First published back in November of 1976, British horror author James Herbert’s third novel took a sudden departure from the blood-drenched splatterpunk success of his first two novels.
Just outside of the town of Eton, a 747 passenger jet came hurting out of the sky, crashing into the land and killing all of its 300+ passengers bar one. That one survivor was David Keller – the co-pilot. Amongst those that died in what is being described as one of the worst crashes in airline history, is his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his close-friend and personal mentor Captain Rogan.
After emerging from the flaming wreckage of the crashed 747, the rescue services and local townspeople are baffled by how completely unscathed Keller is from the ordeal. Aside from the acute amnesia that has left him with no recollection as to the horrific events that took place in the run-up to the plane crash, Keller is otherwise totally unmarked by the disaster. There are no signs of cuts, bruises or burns to him or even to his clothing. And soon enough, feelings within the nearby community towards Keller soon begin to shift towards resentment.
The unrest felt by all in the wake of the tragic airline disaster only gets worse when a number of seemingly unrelated deaths begin to occur in the area surrounding the crash site. Feelings of bad luck and the visitation of a curse soon start to be muttered about the town. And, with no memory of what happened apart from fleeting images of heated arguments with Rogan prior to the flight, Keller begins to question his own culpability.
Having been forced into an extended period of leave by the airline, Keller finds himself sinking into dark pits of despair. Only when he is contacted by a disturbed clairvoyant named Hobbs, who is seeking aid for the restless souls of the dead, does Keller begin to realise that other powers may be at work here. There may be an unknown threat responsible for the hundreds of deaths. A malevolent presence that even now, is using its powers to reap havoc and claim its next victim...
Following on from the initial hectic trauma of the plane crash, Herbert works hard in setting down a depressingly bleak and eerie atmosphere that overshadows the proceeding mystery. As the reader attempts to piece together the various facts that Herbert purposefully throws into the proceeding storyline, the predominant tension that lies behind the plot begins to gradually (but very forcefully) escalate.
The constant unknown, as well as the recurring murky memories that keep haunting our principal protagonist, that really starts to get to the reader. An unbearable wall of guilt is constantly at Keller’s back, never letting him move away from the utterly claustrophobic despair of so many lives having been lost, with no answers to give as to ‘how’ or ‘why’.
As the storyline progresses on, so the horror and the deliberately depressing ill-feeling escalates. By now the reader is as desperate for a sight of the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel as Keller must be. And this finally comes in the form of the strange (and somewhat reluctant) psychic of Hobbs. From here on the layers gradually begin to peel back, one at a time. Utterly swallowed up in the suffocating atmosphere of it all, the reader instantly engages with the possibility of a demonic presence at work. Herbert’s carefully calculated gamble on such a desperate latching on to even the wildest reasoning pays off tenfold here, allowing the tale to suddenly spark into a vigorous new life with this run-up to the ending.
Now with everything in this very singular storyline charging forth with a snowballing energy, Herbert stamps his ultimate authority on the whole novel with a final (and incredibly ingenious) twist. Everything comes thundering down on the reader. Keller’s foggy memories are uncovered. The frightening reality suddenly becomes emblazoned across this triumphant finale. If successful (as it was for me when I first read the tale all those years ago) then the dramatic twist is a spectacular and near monumental achievement.
If you can stand the overall depressive bleakness that surrounds the vast majority of the tale, then this is certainly a hell of a captivating and utterly compelling read. The characterisation is in-depth, insightful, constantly developed upon and instantly bonding with the reader.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t necessarily a novel for everyone. After reading the classic splatterpunk-fests of ‘The Rats’ (1974) and ‘The Fog’ (1975), I remember I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like this from his next novel. But I quickly became swallowed up by the clinging atmosphere as well as the eerie mystery of the tale. It’s this atmosphere and the constant shadow of the unknown that keeps the reader gripped by the story. Let’s be honest, there’s not a great deal else to the story. No intricate subplots or carefully woven layers to the storyline. It’s frank, bold and entirely singular approach to the plot works incredibly well with the carefully formed atmosphere.
The novel is a remarkable achievement, and one even to this day (20+ years later as I write this) that still remains a story that brings back vivid and haunting memories. The book was later adapted into an Australian film in 1981 by David Hemmings, starring Robert Powell as David Keller.
The novel runs for a total of 206 pages.
© DLS Reviews