The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert

As part of my Classics Club challenge I recently undertook to join the Classic Spin (see here).  For this a book was picked from random from a list of your own chosen classics book list.  The number 14 was picked and my No.14 was The Ghosts of Sleath.

I haven’t read any James Herbert for many years so was keen to see how I felt about this particular novel or more to the point how this experienced would compare to my younger self.

The story’s main protagonist is a psychic investigator – or ghost hunter if you will – called David Ash.  I hadn’t realised in picking this book up that David Ash appeared in Herbert’s earlier novel Haunted where he investigated a haunted house – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a film or screen adaptation of the Haunted.  Anyway, at the start of the novel David is asked to go check out a possible haunting in the small village of Sleath.  However, this is much more than just a haunted house.  This is a whole haunted village.  Of course, even in spite of David’s previous ghostly experience he still remains sceptical of the whole ghostly phenomenon and so strides boldly into Sleath with every intention of setting up his paraphernalia and exposing a fraud.

As soon as he reaches Sleath, which isn’s easy as it seems to be nestled away, he immediately encounters a small boy on the road into the village who he nearly hits with his car.  Upon further inspection of course there is no boy to be found.  Sleath sounds like a chocolate box type of village.  Picturesque cottages nestled around a village green, a pond, small school and a church.  Why then is the place so unknown.  Visitors stay away and the welcome at the local inn is less than cheerful.  David then takes himself off to meet the local vicar – whose daughter is responsible for calling for the investigation in the first place following a number of suspected ghostly visitations and apparitions.  And the two seem to share a strange psychic connection which develops into more as the story progresses.

Immediately there is a very strong sense of paranoia.  The villagers are all unfriendly, which you could mistake for simple suspicion of outsiders, but comes across as something more.  A lot of them seem nervous and look sleep deprived and within very short shrift of David arriving two people have been murdered, one in a particuarly grisly fashion.

On top of this we have the remains of the local country manor which was burnt down.  A place which seems to ooze ominious darkness and the local school where school children can be heard singing ‘The Lord of the Dance’ – even though the school is no longer open!

I must admit that I’m glad I read this.  I guess it’s a combination of ghost and horror story mixed in.  It’s not all particularly unique and I wouldn’t say there were any major ‘wow’ moments but I really enjoyed the writing style.  It comes across almost as an old fashioned tale and puts me in mind a little of Susan Hill.  I would also say this isn’t character driven, in fact there’s such an abundance of characters that we jump between that there’s very little time to get to know anybody particularly well or form any real attachment but again, I think because there’s such a lot happening and all told in a way that is really quite intriguing there is literally never a dull moment!  And you can’t help but be totally intrigued about what will eventually happen – not to mention it would be a little pointless getting too attached to some of these characters as Herbert is pretty ruthless to say the least.

What I did think was interesting is that although Herbert is writing about a haunted village here rather than a haunted house – it’s almost as though he treats it in the same style in terms of being a self contained haunting.  The ghosts never leave the boundaries of the village in much the same way as ghosts don’t leave the house they’re haunting.  Even when a pea soup fog descends it stays masking the village and doesn’t spread further afield.

In terms of criticisms I don’t really have a lot.  I enjoyed the writing style but the only thing I would say, and perhaps this will be a bonus for some people, is apart from a particular instance based inside the church, I never experienced that chill that you have sometimes when reading something a bit creepy where the hairs on the back of your neck seem to literally rise and you have a horrible feeling of somebody watching you!  But, I wouldn’t necessarily say this was a bad thing.  Like I said, the story very much crosses over into horror and the last hundred pages kept me hooked waiting to see what was really going on and how it would pan out.

So, how did this compare.  Well, I think if I’d read this when I was younger and going through my horror/slasher/thriller stage I probably would not have enjoyed this, even though it’s fairly fast pace – I think I was probably looking more for the creeped out factor then.  As it is now and with a little more patience this wasn’t the case and I liked the style of writing.

So, I’m pleased to complete my Classic Spin challenge and also this counts as my first read from my Classics Club list – one down – 49 to go!