Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
The further we advance into the 21st Century, the shorter our memories become. Social media platforms run on engagement and engagement demands content. This perpetual demand for greater and greater amounts of content has resulted in hype cycles that last days, trends that burn out after a couple of weeks, and identities that collapse after a few months: Blink and you’ll miss a punk-pop revival or a 90s fashion flashback.
We live in an age of ever-accelerating cultural churn. A churn designed to produce cultural moments that matter intensely right up until the second they are dropped and everyone moves on. Back in October, saying that the trailers for Marvel’s Eternals looked terrible would get you denounced in the worst terms imaginable and then everyone just stopped caring and moved on to the next vale of tears.
This sense of perpetual acceleration can make it intensely strange to look back at older cultural products. Some IP is forever green because people have devoted billions to ensure it stays that way but move beyond the narrow range of intellectual property supported by 21st Century capitalism and you start stumbling across stuff that feels like it might have fallen through the cracks from another universe.
For example, James Herbert began his writing career in the 1970s and went on to sell 54 Million books in dozens of different languages. The son of a market trader who insisted upon designing all of his own covers, Herbert died in 2012 a multi-millionaire with an OBE and yet, for all the excitement his name bears in the 21st Century, he might as well have been a 1980s TV presenter or one of the Tudor playwrights who didn’t happen to be either Marlowe or Shakespeare.
What little fame the Herbert name retains is born of his first two novels; The Rats and The Fog. However, Herbert would go on to write a further 21 novels of which the David Ash series comprises three: Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath, and Herbert’s last novel Ash. Though the series may have begun in the late 1980s and spanned four decades, the vibe of the series remained rooted in the 1970s of tight trousers and shirts unbuttoned to reveal suggestive amounts of chest hair.
We are introduced to Ash as a noted parapsychologist and the lead investigator for a paranormal detective agency that is a bit like if the Society for Psychical Research had been staffed entirely by divorcees. This in and of itself served to make the series feel a bit dated as parapsychology and bodies like the SPR spent the 1980s haemorrhaging both visibility and credibility meaning that the David Ash of 1988 felt like a throwback to the Guy Lyon Playfairs of the 1970s if not the Harry Prices of the 1920s.
Equally old-fashioned is the series’ unflinching dedication to the depiction of middle-aged sexuality. The first book in the series features a scene in which the institute’s female boss is conducting an illicit affair with a travelling salesman. While this may sound like the set up for a Robin Askwith sex comedy, the scene itself exudes a sexual energy that would most likely feel alien to anyone born after the 1950s. I would never dream of making generalisations about how modern people conduct their sex-lives but I’m guessing that relatively few people associate sexual sophistication with naughty travelling salesmen letting themselves into hotel rooms, loosening their ties, and pouring themselves a generous glass of Scotch.
Alcohol features prominently throughout the series as Ash is presented as someone with psychic gifts who is initially in complete denial about anything psychical or paranormal. Like the protagonist of a Raymond Chandler novel, David Ash is too sensitive for his own good and so armours himself with cynicism and shots of neat vodka. Ash’s drinking is one of several Chekhovian guns that are placed above the series’ fireplace. Ash drinks because he is too sensitive, because he is in denial, and because he refuses to engage with the things that scare him most. At the start of Haunted, he is already an alcoholic desperately papering over the cracks of his decaying mind. The first novel in the series is all about forcing open those cracks.
The David Ash series takes place in a world where ghosts definitely exist alongside low-key psychic powers, but neither of these paranormal elements is common enough to have warped the fabric of the world. The world of the David Ash series is not some post-apocalyptic ghost-world like that of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co novels, nor does it have the kind of barely-concealed paranormal demi-monde that features in Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels. This is a world in which it is perfectly normal to not believe in ghosts, hence Ash beginning the series as a hard-core sceptic who seems to take derive real pleasure from debunking any claims of paranormal realism.
Ash’s status as a sceptic in denial turns out to be central to the first novel as he is hired to investigate a haunted family home. I use the term “investigate” with some caution as Ash’s role is to determine whether or not a place is in fact haunted. Should a place turn out to in fact be haunted then Ash would simply write a report confirming the haunting. He is neither an exorcist nor a ghost-breaker; he has no power to deal with hauntings once he finds them. What this means in practice is that Herbert treats the paranormal almost like a natural disaster; Ash’s job is not to prevent the storm or the cave-in but rather to witness its occurrence, explore its causes, and help any innocents who might get caught up in the resulting mayhem.
Herbert’s approach to the paranormal means that the emphasis of his novels is less on the haunting and more upon the social context in which the haunting takes place. For example, in the second novel Ghosts of Sleath, Ash stands witness to a village coming to terms with its own dark history while the third novel Ash is set in a castle where the British establishment have buried so many secrets that the darkness inevitably coalesces and attempts to escape. The country house setting for the first novel could quite easily have recalled either the country house murder-mysteries of golden age detective novels or elaborate psychological hauntings like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House but instead it reminded me of the small scale huis-clos psychological thrillers that Ruth Rendell used to write under the name Barbara Vine. While the house does turn out to be haunted and the haunting does jolt Ash out of his denial, the meat of the novel lies less in the details of the haunting than it does in the relentless sneering toxicity of the family that happen to reside in the haunted house. Imagine Carnacki necking bottles of vodka and trying to make sense of the family from Vine’s The Minotaur and you have the vibe of Haunted in a nutshell.
The second novel in the series is by far and away the strongest. Set in the idyllic village of Sleath, Ghosts of Sleath opens with Ash being invited to the village to investigate a ghost sighting. Right from the start, Herbert piles on the pressure by stressing the village’s resistance to investigation. Having arrived in the village, Ash finds the local vicar exhausted and reluctant to talk. As Ash bumbles about trying to seduce the man’s daughter, the village starts to erupt in fits of profoundly unpleasant violence including a legitimately horrifying one-two punch centred on an act of vigilante justice meted out to someone who has been falsely accused of rape.
Published in 1994, Ghosts of Sleath suggests that Herbert had lost none of the viciousness and technical control that had sent The Rats flying off the shelves in dozens of different languages. Each chapter is a masterclass in tension and unpleasantness as Herbert piles on the pressure and then pulls back the covers to show us how that tension is playing out in different corners of the village. Much like Haunted, the second novel in the David Ash series is explicitly psychological and yet Herbert resists the urge to turn his paranormal investigator into the kind of psychic therapist who might help to resolve the tensions driving paranormal upheaval. As in the first novel, Ash is not so much here to solve the haunting as to bear witness to its slow unravelling.
Another similarity with Haunted is that Ghosts of Sleath is relentlessly horny in a very male and middle-aged way. Having established Ash as a tortured romantic figure in desperate need of a good woman, Herbert has his protagonist forge a psychic link with the vicar’s daughter resulting in one of the most eye-wateringly graphic sex scenes I have ever encountered outside of actual pornography. It’s not just a sex scene, it’s a sex scene that goes on for an entire chapter and talks about ‘hardnesses’ sliding into ‘wetnesses’ in a variety of different poses and permutations. This novel doesn’t just ‘go there’, it ‘goes there’, ‘stays there’ and encourages you to sleep in the wet patch.
Another reason the books are dated by their depictions of sexuality is that contemporary genre authors tend not to write about sex in the same way as James Herbert. Genre publishers may have spent the 00s moving closer to the audiences for YA, fan fiction, and romance but there is still a degree of institutional resistance when it comes to graphic depictions of sex. Contemporary genre authors positively fall over themselves when it’s time to write about the emotional side of human relationships but the desire for engagement seldom descends to the physical plane. Ghosts of Sleath is at least partly a novel about a character allowing themselves to trust their feelings but Herbert’s exploration of physical sexuality feels less like contemporary genre literature’s use of fantastical elements to literalise feelings and more like 1970s literary fiction in which broodingly complicated men battle their emotional shortcomings by laying a shitload of pipe.
Reading back over this piece, it occurs to me that my opinion of the books comes across more negative than it actually is. This is probably down to the fact that while I absolutely adored Ghosts of Sleath, I found Haunted a touch too slow and Ash a lot too silly.
Ash starts very strongly indeed. The book begins with Ash being drawn into a meeting with his boss at the institute and one of her many old boyfriends. Said boyfriend is a lawyer/lobbyist who works for a supremely wealthy and powerful organisation operating out of a remote Scottish castle. The problem is that the castle appears to be haunted and that the organisation’s wealthy backers want someone to investigate. Ash is volunteered by his boss on the understanding that everything he sees and everything he hears will be covered by a terrifyingly threatening Non-Disclosure Agreement. Ash takes the job somewhat reluctantly and boards a private plane for the Scottish highlands.
What follows is an example of one of Herbert’s more intriguing eccentricities; As the plane is flying over Scotland, it suddenly loses power and begins to hurtle towards the ground. The terror and chaos of the scene is beautifully rendered and then the plane mysteriously rights itself and the event is barely spoken of again. The eccentricity I am alluding to is Herbert’s tendency to present the audience with Chekhovian plot devices that are meticulously constructed, oiled, and placed above the fireplace only to be forgotten the second the chapter reaches its end. Time and again, Herbert will put time and energy into developing an idea, rendering it in such loving detail that you cannot help but suspect that at some point that investment of time and energy will be paid off, and yet somehow those guns never fire.
Some guns such as Ash’s alcoholism, his relationship with his boss, and the possibility that he might be haunted by his sister carry over from book to book. With each new book, Herbert takes the time to establish that Ash is an alcoholic, that his boss has a huge crush on him, and that his scepticism about the paranormal might be down to denial born of guilt. These aspects of the character are well drawn and frequently alluded to and yet they are never allowed to pay off. Herbert’s mantelpiece is bristling with so many guns that it must look like a space marine’s under-stairs cupboard. In fact, I almost wonder whether this might not be some sort of deliberate ploy; every time Herbert alludes to Ash’s alcoholism and guilt, he is introducing an expectation that these plot coupons might (finally) be getting cashed in. By refusing to cash in his coupons and having Ash refusing to acknowledge his boss’s attraction or the fact that the only thing getting him through the day is a hip flask of absinthe, Herbert is frustrating his readers and making them feel more on edge.
As a novel, Ash is full of these weird little plot inlets. Ideas that are picked up and played with and then set aside only to be forgotten or under-used; the plane problems, the madness of the animals near the castle, the incestuous twins that David Ash meets on the first day, the room full of weapons that keep moving, Hitler’s deformed psychic daughter, the dungeon where people are left to rot, the looming power struggle at the top of the sinister organisation and even the organisation itself. Each of these ideas receives a lot of attention only for the book’s plot to boil down to Ash having the misfortune to turn up at a castle about a weak before someone decides to blow the place to pieces.
The real problem with Ash is that it should have been about a third of its final length. Give James Herbert 2-300 pages and his ideas fly off the page so fast that you simply don’t have time to notice the weakness of the connective tissue. At 700 pages, his novels become a swamp full of weirdly indulgent dead-ends such as sex scenes that goes on for about 30 pages, two entire chapters devoted to David Ash killing a load of feral cats, and a number of chapters dealing in the counter-factual histories of powerful people who had faked their own deaths and spent decades hiding out in a Scottish castle. There’s also a really funny/awful chapter in which Herbert tries to make some sense of the sinister organisation that owns the castle. He does this by sucking in a load of right-wing conspiracy theories and then bending over backwards to make it clear that while the British establishment is rotten to the core and full of murderous sexual predators, both the Queen and Mrs Thatcher were vehemently opposed to ‘this sort of thing’.
The David Ash books are good fun but wildly uneven in terms of tone, pacing, and scope. The reason I decided to write about them is that, like a lot of RPG campaigns, they move from telling small, intimate stories to telling huge sweeping narratives about psychic Nazis and exploding castles.
Each book in the series showcases Herbert’s talent for imagining something really unpleasant and then turning that unpleasantness into a thrilling set-piece but it is pretty clear that his writing works a lot better at some scales than others. Indeed, ask James Herbert to write an intensely psychological story about a grieving alcoholic investigating a family of wealthy aristocrats and he’ll write a book full of great set-pieces and limited psychological engagement. Conversely, ask him to write a sprawling epic about the collapse of an ancient conspiracy and he’ll write a book full of great set-pieces and a load of weirdo conspiracy theories that barely make sense. However, ask him to write a story about a haunted village and he will nail that shit to the floor.
Anyone who has run a long campaign will recognise the problem of tonal inflation. If you tell a story that builds to a specific climax and then return to write another story about those same characters, you need to find another gear and raise the stakes. To fail to do so would result in a campaign that feels a lot like a series of Power Rangers in which the goodies fight a succession of interchangeable rubbery monsters using the exact same moves deployed in the exact same order. In order to evade falling into that trap, you keep raising the stakes but not everyone writes equally well at every scale and increasing the scope of your stories means running the risk of having the entire thing explode into outright silliness. Controlling the tone means controlling the stakes and controlling the tone is absolutely central to running horror.