First published back in 1986, James Herbert’s novel ‘The Magic Cottage’ followed on from an already impressive line of well received publications, predominantly (but not exclusively) within the horror genre.
Together, Mike Stringer (a reasonably successful studio musician and songwriter) and his partner Midge Gudgeon (a moderately successful illustrator), are looking to move to the countryside in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of London life. Scanning the local papers, Midge notices a small advert for a secluded cottage in need of renovation. Little else is stated in the listing, however Midge feels strangely drawn to it nonetheless.
After viewing the property (named ‘Gramarye’), the young couple feel completely besotted by the small quaint cottage and put in an offer. Money becomes a factor in securing the sale, but fortune soon plays on their side, bringing in a sudden influx of additional funds from some unexpected commissions.
The sale process is a little peculiar to say the least, but after being ‘checked over’ by the previous owner’s solicitor, the cottage is finally theirs. Soon after moving in to the property, the couple are baffled by a number of delightfully odd occurrences. One of these is that the local wildlife seems to be completely at ease with the new residents of Gramarye; so tame in fact that they become regular guests within the property. After a while the couple learn more about the previous owner – an elderly widower named Flora Chaldean, who lived her life as somewhat of a recluse in the cottage until she passed away a number of months ago. However, Flora was well known around the area for her magical healing abilities - using a combination of will power and age old potions.
The couple soon stumble upon their nearest neighbours. Living in a large mansion on the other side of the woods that surround Gramarye resides a strange religious cult named the 'Synergists'. However, Mike becomes weary of the sect after Midge starts talking of their leader - a man named Mycroft, who has been helping her to contact her dead parents. The numerous seemingly magical elements that take place in Gramarye are suddenly beginning to sour. A dark shadow is moving across their new fairy tale lives. And at the route of it all, is a dark power that will stop at nothing to take control of Gramarye. Inexplicably drawn to the cottage, Mike and Midge have so many questions that they need answering. But the corruption is already taking hold of their new home and indeed their own lives...
From the very beginning, Herbert weaves a magical, fairy-tale like story, drawing together elements of mysterious surprises with a rich tapestry of intriguing twists. The characters are each brought to life with nurtured and well developed personalities that complement the unfolding storyline. Indeed, everything seems to somehow fit snugly in to place, even the strange almost ‘magical’ aspects. That is, until the Synergists show up on the scene.
Written in the past tense using the first-person-perspective, the tale is delivered with a very traditional ‘storytelling’ edge to its fairy-tale-gone-too-far image. Indeed, our storyteller and principal character - Mike Stringer, is a very likeable and an instantly identifiable character for the reader to subconsciously latch on to. This allows the unfolding story to become more of a personal affair for the reader, even from its ‘past-tense’ perspective.
Herbert cleverly portrays an air of subtle mistrust, lurking behind the pleasant exterior of these unpopular residents. The reader initially feels sympathetic towards the mistreatment of the members of the sect; although the over-the-top welcoming from the Synergists does begin to make you feel somewhat weary of these oh-so-false individuals.
Herbert’s recurring character of Rumbo makes a prolonged appearance within the novel. Seemingly after his reincarnation at the end of Herbert’s early novel ‘Fluke’ (1977), Rumbo now plays out the instantly loveable role of a mischievous squirrel. Rumbo remains a constant thread of joy to the tale, from start to finish. It’s hard not to become emotionally attached to the little scamp, as Herbert brings to life one of his most adored characters. Rumbo later again appeared in Herbert’s novel ‘Once...’ (2001) which was of a very similar nature (both in style and premise) to this magical tale.
As the novel progresses, the storyline moves away from its feel-good fairy tale nature, and instead takes on darker undertones. Herbert plunges deeper and deeper into this eerie turn to the storyline, bringing forth a litany of nightmarish images to send the tale into a downward spiral of corruption and all-empowering evil. Herbert skilfully conjures up these horrifying images with a vivid potency that draws upon the reader's own imagination as much as it depicts the true horror of the situation.
The finale is both impressive and daunting in its wildly elaborate and imaginative outburst of the surreal. Tolkien-esque with the elements of sorcery that take predominance within the last stages of the tale, the final battle of good versus evil takes on nigh on epic proportions.
The conclusion is a well-rounded and a thoroughly entertaining read that mixes in some impressively likeable characters with a truly enchanting storyline. Imagination is given precedence in this glorious story of ‘the perfect fairy-tale’ that takes on a dark and cancerous twist.
The novel runs for a total of 351 pages.
© DLS Reviews