Ash – But Not A Phoenix In Sight

Book Review*

The much anticipated new blockbuster from the grand master of chiller fiction…

Title: Ash

Author: James Herbert

Published by: Macmillan

ISBN: 978-0230706958


The World Grand Master of Horror cordially invites you to an idyllic Scottish retreat with beautiful rooms, luscious gardens, a breathtaking view . . . and a basement full of secrets.

Author Bio

James Herbert is not just Britain’s number one bestselling writer of chiller fiction, a position he has held ever since publication of his first novel, but is also one of our greatest popular novelists. Widely imitated and hugely influential, his twenty-three novels have sold more than fifty-four million copies worldwide, and have been translated into over thirty languages including Russian and Chinese. In 2010, he was made the Grand Master of Horror by the World Horror Convention and was also awarded an OBE by the Queen for services to literature. He is married with three daughters and lives in London and Sussex.


I don’t usually start my reviews with the official author biography but in this case there is good reason. First, the publisher’s blurb is so scant it makes me shake my head in disbelief that it’s the best they could do for such a hyped up and long awaited book from the ‘Grand Master’. Second, Herbert’s standing and achievements are so great that they warrant mentioning in view of what I am about to say. And let me be clear on this point: Herbert is one of the greats and I do not wish to imply otherwise. But…

The marketing has been well planned for Ash, Herbert’s first novel for six years, part of which was to reduce the price of his back list. I bought Shrine for my Kindle for £1 and enjoyed it – for a book that was written almost thirty years ago. When one reads books of that era and beyond, certain allowances often have to be made in relation to technique and style. In Shrine, the biggest issue is Herbert’s constant head hopping (what we call point of view shift), closely followed by an annoying habit of using the word ‘for’ (in the sense of because). Both these things could have been dealt with in the editing stage quite easily. Nevertheless, Shrine is a great story, no doubt about it.

So I looked forward to Ash, not just as a reader but as a horror writer. I had little doubt that Herbert would have come up with a brilliant story, but I was eager to see if – given the passage of time – he would have tightened up his technique. I really, really, wanted him to have done so, to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of six years of silence. And you’ve guessed it, haven’t you?

Since I lost my heart to my Kindle, I always download the sample of a book before buying it. I got the sample of Ash and sat down to read immediately. I forgave Herbert for the rather rambling opening couple of paragraphs, but the head hop that occurs within moments of the book’s beginning is so glaring, so shocking, that I almost stopped reading there and then. I forced myself on, believing that the plot would be worth the effort,  but soon I found myself obsessed with the technique – rooted in the fiction of the 1980s – and the plot took second place.

Now, at this point I suggest you go over and read the top notch review on SFX. It’s here:

Done that? When I’d read the sample, I said the same thing – overwritten and bogged down with details of no relevance. And don’t forget the POV shifts. Why do I go on about POV shifts? Because new writers are constantly harangued  by ‘the establishment’ on this very matter; fiction today must be told from one point of view per scene. If a new writer strays from this, they are likely to end up in the litter bin without a second thought for their brilliant story. In today’s world, technique is as important as creativity – and rightly so, in my humble opinion, because if technique and genre are in harmony the reader’s experience is heightened.

So, for all I admire Herbert for his achievements, I have to say (with a heavy heart, I add) that Ash is a disappointment. I am convinced that if it had been submitted by an unknown author it would not have been published. Now, I’ll come clean. You see at the top of this post I put an asterisk after Book Review? That’s because for the first time ever I’m reviewing a book which I have not read in its entirety. As I said, I got the sample. And it was enough – at least at the asking price. I find myself dismayed at the writing, yet wanting to know the story because that sounds interesting. Just not enough to accept the price tag, so maybe this is one to get from the library?

I’m left feeling cheated and also sorry for Herbert. Where was the editor, I wonder? The faults could have been dealt with so easily. Maybe the Grand Master is just untouchable and no editor dare take the top off his/her red pen? Or perhaps, as I wonder in my cheekier moments, the greatest ghost writer of all needs to find a, erm, ghost writer?

Update: Quite astonishing that a new book and a bestseller would be dropped in price to 20p but it means that I now am reading the whole book and will update this review accordingly in due course. But…I am not impressed.

My review of ASH is here at the New York Journal of Books:

James Herbert Dies 21/03/13:

5 Comments on “Ash – But Not A Phoenix In Sight”

  1. I’m torn about reading this – I have fond memories of reading horror writers such as Herbert and King when I was a teenager. They were my inspiration to write. Reading the sample of this left me… wanting… and I don’t mean wanting to read on. I Imagine I will read this at some time but it didn’t grab either my heart or soul.Yet, I picked up my (very) battered copy of Herbert’s Moon this morning and read the opening pages – there was something more sophisticated about the style and language on those faded pages than I saw in the sample of Ash on my Kindle. Perhaps it’s just a case of time moving on and styles and readers’ preferences changing along with the way in which we read. Maybe I’m still stuck in the past and seeking the seductive (for want of a better word), evocative writing horror readers perhaps do not want anymore. *sighs*

    • Julia, I think that horror readers do want the seductive and evocative. I know I do. I think horror is at the point of a renaissance (yet again) with just a handful of publishers finally realising it. The next decade will be very exciting, I’m sure.

  2. I’m dismayed. James Herbert was an author whose work I always enjoyed, being scared out of my wits which suited me just fine. Your comments about lack of editing seem all too common these days. The major publishers get very ‘sniffy’ and precious about self-pubs and small indie publishers but I would say they should get their own houses in order before attacking others who are, in many cases, more rigorous.

    • There is good and bad in all walks of life, Catherine. I feel sad because there is a great story, I am sure of it, in Ash and Herbert deserves respect. Firm editing would have acheived that.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Ash by James Herbert |

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