as it becomes obvious what’s happening. It may not be the devil, but it certainly proves very dangerous.
So this is a book nicely balancing the supernatural with a horror element. The background story of the children evacuees during WWII is not overdone and there’s an interesting subtext of bigotry and racism added in. Set against this, the modern family who move into the house are struggling with their own tragedy. In a way, this creates a theme of guilt. One year before the story starts, the mother’s failure to stay alert allowed the disappearance of her son. In the 1940s, locals in the village near the Hall failed to protect the children when they were at risk. Even today, some in the village want the past covered up. One old man overlaps in time. He was young when the children arrived and was attracted to a young woman who later came as a teacher. He’s older when the two children in the new family arrive. Fortunately, he likes dogs. There are other survivors from earlier times who will contribute to unravelling the “secret”. It’s a rather clever secret, particularly as it applies to the eleventh child, adding quite an adult theme to the underlying relationships. As always in books like The Secret of Crickley Hall, James Herbert milks the climax. Personally, I think it takes slightly too long for the husband to get back from London but, if we are to get all the secret out in the open, everyone must be allowed their say.
Overall, this is a fine example of a ghost story morphing into a modern horror story set largely in a haunted house. It’s well worth reading in a macabre, fun kinda way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.