"The Secret of Crickley Hall" Book Review
Written by James Herbert
2011, 683 pages, Fiction
Released on July 19th, 2011
With the first anniversary of their son's disappearance approaching, Gabe decides to take a temporary job away from their abode so the stress of their missing family member won't be as strong if they are away from their home. So he packs up his wife Eve and their two daughters, Cally and Lauren, and the group sets up house at Crickley Hall — a spooky old place with a sordid history in Hollow Bay. Almost as soon as they move in, strange things start to happen. The dog freaks out every time he's near the house, a cellar door refuses to stay closed, one of the daughters sees a ghost. You know, the normal things expected out of an old house where tragedy has struck. And like most (white) people, Gabe tries to rationalize all of the strange goings on, and by the time he makes a final decision to get the hell out of Dodge, it's far too late.
One of the fantastic things about reviewing is you get introduced to names that you otherwise might not have. Sometimes it's a director, sometimes it's an actor and sometimes, in this case, it's an author. Writer James Herbert is one I had not read any work from prior to The Secret of Crickley Hall. I had certainly heard of him before, as he's pretty prolific, but as far as reading any of his novels, well he's one who has slipped by me. All I can say is shame on me.
The Secret of Crickley Hall is a beast of a book, coming in at 633 pages. That in itself doesn't bother me. Hell, I read the unabridged The Stand around once a year and that sucker comes in at 1400 pages plus. However, when tackling an author I've never read, I generally don't jump into the deep end. I start with a short story or a smaller novel. Yet I'm extremely happy that I was introduced to Herbert with The Secret of Crickley Hall because he impressed the hell out of me.
At its core, The Secret of Crickley Hall is a haunted house story; nothing more, nothing less. One thing I've noticed in my experience in reading horror is the ability for an author who can capture the creepy atmosphere of a haunted house is rare. Doors slamming on their own just translates better on celluloid than in a book. Same with a ghostly image floating down a hallway. However, Herbert has zero problem in creating an environment you would just rather not be in. From the moment the family arrives to the Crickley Hall, Herbert slams into your head that this house is bad news. The day is gloomy, the clouds are spitting rain and the goddamn dog is doing everything it can to not enter this structure. From the first chapter, I knew that Herbert was going to force me to be a guest at a home that I didn't necessarily want anything to do with…and I would like it.
In addition to expertly laying out the groundwork for Casa de Muerto, Herbert writes characters that you truly care for. Gabe and wife Eve have been through a tremendous amount in the past year, what with the disappearance of their youngest child. So not only do they have to battle with whatever the hell is going on in Crickley Hall, they are dealing with something I'm fairly certain no parent out there wants to deal with. Throw in a variety of other characters that have knowledge of the house's history, be it first hand or hearsay, the book is chock full of interesting people that you are eager to learn more from.
If there's one slight issue with the book, it's the way Herbert handles the necessity of exposition. You need to know who is haunting the house and why. I can get behind that need. However, Herbert is not subtle with it, and he flashes back often. There is little-to-no segue between present and past. At one point, one of the characters is sitting at a bar and reminisces on — but in a novel it feels cheap. To Hebert's credit, though, he does acknowledge the numerous times the book flashes back when, in the final scene of exposition, the character rambling on says, "Ah, I can tell I'm boring you. But decent exposition takes time." Admittedly, I laughed at that. It's as if it wasn't coming from the character saying it, but Herbert himself.
Yet where Herbert slips in telling a back story, he more than succeeds in keeping the book grounded in reality, all things considered. Gabe has a scientific mind, and is quickly willing to accept any sort of answer to what is going on in his temporary home, even if it is a far-fetched explanation. But even he comes to realize that there are things you just can't explain. In addition, there is a rather brutal part that is just not fair, but is necessary in not just furthering the plot along, but also to close an open conflict that needs to be dealt with before the novel's end. The way this particular event is handled (and I'm intentionally keeping it vague as to avoid spoilers) is extremely well done because it's true to life. I hand it to Herbert for avoiding a happy-go-lucky we-all-live-happily-ever-after ending.
Exposition issues aside, though, The Secret of Crickley Hall is a damn enjoyable journey into a haunted house. It has just the right amount of atmosphere and dread injected into it that you feel for both the original victims of Crickley Hall, as well as the potential victims that just moved in. The writing is solid, the characters believable and the story not so far-fetched, even if you don't believe in haunted houses. Give it a read.