Ash, by James Herbert

Ash cover

Spoliers ahead

This is the third outing for James Herbert’s parapsychologist (with a mediumistic twist) David Ash, after Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath, but apart from the odd reference to his earlier adventures it is self-contained.  Here he is sent by his organisation, the Psychical Research Institute, to a remote castle on the Scottish coast as it seems to have a severe paranormal infestation which has resulted in a gruesome death.  The castle, Comraich, is owned by a shadowy and very powerful secret organisation called the Inner Court, and is used as a luxury hotel for those individuals, such as murderers, overthrown despots, war criminals, who want the world to think they are dead.  They are people who want to disappear, including Lord Lucan, Colonel Gaddafi, and until his death (the real one rather than the one faked by pretending to fall off his boat) Robert Maxwell, and either have huge amounts of money, or sponsors who do, to enable them to live out their lives as ‘guests’, but in reality prisoners, in the castle’s hermetic luxury.  Comraich is also a research establishment, not above using the ‘guests’ as guinea pigs for its .unlicenced experiments.

Ash finds that the bad things going on around him are somewhat overdetermined: the castle harbours a whole lot of general unpleasantness.  For starters there is a curse laid by a previous owner whose family was raped, tortured and murdered because he sided with the English in war (a referendum No voter then).  EVIL is being generated in the dungeon basement containment centre where a monstrosity is confined, the lovechild of Adolf Hitler and Unity Mitford (really).  The unsavoury clientele currently resident in the castle give off bad vibes too.  On top of all that the organisation’s staff assassin has super-fast acting Parkinson’s and has decided to blow the castle up because if he doesn’t he will himself be assassinated, such being the fate of assassins who are no longer useful to the Inner Court, and anyway he will enjoy the mayhem.  To make things even worse, Ash discovers that Comraich is built on top of ley lines!  Could it get any worse?  Somehow all these factors manage to converge at the same time for no discernible reason to form the climax of the plot.

Oddly, while Ash is brought in as the expert, he is unable to do much beyond state the obvious and recommend that the castle be evacuated.  It’s frankly all a bit beyond him.  He rides the events as they spiral out of control, and much the same would have happened had he not been present.  On the plus side he hooks up with a gorgeous psychologist, Delphine, who works at the castle.  They fall in love and she happily melts into his arms at the slightest provocation, even when they are in the middle of life-or-death situations.  They are that much in love.  It does help to relieve the stress he’s under, even if it taxes the reader’s patience.

This is a long read, nearly 700 pages, and a book like that has to justify its length.  Does Ash?  Sadly, no.  There are a couple of good set pieces – Ash menaced by the homicidal denizens in the bowels of the castle, Ash and Delphine menaced by humungous wildcats in its grounds.  (As well as the cats there are rats and bats; it’s a bit like being menaced by Dr Seuss.  There are big spiders too.)   These isolated scenes are well paced and dramatic.  But overall the rhythm is slow.  It takes Ash a hundred pages just to get to the castle: there is an interminable flight in a private jet then an equally interminable ride in a limo driven by a chatty chauffeur before he even sets eyes on his destination.  The climactic destruction of the castle – Ash is a pun, see – is equally long-winded, the only real tension created by the thought that having a haemophiliac crawl over sharp rocks isn’t a great idea.

The premise of the story is laughable.  The Inner Court is supposed to be a secret organisation which has enough information to blackmail politicians and the Royal Family into allowing it to act autonomously, immune to any form of control and unknown to the general public.  But how would that work in practice?  The organisation would have to control or be able to bribe the local authority so they didn’t come over to do health and safety checks, (the chaos at the end shows that inspections were definitely neglected).  Journalists would either have to be bought off or silenced; admittedly the Inner Court does employ an assassin, but even so, would you be able to wipe out the entire Sunday Times Insight team?

Poor old Ash is driven round interminably between the airport and the castle in order to disorient him so that he cannot say where the castle is, yet at the end it transpires they were going to kill him anyway to prevent him divulging the secrets he had learned.  What was the point of the Cook’s tour then, apart from allowing Ash to quiz the chauffeur and fill in the castle’s backstory?   Just how secret is the Inner Court anyway?  Ash’s boss Kate has an old friend who is a senior policewoman, and over dinner Kate quizzes her about Comraich.  Kate learns a lot about the place, and one wonders just how secret it can be – if one policewoman knows that much, so must a lot of other people.  They can’t all be blackmail victims or afraid of being murdered.  With so many people in the know, either inside or outside the castle, something would be bound to get out eventually.  There is a lot of disbelief to suspend to allow the creaky narrative to work.

Inside the castle, what are the logistics of being a resident?  If the world thought you were dead, how would you pay the astronomical fees required to pay for your upkeep?  You could hardly draw on your bank account, so would you have to arrive with a suitcase full of cash?  How do sponsors itemise the charges on their tax returns?  Is there a money-laundering offshore scheme to make the fees untraceable?  There is a sizeable staff at Comraich (well someone has to clean the rooms and the catering is fantastic, except when the maggots turn up), and there must be a degree of turnover.  Do you kill all your low level ex-employees?  How would you stop them talking otherwise?  Even the threat of death is not always enough to stop a loose tongue.  But if you killed them how would you keep the lid on missing persons investigations?  Does the Inner Court have the clout to buy off the police, or do the local coppers just say, ‘Oh, Comraich, that’ll be another assassination then, best leave it’.  These are problems that all shadowy organisations have to confront.

Dialogue is often clumsy.  Ash asks questions in the castle that are irrelevant to the task he is undertaking but which helpfully give the reader information.  The people he meets, knowing they are under a vow of silence, are still often indiscreet when talking to him.  It helps the plot, but not the story’s credibility.  There is a preposterous exchange near the beginning when Ash and Kate are having a telephone conversation.  Kate refers to Delphine as a psychiatrist and Ash corrects her, saying that Delphine is a psychologist, at which point he gives a handy definition to show the distinction between the two.  Kate replies sarcastically ‘I already knew that, professor.  I am ex-uni’.  Has anyone ever said ‘I am ex-uni’?  Anyway, the exchange helpfully tells the uninformed reader what the difference is, even though it is an unlikely piece of dialogue.  But then Ash says, ‘Well, I had to look it up.’  Wait – he’s an experienced parapsychologist and he had to look up the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?  Does he not read the parapsychological literature?

Even that isn’t as bad as an exchange between Ash and Delphine as they and Delphine’s young friend Louis are escaping from the burning castle alongside a huge hoard of rats.  ‘I could cheerfully shoot the guy who wrote those bloody horror books about rats’, Ash says, and after Delphine asks why he read them, he says that he found them ‘kind of’ interesting then adds, ‘But a little bit too much information about what rats are capable of, especially when they’re excited.’  In his enthusiasm to make a little in-joke, Herbert abandons all plausibility.  If you are trying to maintain a positive tone to help scared companions in the face of severe danger, when surrounded by rats, you just would not say that.

The characterisation is thin as well.  Ash has a drink problem.  Delphine is attractive yet submissive.  There is a butch lesbian who can’t take no.  Herbert has most fun with the shady characters who have found refuge at Comraich, but these don’t need to be fleshed out in depth.  What he lacks in rounded characters he tries to make up for with shocks.  The problem is that he seems to have no concept of bad taste, and the reader may feel uneasy that he lacks inhibitions when writing about people who have relatives still alive.  The deformed offspring of Hitler and Unity Mitford as a conduit for malevolent entities is one thing, but Louis the child of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales is something else.  He was born prematurely when she threw herself down the stairs and was hidden away, Diana being told that he had died because for some weird reason his skin is transparent, and he wouldn’t, y’know, cut a dashing figure in those balcony photographs (he has impeccable manners despite having been brought up in isolation and had horrible things done to him, but blood will out).  What Princes William and Harry might think of this lot of cobblers is easily guessed.  Then we have a graphic account of the murder of Dr David Kelly and how it was messed up which would be distressing for his relatives to read.  The inclusion of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott is possibly libellous, and presumably included on the erroneous assumption that Thorpe is dead, or wouldn’t be in a position to sue anyway.

The novel’s ending is frankly bonkers.  We see the fates of various of Comraichites, whether they live or die, which is fun, though incestuous twins determined to enjoy a final act of sexual congress while one of them is on fire may raise a quizzical eyebrow.  Louis sinks into the sea where he is met by his sainted mother, meaning that Ash and Delphine don’t have to worry about him any more.  Guests die in a variety of bizarre ways, including the stammering manager who is hacked to death by antique bladed weapons that have minds of their own.  Inner Court bigwigs who chose that very night to convene a meeting, despite the supernatural things going on, blow up in their helicopters.

Twigg, the Parkinson’s-afflicted hit man, meets the zombified remains of his apprentice, whom he had buried after the hapless youth had been mauled to death by wildcats.  The revivified corpse, bits dropping off, is now back above ground and looking for revenge on Twigg, even though Twigg wasn’t responsible for his death.  The cats, which were responsible, now obligingly help him out, and justice for destroying the castle is meted out on Twigg by proxy. ‘Lucky’ Lucan on the other hand, clearly a favourite character, simply wanders off into the night as the castle burns to the ground.  The gay Scottish chauffeurs turn up on the beach where Ash and Delphine have swum round through the cave system conveniently situated under the castle and give them a handy summary of what is happening up above.  It is not good, with a considerable body count, but at least Ash and Delphine have each other.

The writing is at times striking, with fine descriptions.  At other times it is clunky, and it inevitably leads one to wonder whether Herbert employed a ghost writer.  Herbert’s hand is convincingly present for part of it, judging by the right-wing Thatcherite views on display, but perhaps ill health forced him to accept help in getting the thing finished.  A piece of evidence is the employment of both ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’ and ‘torch’ and ‘flashlight’ at various points.  One would expect a single writer to be consistent, but the indiscriminate usage of both British and American terms suggests that more than one hand was involved in preparing the manuscript and the editor nodded off when ploughing through the result.  The reader may have some sympathy.

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