Well, out of the 116 books I’ve reviewed since I got back into reading regularly, I was shocked to realise that I hadn’t reviewed a single James Herbert novel. In fact, I didn’t even notice this shocking omission until, whilst searching one of my book piles for old horror novels, I stumbled across a copy of Herbert’s 1981 novel “The Jonah”.
Although I initially assumed that it was one of the second-hand horror novels that I had bought during the ’00s, but never got round to reading, I was surprised to find that I had read it before. Even though I had no memory of reading it, there was a pencil mark on one of the pages (I used to leave these, lest the bookmark fell out) which showed me I’d been there before. So, I was curious.
So, let’s take a look at “The Jonah”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in 1950s London, where a lavatory attendant called Vera discovers an abandoned baby with something lying beside it. Then, we flash forward to 1980s London. Undercover detective Jim Kelso is in a police car following another car belonging to a group of bank robbers.
According to his intelligence, they’re heading for the docks. However, whilst passing through a road tunnel, it turns out that the criminals were actually planning to rob a nearby armoured van.
In the gunfight that follows, one of Kelso’s colleagues is killed after Kelso’s gun jams at a crucial moment. Although his superiors check the gun and agree that it was an accident, they feel that – thanks to his accident-filled service record – he is a “Jonah”, a bad luck magnet.
But, since Kelso is too competent to be sacked, he ends up being reassigned to the drug squad and sent to a small coastal village in Suffolk called Adleton where a local family suffered a mysterious case of LSD poisoning. Yet, after spending several weeks there, he can see no signs of smuggling along the coast. Still, he’s sure that something is going on….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that reading it felt like returning home again 🙂 Seriously, I’d almot forgotten how awesome James Herbert novels are. This novel is a lot more fast-paced and readable than I’d expected, whilst still being just as atmospheric as you’d expect a 1980s horror novel to be 🙂 Not to mention that, like Shaun Hutson’s 2006 novel “Dying Words“, this novel is also an intriguing hybrid of a gritty crime thriller and a horror novel.
Interestingly, the novel almost tends to focus more on its crime thriller elements, with the horror elements sometimes being more of an ominous background detail.
Still, although this novel mostly lacks the gory splatterpunk horror that Herbert pioneered with his 1974 classic “The Rats” (which I really need to re-read sometime), this isn’t to say that the story is devoid of horror. In addition to a wonderfully grotesque conclusion (and a creepy, but subtle, twist in the final moments), this novel also contains quite a few moments of implied horror, atmospheric horror, tragic horror, menacing suspense, paranormal horror and psychological horror. Plus, there’s also a brief scene involving rats too 🙂
In short, the horror elements of this novel are probably slightly closer to a traditional ghost story and/or an ominous Lovecraftian horror story than a typical splatterpunk novel. Even so, the horror elements work well and help to add mystery and atmosphere to the story 🙂 But, if you’re expecting a grisly 1980s gore-fest, then you’re probably better off reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” instead.
The novel’s crime thriller elements are quite compelling though. In addition to a dramatic and gritty car chase/gunfight at the beginning of the story, there’s a lot of gradually building suspense whilst Kelso and a customs agent called Ellie investigate the small village of Adleton, not to mention that there are a few dramatic fights and/or perilous predicaments too (which even include a segment that wouldn’t look out of place in a disaster movie). So, the thriller elements of this novel are certainly compelling enough 🙂
Even so, some details do feel a little bit under-researched. With, for example, some of the segments involving drugs containing what seem to be a few basic errors. Even so, other parts of the story contain all sorts of complex scientific jargon. Then again, given that this novel was written in the early 1980s, I guess that research materials about science were probably easier to find than reliable information about drugs was.
In terms of the characters, they’re surprisingly good. Although Kelso is a typical gruff and rugged 1980s horror novel protagonist, he gets a lot of backstory which really helps to add a lot of tragic depth to his character. Likewise, his colleague/love interest Ellie is also a reasonably well-developed and realistic character too. Plus, like in all good 1980s horror novels, there’s a large and quickly-sketched, but believable, cast of background characters who almost all die in various horrible ways.
In terms of the writing, it’s really good 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration is, in a word, readable. It is formal and descriptive enough to lend the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from a 1980s horror novel, but it is also “matter of fact”, informal and gritty enough to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace. The writing in this novel really shines during the historical flashback scenes, which really capture the grim, understated and drab atmosphere of 1950s/60s Britain.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 At a gloriously efficient 253 pages in length, there’s no bloat or padding in this novel 🙂 This novel also contains a really good mixture of moderately-paced atmospheric scenes and faster-paced moments which really helps to keep the novel compelling.
As for how this thirty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, there are a few dated and mildly-moderately “politically incorrect” descriptions, but the story itself is still really compelling, the writing is still very readable today and the story also has a wonderfully retro, gloomy and rural 1980s atmosphere to it too 🙂
All in all, if you want a compelling vintage crime thriller and/or a relatively non-gory example of 1980s horror fiction, then this novel is worth reading 🙂 Seriously, I’d forgotten how much fun James Herbert novels are to read 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.