Once, by James Herbert

once-by-james-herbertGenre: Horror
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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‘Once…upon…a…death…’

For almost 30 years now James Herbert has been trying to scare us senseless. Ever since the publication of The Rats in the early 70s, he’s been at the forefront of the horror genre… and now, for his twentieth novel, he’s decided to head for the woods and bring childhood fantasies into the adult world. So is he on the mark, or simply away with the faeries?

After a terrible car accident, carpenter Thom Kindred returns to the place where he grew up: the Bracken Estate, owned by a very sick Sir Russell Bleeth–who once hired Thom’s mother to look after his own son, Hugo. As a close personal friend of the family, he’s given the run of the place and even allowed to stay his old Little Bracken home, which holds some magical memories from his youth…. A great place to rest and recuperate after his ordeal. Or so he thinks.

Because no sooner has Thom settled in than he is confronted with certain truths that seem too impossible to even contemplate. On a walk in the forest surrounding Little Bracken he sees tiny lights that look like fireflies…and then he comes across what looks like a naked girl in the foliage. But this is no ordinary girl: she is in fact one of the faerie folk, and it isn’t long before Thom encounters elves and tree pixies as well. But not all of the creatures who live out there are good.

Thom soon learns that evil forces are at work, and that his return wasn’t quite the coincidence he thought. But what does this have to do with Nell Quick, Sir Russell’s nurse who has taken a fancy to Thom? And what about the mysterious disappearance of his mother all those years ago? In getting to the bottom of the puzzle and facing the evil, Thom might just find the answers he’s been looking for his whole life. Including the most important one of all: who was his father?

Reading Once you get a certain feeling of deja vu. We’ve certainly been here before with Herbert, although not exactly in the same way, granted. There are shades here of The Magic Cottage, Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on whether you enjoyed those novels or not (I have to admit, I did). Okay, so some of the characters come straight out of the Herbert stockpile–the staff at Bracken are walking cliches (the thin, skeleton-like butler for instance), and Hugo’s dialogue is cringe worthy on more than one occasion (‘Call it what you like, dear one, but a hemorrhage to the old brain-box is hardly a couple of aspirins and a few days in bed stuff.’)–yet you can’t help but be drawn into this tale and this world.

And yes, even though this story is about faeries and the like, there are still the requisite Herbert sex scenes (indeed, sex and love form part of the faerie lifestyle apparently, even providing them with unique powers), plus there are certainly enough horrific moments to remind you what genre the author usually operates in. A couple in particular spring to mind, the first a succubus attack, the second involving a multitude of spiders, which is extremely creepy to say the least (‘At first, they flowed like black liquid, but as they spread each one became individual. Tiny, horrid, scurrying creatures…’).

But what sets it apart from other novels of its kind is the effort that’s gone in to providing the background for these mythical beings. Herbert’s descriptions of their habitat and lore almost convince you that such things might exist–I especially liked the tree-stump chequers game that lasts for years. The Messianic implications of Thom’s return also hint at a society with its own belief systems (he’s a carpenter: I don’t need to draw you a picture, do I?). And in among the wonderment there’s also a message about nature, about how humankind is destroying their home with pollution and greed. Oh, and let us not forget his theory about a where a certain Icelandic singer really comes from–yes, she might act a little strangely, but that’s just because she’s not adjusted to our world yet. Similarly, he’s gone to great pains to make the witchcraft stuff believable as well; going into tremendous detail about spells and potions.

So, while reading this book might be like slipping on a comfortable pair of old slippers (and after 30 years and so many novels, how could it not be?), there’s still that element of surprise here, the feeling that you never know what might be coming around the next corner. And following the intensity of Others, I for one welcomed a little bit of a ‘softer’ story anyway. It may not be the author’s greatest work, but it’s far from his worst. Once you’ve started reading it, I think you’ll find it hard to resist.!

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