Haunted – James Herbert, 1988. Rating 4.5
Paranormal investigator David Ash anticipates another mundane batch of drafts and creaky floorboards masquerading as ghosts when he’s called to evaluate a down-at-heel old country house. Instead, what he experiences threatens his worldview—and his life.
David Ash is the resident skeptic at the British-based Psychical Research Institute. He’s skilled at debunking paranormal phenomena, from hoax hauntings to fake mediums. David firmly believes that everything has a rational explanation, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s simply the “irregular normal.” But never the supernatural. There are no such things as ghosts in David’s mindset. His conscious mindset, that is. David has a terrifying secret he’s been hiding since he was a child.
The Mariell family specifically requests David to come and explain the phenomena they’ve witnessed: the ghost of a young woman haunting the house and grounds of Edbrook. The adult family consists of weirdly immature siblings Robert, Simon, and Christina, and their closed-mouthed elderly nanny, Tess. David sets up his scientific equipment and doesn’t have long to wait before the inexplicable occurs. As David struggles to assign logical reasons for the mounting phenomena—which are violently directed towards him—he starts to believe the family is playing a sick game with him.
Edith, a gentle psychic medium who also works for the Institute, is convinced David has latent psychic ability that he’s been repressing for reasons of his own. When Edith receives disturbing images David in danger, she knows she must help, despite the risk to herself.
Haunted is truly one of the scariest ghost stories I’ve read in years, and that is saying a lot. To take a classic haunted house story and give it this kind of punch takes mad skill. Haunted is spare and fast-moving, dragging us into its insidious current. We suspect things at Edbrook are terribly wrong long before David admits it to himself. This dramatic irony adds to the building suspense, creating an ominous sense of unease. The tension is augmented by Herbert’s skill at creating vivid sensory images. Herbert not only revitalizes old tropes, he elevates them. For instance, Haunted contains, bar none, the most harrowing séance scene I’ve ever read—or seen.
Herbert’s character-building is equally lean yet evocative. Ash’s backstory unspools in memories of previous investigations shared by Edith and Kate, the Institute’s director. There is a poignancy to Ash’s character. He has a drinking problem. Trouble maintaining deep relationships. As the scientific tools and approaches he’s always relied on prove useless, he opens up to Christina, and we realize Ash is a scared little boy beneath the walls of rationalism he’s erected.
Haunted is already a contender for my Best Reads list next January, it is that good. I have also discovered that Ash appears in two more of Herbert’s stories: The Ghosts of Sleath, and Ash, Herbert’s final novel before his 2013 death. No guesses what’s moved to the front of my to-read list!