School: The Seventh Silence
By Criag Herbertson
Published by Immanion Press, 2005.
Craig Herbertsons’ short stories such as New Teacher, Spanish Suite and Leibniz’s Last Puzzle have been regular highlights of recent Black Book of Horror’s and other anthologies, so I was delighted to get hold of a copy of his first and to date only novel length work.
School: The Seventh Silence follows the adventures of Jean Deforte. Jean is half french which already sets him aside as an outsider at school, creating classroom difficulties but these are the least of his problems. Left at an English school while his mother attends his fathers deathbed, it’s only his sister Michelle, or Papillion who he can really relate to.
His siters disappearance, which may be linked to a string of child abductions in the area, is the straw that breaks young Jean, sending him spiralling into an alternative world. Jean finds himself in a school populated by a completely different set of problems. Here amidst a world of talking statues, mating books and even a white rabbit are dangers of a different kind, monsters which threaten to consume him.
Craig Herbertson has created a marvellous fantastical adventure with a deep and dark undercurrent in School. Ostensibly similar to Carrol’s Alice stories with it’s dark fantasy adventures, it also invokes Peake’s Gormenghast with it’s bleak, crumbling buildings and morbid characters. It’s more adult in tone than the former though and asks some real questions of the reader on the themes of childhood isolation, family bonds and exclusion. In a lesser writers hands this could have led to a clumsy piece of work but in Herbertson’s hands it becomes an original and engrossing adventure.
Despite the difficult concepts at play the writer manages to get and keep the readers attention even when faced with the most bizarre and grotesque scenes. The clarity of the writing is also illuminated by the authors excellent line drawings which intersperse the story.
Problems really only revolve around the ending which comes at a rush and also leaves the story unfinished, I know the author has other books planned in the series but as these have not yet been published it’s down to the reader’s imagination to fill in any gaps. There is also a strange tone at points in the story which almost take it into children’s book territory e.g. the monsters after Jean are known as Goobleys, yet despite the childish name they are frightening creatures. I think this is a deliberate attempt to reach the innocence of the child in what is clearly an adult story and for me it didn’t detract from the otherwise serious tone.
This is not your average horror novel, it flies in the face of genre, there is horror but there is also fantasy, adventure, comedy and more in this novel. What it is, is an excellent coming of age story, a journey into the troubled mind of a young person alone in a strange world. Above all its an excellent debut, fans of Herbertson’s short stories will love this as his fantastical visions are given the space to spread their wings and fly.