The Survivor

Posted: October 31, 2014 in Book reviews

By James Herbert

The historic town of Eton is hit by tragedy when a 747 crashes nearby shortly after take-off. The destruction is near total, with over 300 people killed outright. Only one person walks away from the crash site, with barely a mark on him. He is Dave Keller, the plane’s co-pilot.

An investigation begins into the cause of the crash, but in the days that follow the inhabitants of Eton are beset by tragedy upon tragedy, murder, suicide and insanity stalk the streets. Meanwhile Keller is troubled by the miraculous nature of his survival and driven by an urge to find out what caused the crash. When a spiritualist named Hobbs comes to visit Keller is sceptical, but he quickly comes to realise that the souls of many of the victims are still tied to the vicinity of the crash, confused, angry and dominated by an evil personality they’re eager for blood. They want revenge on the man who caused the crash, and Keller is their chosen instrument of vengeance.

This is my first review of a book I’ve read before, although to be fair it’s been an awful long time since I read The Survivor. Whilst I’ve been a huge fan of James Herbert since my teenage years, there are some books of his that I’ve only read the once (and one book, Fluke, which I’ve never read at all) and The Survivor falls into the category. Reading it again I can kind of see why, as it’s not one of his better books.

In fairness it is only the third book he wrote, and interestingly it’s his first venture in supernatural horror, given that The Rats and The Fog dealt with environmental/scientific horror.

The nature of the threat is different, but the overarching narrative is similar to the two previous books. There is a powerful threat and, in a series of vignettes we meet characters who are then destroyed, or at least badly damaged by that threat in a series of original and violent ways, meanwhile the hero stumbles through the carnage before finding a resolution.

The Survivor doesn’t have the visceral originality of The Rats, nor the crazed violent horror of The Fog, but Herbert does try to balance the gore with a general creepiness for the first time, and whilst not always successful it is possible to see the seeds of later works within this one, in particular Shrine seems to follow a similar path on a more epic scale.

Of course the main thing of note about The Survivor is the twist, which sadly I knew even before the first time I read this because I saw the Robert Powell starring film which obviously gave it away. In fairness it might have been surprising at the time, but certainly modern horror fans will likely see it coming a mile away (in fact maybe even in 1977 people saw it coming a mile away.)

Keller is a fairly bland hero, Herbert had a tendency to leave his leads as blank canvasses for the reader to imprint on, sometimes this worked very well, and sometimes it didn’t. The story has originality going for it, yet still seems fairly thin, and whilst Herbert was always very good as coming up with gruesomely original deaths for his characters there’s little meat beyond this, and the man behind the crash is revealed late on with very little foreshadowing. Given how good Herbert would prove to be at meshing horror with detective/thriller elements it’s a shame that this aspect of the story wasn’t given more weight as it might have improved the book no end.

Not terrible by any means, but Herbert would go on to write much better.

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