The Review – Once – By James Herbert (2001)

once

********* This review contains spoilers *******

My weekly ‘book buying’ runs wind through a vast number of shops. Mainstream bookshops with their standard seating arrangements and shelving, the wonderful independent book shop with friendly knowledgeable staff and the miss mash of charity shops dotted on both sides of the market square. I love book buying runs! I get to immerse myself in a wide variety of titles, being able to pick up the book – rifle through the pages and spot those killer lines that jump out of the page. It’s one thing I treasure and I can often spend hours browsing; not even buying the books on display.

I obtained ‘Once…’ at a local charity shop accidentally. I was taken by the fairly simple front cover, spiralling trees wending their way up the sides of the cover, a small building with spire in the corner and James Herbert, Once.. written in bold font fading into the background. Flicking to the dust jacket the book was appealing, promising a story of adulthood meshed with the faeries, witches and elves from childhood tales. I had to get it. I am not a fantasy fan as such, I read any genre that piques my interest but this appealed. The back cover says:

“A scary Tale of Faerefolkis & Evildoers, of Lovers & Erotic Passion, of Horror & Belief. Written only for Adults”.

I thought… well why not!? Sounds fun!

What the book is about:

Thom Kindred returns to the home of his youth, Little Bracken, a large house on the outskirts of the Bracken Estate. Soon he comes to realise that the stories told by his late mother were not just stories and that the elves, witches, pixies and other wonderful creatures lay in the woods just outside his door. The tale darkens when a wicked witch tries to steal Thom’s semen (yes you read that right)! As the tale escalates so do the horrors – spindly legged spiders, semen sucking Succubus’ and bald headed, thin necked dead children! Will Thom find out how his past affects his future? What has his friend Hugo got himself into?

The Positives:

Herbert paints a wonderful portrait of Thom’s life before his stroke that left him with weakness and fatigue, living with his mother in the woods of a rich estate. Whilst reading I could imagine the care free upbringing of Thom’s childhood and how his relationship with his mother was strengthened by relying on each other. By weaving his stroke into the story later in the book Herbert did not resort to the type of writing where you give a character some defining feature or quality ‘just because’.

The sinister nature of Nell Quick is quick-ly (pun intended!) established early in the flirty introduction of the character. She is vibrant, exotic and sexy though there is a feel of unpleasantness underneath the attraction that Herbert expertly implies without saying it outright. Another aspect of the tale features on Quick’s power over Thom.

Herbert’s novels are easy read and this is no exception. Although some of the content was repetitive or overly descriptive it does not take away from the fact he can write in a way that does not require effort. As a piece of entertainment the book ticks the boxes.

The Drawbacks:

Unlike the all action ‘Ash’ by Herbert, Once has a completely different pacing and rhythm. Whilst I expected a level of excitement and rapid fire speed of Ash, I found Once to be altogether slower with a lesser focus on story and more on the experience of the main character Thom. I do enjoy the prototypical novel structure – peaks and valleys with many twists, turns and exciting events leading to a crescendo of action to draw the story to a conclusion. With Once what I found was a lengthy description of the magical woodland, the weather and the reminiscence that Thom experiences only to have another, differently worded version a few chapters later.

There is consistency with the style Herbert has adopted here when the sexualised scenes are played out over and over in a variety of the same structure. Whether it was finding a woman master-bating in the woods, having oral sex with a woman – turned monster – or pushing himself into someone’s ‘cleft’ it became repetitive and predictable. I think there is only so many erotic visuals that you can describe before the reader wants more substance and this didn’t suffice.

Talking of sex why I needed to read four pages of a [apparently] pre-pubescent looking faery masterbating I do not know. The way in which this was written was unpleasant rather than innocent [which is what I believe Herbert was trying to go for here]. Herbert tries to paint a picture of sex as a way of celebrating life and ‘being’ but this came off as a little sordid [even for my tastes]! The lesbian rape scene [shocking!] was just ‘there’ and seemed to be for the sake of the shock factor.

In hindsight the story may have benefited from Thom being less able to repel Quick’s charms and sexiness. I would have been interested in Thom’s internal dialog – a mix of horny young man versus intelligent, measured adult. We have all, at some point in our lives, been attracted to a person despite how obviously hurtful and damaging they are to us. The old cliche of ‘good guys finish last’ or women always attracting ‘bad guys’ is universal and I have acquaintance with many people who go through life feeling unable to resist that one person who is ultimately bad for their health. By accentuating this conundrum Herbert may have produced depth to the dynamic.

There were plot threads that were not tied together at the end for which I personally found it frustrating. Why couldn’t Thom’s Mother continue in the world that he lives? What prevents adults from seeing faery folk [yes we know it’s because they are less imaginative and open to seeing but why]? Why does Jennet have to go away for seven years? What is the meaning behind that number? These may seem insignificant but if you are going to create an alternative world then you really should be giving this level of detail. JK Rowling does this wonderfully in Harry Potter as does Tolkien in Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

All in all I was a little disappointed by the book. It’s [over?] reliance on erotica and retreading of many scenes does not do the premise justice. I would have preferred to have had big set pieces, a more vivid understanding of ‘their’ world [faeries] and some deeper understanding of Thom’s internal conflicts. The Thom that is presented – one that is in awe of everything he had not know – gets a tad tiresome at times though his fighting spirit to succeed gives him an endearing quality.

Final Thought: Although Herbert’s primary genre is horror it is difficult to see the horror involved in this tale – other than the horrific number of repeated sex and woodland scenes provided. Unfortunately Herbert is unable to hit the fantasy mark but fails miserably in the dark, scary stuff too. I have yet to read The Fog or Rats but aim to do so at some point. Having loved Ash I was disappointed by the lack of structure and direction that Once offered.

Rating – 2.5/10 – Horrifyingly Poor!

The Folks at Goodreads said…

” An entertaining dark fantasy with a fair bit of sex thrown into it!” [Greg] 4/5

” The prose is shoddy, the story tedious, the pseudo-philosophical ramblings risible. To put it simply, this is one of those books that acts as discouragement to the aspiring writer, because you realise that the only way you’ll ever be a bestselling author is to produce absolute dreck.” [Sam Fleming] 1/5

” For any adult that appreciates the idea that fairytales never started off as princesses in castles but more on open lustful desires, then this is definitely worth a read!” [Stargazer85] 5/5

“I really wanted to like this story, it seemed like such a good premise. But it turned out to be predictable, with long-winded and boring descriptions, and stereotyped characters.” [Debra] 2/5

“James Herbert has talent and writes fluidly but I feel the scope of his capacity is limited by a motivation to write to a formula that will sell rather than to attempt to produce great literature.” [Nor’dzin Pamo] 3/5

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