Published by Tor Books
The haunted house story is very familiar ground for a horror writer to tread. Since The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the bar is set very high indeed to attempt to break new ground and tell the classic style of tale in an interesting way.
Thankfully, James Herbert is the author who decided to dive headfirst into the haunted house genre. Herbert, sometimes lauded as Britain’s Stephen King, is a master of the craft, and The Secret of Crickley Hall is evidence of this.
The Caleigh family are in crisis. Their five-year-old son, Cam, went missing during a park trip when his mother dozed off for a few minutes accidentally. That guilt and the trauma of the loss still plague the family a year later. When father and husband Gabe’s job takes him to a relatively remote village in another part of the UK, he sees it as an opportunity to escape the surroundings that are still smothered in the memory of Cam and possibly find some closure despite their still-missing son. With their daughters and family dog, they rent a stately old English manor house and seek healing.
The problem is that Crickely Hall has a history, a particularly dark and nasty one, and the Caleigh family isn’t the only one with unresolved pain and guilt. There are things still living in Crickley Hall that have issues to resolve, and they’re going to insist that the Caleighs help out as long as they live there.
This is absolutely a classic, typical haunted house tale. It has all the trappings: suspicious townspeople, the skeptical father and husband, a creepy groundskeeper, a house with a dark past, little girls who talk to dead children, the works. The key here is in how Herbert handles these extremely familiar elements and weaves them into an entertaining tale.
Reading The Secret of Crickley Hall is much like watching a master magician perform what appears to be a standard trick: You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop; you know he’s going to change it up and do something to make the familiar fresh.
Herbert does accomplish this to some extent. Not as much as I’d hoped. In the end, TSOCH is indeed a classic haunted house story, and it doesn’t have too many novel twists. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book. It’s a great book; it just doesn’t reinvent the genre.
It does, however, avoid all of the familiar faults with such stories. The big one that always bothers me is, why do they stay in the house once it’s clear that something is wrong? This is explained and is actually one of the major points of discussion within the family. Suffice to say there’s a reason, and it passes the sniff test. I couldn’t find one logical fault in the book, which is rare in this genre. Usually there’s one ‘shouting at the screen’ moment where you slap your forehead at the stupidity of a character, and that just doesn’t exist here. Herbert has populated the book with believable, sympathetic characters and put them in difficult situations where they don’t have to be stupid to be challenged.
TSOCH is what every good haunted house tale should be: scary, fun, and smart. It doesn’t rely on cheap twists or last-chapter revelations. It has very memorable villains, heroes you care about, and events that’ll give you chills. This is the story of one family’s run-in with a very haunted house, and it’s a damned good one.
4 out of 5