First published back in September of 2001, British author James Herbert’s twentieth novel to be published was elegantly entitled ‘Once...’. The novel was initially published in a beautifully presented hardback by Tor, which included four full colour plates illustrating the tale as well as including an intricate pen and ink map of the Bracken Estate.
When twenty-seven year old Thom Kindred suffers a stroke, he takes a break from his work as a carpenter to instead return to his childhood home on the Bracken estate in the Shropshire countryside. Since the suicide of his mother in the nearby lake, Thom had not returned to the estate or indeed the small cottage from whence he grew up with his mother. A quaint little property appropriately named Little Bracken.
Thom’s childhood friend Hugo Bleeth still resides within the estate’s rather grande Castle Bracken, along with his dying father Sir Russell Bleeth and their skulking butler whom they had secretly dubbed Bones. Thom’s return to the estate is purely to recuperate within the calming environment of Little Bracken and the picturesque woodlands that surround the quaint cottage.
Upon arriving at Little Bracken, Thom finds that he is being looked after (by way of grocery deliveries) by the unexpected housekeeper and private nurse to the dying Sir Russell Bleeth - Nell Quick. Not before long, the Wiccan housekeeper’s charm and seductive good looks begin to stir up a wanting passion within Thom. But there is something not quite right about the young nurse. Something that Thom can’t quite put his finger on.
Meanwhile, Thom has taken to investigating much of the surrounding woodlands, unsure as to why he has little recollection of such beautiful grounds from when he was a young boy. And it is there, in the thick of the woods that he first encounters the faerie folk. Seductive and enchanting, Thom Kindred’s world is suddenly immersed in the secretive magic of the Bracken estate.
Soon enough the strange goings-on in the cottage start to take on a much darker presence. Bracken may be a magical secret retreat, but there is something much more sinister lurking behind the enchanting estate and its woodland. The beautifully seductive faerie named Jennet helps to reawaken Thom’s childhood memories of this magical world. And in doing so, reveals other more disturbing memories that Thom had suppressed.
Now that he has returned to Bracken, Thom realises that he has unwittingly been thrust into the thick of a battle that is breaking out between the forces of good and evil. An occultist threat has infiltrated the magical grounds of Bracken. And unbeknown to him, Thom’s blood has tied him into the fate of these secretive faerie folk. But there are beasts, ghouls and succubi ready to do whatever it takes to conquer Bracken, and in doing so, killing off Bracken’s magical inhabitants. Thom’s life has suddenly become a very dangerous one...
Herbert’s novel ‘Once…’ is principally a melding of a fairy-tale with a heavy-handed adult horror edge thrown in. Very much in the same vein as his earlier novel ‘The Magic Cottage’ (1986), the tale utilises a Grimm Brothers-esque style of story, which is simply cranked-up a hell of a number of notches to pull it into James Herbert’s horror quarter.
Indeed, the similarities with ‘The Magic Cottage’ (1986) are too numerous to fully detail. However, the setting (a quaint cottage in a magical retreat), along with the basic plot (good versus evil convene in said quaint cottage), with the final character-defining elements (our protagonist is thrown into the thick of it all; with a secret history that ties him to the premises). And then of course, there’s the return of Rumbo!
In escalating the novel from a simple children’s fairy-tale to a much more adult read, Herbert really goes the whole hog with the frankly explicit sex scenes and frequent bursts of gratuitous horror. At times the erotically charged elements veer closer to something akin to softcore erotica than a simple horror-cum-dark-fantasy tale. Herbert’s sexual injection doesn’t end with just a scattering of lurid sex scenes… far from it! Instead, a vast swathe of more horror influenced elements are given an underlying sexual motivation. From hunchbacked succubus seeking out semen, to fairies getting down and dirty with our main character, there’s plenty of sexual undercurrents to keep the storyline throbbing away with ease.
Very much part of the basic make-up of this style of story setting is the way in which the early oddities and ‘bumps in the night’ gradually escalate. Suspense is built up, with the growing mystery behind the occurrences drawing the reader into the tale. As more of the ‘magical’ plot unfolds, so Herbert really starts to push forwards with the constantly snowballing pace. After only a third of the novel is under the reader’s belt, the excitement and supernatural thrills are in full swing, with plenty of action and peril around every corner.
However, it’s here that the characterisation of our principal protagonist begins to become unstuck. Instead of keeping up with the unfolding tale; adjusting, adapting and ultimately growing into the storyline, the character of Thom Kindred is merely dragged along by the progression of the tale. Sadly, the action sequences fail to fully engage our ‘hero’, with the character becoming more of a bystander than any leading (and plot defining) role.
For its blatant reproduction of an earlier novel, as well as a somewhat muddled lead character involvement, the tale does fall short from much of Herbert’s previous offerings. However, much is redeemed by the wildly over-the-top escalation of the maniacal adult elements, most notably the gratuitous sex scenes.
The grand finale is dramatic (almost theatrically so) with plenty of tension and pulse-pumping action. The ending itself is satisfying as well as closing the novel well.
All in all it’s an exciting and wildly exaggerated fairy-tale that’s been cranked-up to that of a particularly adult read. Much of the novel somehow gels together, making for a non-stop rollercoaster of a ride. However, the bits that don’t work seem to glare out at the reader, letting down an otherwise thoroughly captivating read.
The tale runs for a total of 471 pages.
© DLS Reviews