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James Herbert

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-765-30285-3

Publication Date: 05-2002

382 Pages; $26.95

Date Reviewed: 05-25-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002




05-28-02, 11-13-02, 01-27-93

Fairy tales are the original horror stories. They were meant to literally terrify children into behaving. Integrating elements of 'fairy tale' fantasies into horror novels isn't new. Mark Chadbourne's done the best and most extensive job in his 'World's End' novels. In 'Once...', James Herbert takes a crack at the same schtick -- using fairies, elves and witches in the context of the modern horror thriller. He especially plays up the 'erotic' aspects of these devices. The pages will be turned and the groans will be heard. Whether they're groans of pleasure or exasperation is a dicey business. 'Once...' is probably enough.

The novel begins as Thom Kindred returns to his boyhood home after suffering a stroke at the age of 27. He's mostly recovered, and the comforts of Castle Bracken beckon to help the final stages of his therapy. Soon enough he finds himself immersed in all sorts of special effects, both beautiful and nightmarish. These are lavishly illustrated in the endpapers of this wonderfully printed mainstream novel. Tor is certainly to be commended for the great job they've done in putting this book together. The classy dust jacket is nicely complemented by the four full-color, uncredited paintings that line this book. Better yet, they were painted by someone who had at least talked to someone who read the novel. They really complement this novel and reduce some of the disappointment in the narrative.

'Once...' is at base a nearly competent horror thriller. I did finish the book quite quickly. The pages turn without effort, and the main character is likable enough that the reader wants to see him solve the obvious puzzle and reap whatever reward Herbert has in store. But there are jumps and unexplained problems of logic in what happens and why. If you're up for that sort of thing, the erotic passages get to a decent Anne Rice level. The monster scenes are all pretty exciting, though not particularly inventive. Herbert has done his research, and it gets haphazardly into the novel when it is required.

But 'Once...' stumbles when Herbert tries to show us the positive side of his supernatural order. Some of the scenes start to read like descriptions of 'Bambi' -- without Godzilla. Which points out another problem with the novel -- its lack of humor. Nowhere in 'Once...' does Herbert ever have anyone laugh at anything for any reason. Well, there might be some maniacal laughter in there. The Big Bad is pretty bad and rather effectively created. But the counterweight is best served by a single illustration. After that, the prose seems pretty much second run.

This is not to say that Herbert has not crafted another page-turning thriller. He can crank up the tension and when he does, he does it rather well. But then, he keeps it going past its sell-by date with happiness and light when violence and darkness seem better suited to his talents. If you finish the book, you'll finish it pretty quickly. And it's approachable enough that it probably won't entirely bounce off of many readers, especially in that package. When Herbert gets dark and gritty again, when he's willing to pummel the reader with relentless monsters, I'll check in. In the interim, I'll be looking at Tor titles and seeing if they can keep up this incredible job they did on 'Once...'.