First published back in January of 1983, British horror author James Herbert’s ninth novel to be released to an ever-eagerly awaiting audience was entitled ‘Shrine’.

DLS Synopsis:
Nothing ever happens in the quaint British village of Banfield.  That is until a young deaf-mute girl named Alice Pagett experiences a supernatural vision of a woman in shimmering white proclaiming herself to be the Immaculate Conception.  After witnessing this incredible vision, Alice finds that her hearing and ability to speak has miraculously returned.                                   

Upon the news of such a miracle occurring, throngs of hopefuls begin a pilgrimage to the site of Alice’s visitation - beneath an ancient oak tree.  Alice Pagett is now the centre of a growing media attention; the oak tree all of a sudden a shrine to the massing spiritual believers.  Amongst the crowds that have gathered are those with critical illnesses, hoping for another miracle to take place and cure their terminal illness.  Unbelievably, it’s not long before another such miracle takes place, and through Alice Pagett’s newfound healing powers, those afflicted with an illness find themselves miraculously cured.

However, this sudden emergence of spiritual goodness is not felt by everyone in Banfield.  The local parish priest, Father Hagan, begins to feel that his own church is no longer such altogether good and holy place.  And with that his health begins to suddenly deteriorate.  Meanwhile, the local reporter, Gerry Fenn, is convinced that all is not quite right with the scenes of holy miracles unfolding in Banfield.  With the hype surrounding Alice Pagett quickly getting out of control, Fenn begins to investigate the matter in the hope of uncovering the real truth behind the miracles.

By now Alice Pagett is no longer a timid and bewildered young girl, overwhelmed by her sudden saintly abilities.  Her manner and persona has shifted.  She now seems to embrace the sudden media attention, basking in the cameras and teeming throngs of desperate believers fighting for a glimpse of the miracle girl.

But there is something else lurking behind the saintly face of Alice Pagett.  Something far from pure.  A legacy of a vile corruption that stretches back to the middle ages.  Something that has now found its way into that of an innocent.  Something that is growing stronger by the day...

DLS Review:
The basic plot of the novel is far from ground-breakingly original it must be said.  However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Some of the most spectacular and haunting novels have come from reworking, redesigning and reinventing classic ideas.  Just look at Herbert’s earlier novel ‘The Survivor’ (1976).  Was that not just a further development on an idea pulled directly from Ambrose Bierce’s short ‘An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’ (1890)?  True enough we’re ultimately talking about a plot pretty much involving demonic possession and a mass misguided belief and far little else.  However, what Herbert does, is really ramp-up the tension that lurks behind the saintly façade of Alice Pagett, making the whole crux of the somewhat simplistic tale, far more focussed on the escalating tension that will surely be vented in a dramatically explosive revelation.

This is very much the key to the novel’s success (and successful I believe it certainly is).  Herbert masterfully builds up this snowballing suspense from the very first page.  Constantly at the readers’ heels is the chilling knowledge that something isn’t quite right.  And as the storyline becomes more hectic, with the miracles sparking massive media coverage, so this underlying tension just keeps on mounting to gigantic proportions.

Characterisation is well-developed, intricately set-down and constantly evolving, as is now pretty much taken for granted with Herbert’s work.  Admittedly there is one slight peculiarity here with ‘Shrine’.  With the principal protagonist of Gerry Finn, the reader is brought into the novel very much following in his progression with uncovering the horrific truth behind the Alice Pagett’s spiritual abilities.  However, when the finale plays out (don’t worry, I won’t give it away) Finn is left very much a bystander in the final proceedings.  It’s almost as if the entire inclusion of this principal character was utterly pointless (this is a slight exaggeration merely to make the point).

And this brings me to the one point with the novel where it seems to either make or break the story for most readers – the ending.  It’s one of those ‘love it or hate it’ sort of situations, where there’s no right or wrong answer to whether it works or not.  For me, the first time I read the novel I was left feeling somewhat cheated.  I felt let-down by what seemed to be an astronomical copout.  Remember, the tension has been mounting from the very beginning of the novel, constantly working its way to this final moment.  By now you’re expecting something close to utter Armageddon to take place in order to justify all of the mounting tension from over the last four-hundred odd pages.  What actually transpires is something very different (again, my lips are sealed).  Is it a let-down?  Does it ruin the entire story?  Well, as I said, first time round I probably would have jumped in with a very resounding “yes” at this point.  However, after returning to the novel a number of years later, I found that I had grown to appreciate the suddenness of the ending.  It jolts you into seeing the harsh truth of it all.  It makes you feel real again.  That everyone is still just flesh and blood.  And for the braveness of such a bold and controversial finale, I salute the author once again.

So there you have it.  Another Herbert novel, another new direction for the author, and in my opinion, another damn fine addition to a thoroughly impressive back catalogue.

The novel runs for a total of 432 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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