Tuesday, April 10, 2012

James Herbert - Sepulchre

From what I'd heard of James Herbert before cracking open Sepulchre, he was a prolific British horror (or "chiller") author, a writer not considered great but certainly considered fun. Unfortunately, Sepulchre, my introduction to the man, nails the "not great" part of that better than the "fun" one. Sepulchre straddles the line between thriller and horror. Wait, no, that's not quite right. It sits awkwardly between the most clichéd deep ends of the two, the one making no attempt at all to engage with the other besides fouling up its every passage. Then again, either one of these tissue-thin plots would, on their own, be not only little more effective but  utterly unable to carry a novel. The book's thoughtless using of several troubling horror tropes is disturbing, but its real problem is that it's just not very good.

The prologue and first chapter, five pages between them, set up just about everything you need to know about Sepulchre with one exception. In the prologue, we get some brief discussion of how the Sumerian's early history has been wholly lost to us and the (rather groundless) conclusion that there might be a "good reason" (p. 2) for this. The first chapter, meanwhile, shows resident Irish badass (Liam when he's vulnerable, Halloran when he's not) mowing down some IRA kidnappers with a sub machine gun. And, in the dead zone between unexplored mysticism and senseless slaughter, you have your novel.

But, like I said, that's misleading in one crucial respect. Despite its thorough thoughtlessness and lack of depth, Sepulchre is a slow moving novel. Structurally, one imagines that the horror portion's meant to be a slow building of atmosphere and dread, that the thriller is meant to be giving us time and subtle clues to work out some elaborate web of deception for ourselves. But the prose is too simple to evoke atmosphere, and the plotting's too simple for there to be anything to work out. There is, by my count, a single plot twist in the novel, which makes me wonder if the London Free Press review (presenting more plot twists and turns than one has fingers) was written by a no-fingered man. Herbert's writing is the kind that, if coupled with constant scares or gunfights, could serve passably to move the plot along and generate some fun for us all, but it, and his characterization, is totally incapable of sustaining the novel alone.

Our main man is the aforementioned Halloran, a bodyguard working for the security company Achilles' Shield. He is, from the first, an enigma in the way that only a cliché can be: There was something about his eyes… He looked like a man who could be cruel. Yet there was a quiet gentleness about him too. Cora was puzzled. And interested. (p. 22) So yeah. Ruthless tough guy with a heart of gold, or at least I think that's what we're supposed to be inferring from the repeated mentions along the above lines. From what we actually see, Halloran thinks of nothing but being a professional and perfect bodyguard, acts in the most professional manner, and the only thing he works to prevent harder than security breaches is actual character development. He comes in an enigma, and he'll be damned if he dies having gained an iota more depth.

Halloran is called in to protect Felix Kline, a psychic that finds underground mineral deposits for Magma Corporation. Kline's an arrogant and obnoxious fellow who looks "nothing like a genius, and nothing like a wizard" (p. 35) and surrounds himself with various detestable characters and may be far more ancient than he appears. After a fair bit of doing not much in the city, the whole procession, Halloran included, heads off to Kline's estate, Neath. I'll let Herbert give you your introduction to the place:

There were dark places in Neath, corners, niches, which sunlight could never touch, rooms gloomed in permanent dusk, corridors where dust motes seemed to clog the air, halls where footsteps echoed in emptiness. Yet there were also areas of dazzling light, the sun bursting through leaded windows with a force intensified by thick glass; these were cleansing places, where Neath's dank chill could be scoured from the body, although only briefly as other rooms, other corridors, were entered, brightness left behind like some sealed core.

Halloran explored and found many locked doors. (p. 98)

Wow, sounds pretty great, right? Claustrophobic and oppressive and choking on mysteries. Reading that paragraph, I was ready to forgive everything that had come before and ready to settle in for a creepy as hell ride. I don't think I'd be spoiling things too much if I say that doesn't happen. In fact, that paragraph is, I'd say, not only the only prose that is actually in any way noteworthy as prose in the novel but also the only moment of particularly effective writing in the entire thing.

Once Halloran gets to Neath, he sits around, and he and the reader wait for something to happen. It takes its sweet time coming. Until it does, we spend chapter after chapter (after chapter) receiving clues about Kline's evil nature that could only be said to be subtlety building to a devastating reveal if you've not only not read a horror novel before but likely have never read a novel and maybe are not fluent, or even conversant, in the English language. Among these clues are chapter long backstories of the four men closest to Kline. Allow me to distill them: we've got an American serial killer, a Polish cannibal, and two degenerate Arabs that prove to be homosexual rapists.

I know, I know, that last one's not exactly politically correct. If it's any consolation, I don't think Herbert's actually quite as prejudiced as he appears. Just slavishly dedicated to horror tropes and utterly tone deaf as to their implications. The gay torturers and rapists aren't all that's here. In addition, Kline's personal assistant, the Cora that was "interested" (p. 22) in Halloran above, is being steadily corrupted by Kline, and it takes the form of sexual deviancy. Cora has been twisted into a lover of…  bondage! Halloran, everyone's favorite ruthless killer and prudish lover, is of course "dismayed" (p. 146) by this. Of course, one of the times he fucks her, it's a tastefully written rape scene, a right "ravishment" "against her will," but she soon "could not help but respond," (p. 220) so that's all okay.

As I've already discussed, the novel's thriller and horror elements are essentially unconnected, save that Kline feels some threat's nearing him (as comes clear at the end, it's a threat he brings on himself, so I'm not really sure what he was sensing, but anyway). The majority of the book overtly focuses on the thriller plotline, which is developed through such nonsensical lapses in thought as the chiefs of the boydguarding company being, themselves, completely unguarded. The horror plotline is supposedly simmering in the back of all this before bubbling to the surface and taking control, but, as I've no doubt made clear, it doesn't exactly do this.

Come the end, everything does come to a head, even if all the drama and (far too long in coming) action is clichéd enough for the momentarily captured hero to shout "you're crazy" (p. 318) and "this is insane" (p. 321) at the monologue-spouting villain. The core of that monologue is Kline telling us that he's part of a conflict that "still goes on" (p. 319), where one side is "evil for evil's sake" (p. 371) and in the service of the devil, of Bel-Marduk, and the other serving the later-coming Christ. Of course, there's really nothing at all about this celestial struggle until the last sixty pages, but what the hell, we see more than enough of Kline to be able to imagine a multi-millennia quest to kill his master and him. All our cards on the table (Kline's evil! the Sumerian allusions amounted to nothing at all beyond a generic ultimate evil! everything's just about as you thought!), we proceed through our rather stuttering conclusion, one that takes place long after the reader's grown bored of caring for anyone at all in it, and then, thankfully, to the end.

Sepulchre is basically all of the worst clichés about horror novels rolled into one. The characterization's flat, the plot's predictable, gore and violence are treated with all the care and subtlety of a toddler finger-painting in blood-red and shit-brown, the morals displayed are nonetheless narrow-minded and sexist and prudish, and we end with a nice happy shoot out and a destruction of the Big Bad. Most damning of all, it's boring. You've better things to do than read Sepulchre.


  1. James Herbert? What next, Shaun Hutson?

    Herbert would be best known for his "rats" novels, while Hutson was all about the "slugs". I just can't be bothered with gore for the sake of it.

  2. To be fair to Herbert, there wasn't an excessive amount of gore here. Then again, there wasn't much of anything else, either, so I'm not sure how much of a compliment that is. I haven't read Hutson and don't particularly intend to. Excessive gore rarely disgusts me. More often it just bores me. After a point, it's just too clear that there's a man behind the curtain doing the splatter painting.