James Herbert is considered a master of contemporary horror fiction. His novels have remained wildly popular for decades. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010. Given Herbert’s venerated standing as a genre author, it would be grand to praise Ash, his latest work, without reservation. Ash, however, disappoints. As is often the case with ambitious writings, there is much extraneous material. The previous installments in the series spotlighting eponymous psychic detective David Ash were Haunted (originally published in 1988) and The Ghosts of Sleath (first published in 1994.) Taut and finely crafted, their combined length is close to the nearly 700 pages that comprise Herbert’s latest novel. While the two earlier books of the chronicles retained a fine focus on plot and characterization, Ash is unwieldy and overblown.

The premise is promising. Ash is dispatched on assignment to remote Comraich Castle in Scotland. The brooding edifice has been transformed into a sanctuary for a very elite clientele: rich and infamous folk who require sequestering from the rest of society. Among the heavily medicated “guests” residing in stupefied splendor are a couple of elderly Nazis, a defrocked archbishop, a Serbian war criminal, an African despot, and two crazy-in-love incestuous siblings. The psychic vibes at the residence are enough to shake a sensitive out of his or her wits, but wait – there’s more. Added to the mix is a de rigueur love interest for the protagonist; a hot psychologist who has a special bond with one of the castle’s most mysterious guests. Said shrink has her own conflicts: she has just ended a lesbian liaison with the head nurse on the staff. The nurse is conveniently depicted as having instigated the relationship; taking advantage of the therapist at an emotionally susceptible time. This permits the psychologist to doff any preconceptions regarding her sexual orientation and engage in ecstatic, and highly detailed, love-making with Ash. Incidentally, almost as a footnote, Comraich also harbors unquiet spirits and other unworldly entities.

Administering the covert colony is a shadowy global organization known as the Inner Court. The power and influence of the sinister clique extends into the upper echelons of politics and business. Before you can say “conspiracy theory,” it becomes evident that the people involved in Inner Court are quite nefarious, indeed.

The execrable atmosphere ignites a powder keg of evil: “The investigator sensed the queer malevolence that bled from Comraich, a corruptive leaking that, it seemed to him, sought sustenance from the observer’s soul, as it had used other poor souls through the centuries.”

While there is some excellent prose in Ash, the convoluted narrative ultimately sinks because of emphasis on curlicues rather than substance. It’s almost as if James Herbert embraced the frequently quoted words of Oscar Wilde: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” If the character of David Ash returns in a future novel, plot embellishments, such as those prevalent in Ash, should best be kept to a bare minimum. A return to the supernatural suspense basics which helped Mr. Herbert garner his accolades will be very welcome.

– By Sheila M. Merritt