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Literature / Once

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''A scary Tale of Faerefolkis and Evildoers, of Lovers and Erotic Passion, of Horror and Belief. Written only for Adults by James Herbert."

A 2001 novel by James Herbert.

Following a stroke, twenty-seven-year old carpenter Thom Kindred continues his recovery with a return to his childhood home of Little Bracken, cottage guesthouse to Castle Bracken, a sixteenth century mansion in the Shropshire countryside. His childhood friend Hugo Bleeth, heir to Castle Bracken, has arranged Thom's attendance by Nell Quick, self-professed healer and nurse to Sir Russell Bleeth, the dying lord of the manor. Her oddly sly, lascivious demeanour somehow makes Thom uneasy. A plate then apparently throws itself to the floor, scaring her off.

After encounters in the forest with tiny glowing winged figures and a sensuous young woman who seems not quite of this world, Thom fears his stroke may have somehow induced hallucination. When some kind of hideous fiend attacks him in his bed, a tiny, strangely wizened, size-shifting man comes to the rescue; introduces himself as Rigwit, a brownie, and warns Thom of Nell's malice.

Next morning, Jennet, the undine girl from the woods, then introduces Thom to the world of the faerefolkis...

Not to be confused with the 2007 film written and directed by John Carney.

"You do believe in tropes, don't you?"

  • Agent Scully: Thom, perplexed by a multicoloured swarm of tiny lights, limply theorises them to be some undiscovered breed of butterfly.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Several undines have complexions tinged with blue or green.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Nell, and possibly Katy.
  • Ambiguously Brown: A non-human example in Rigwit, whose skin tone somewhat resembles that of someone Chinese.
  • Ambiguously Human: Thom encounters, reclining beneath a lakeside tree, Jennet. While she appears to be a five foot tall young woman, her exquisite pallor, unabashed nudity, and cohorts of tiny winged figures have Thom decidedly perplexed.
  • Alchemic Elementals: Undines are "waterfays," and seem to inhabit the forest lake.
  • And I Must Scream: Wayward faerefolkis who do irreversible harm are confined to the Punishment Tree, where they squirm in silent torment until dropping off as pieces of bark.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Thom plans to use his inheritance to turn Castle Bracken into a specialist children's hospital, around which the faerefolkis will gradually further reveal themselves to humanity.
  • Another Dimension: The faerefolkis exist on a higher dimension, between vibrations generally beyond human senses, hence Rigwit's initial size-shifting in accordance with Thom's adjusting perception.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Nell, a trained, if unorthodox nurse, deliberately keeps Sir Russell alive, so as to force amendment of his will to leave to Hugo the Bracken Estate. She later, with magically invoked phantasms, tries to cause Sir Russell fatal heart failure.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness:
    • Down Played and justified, a faery's spiritual demeanour and intentions affect human senses' interpretation of them. Rigwit has "an eccentric charm...bewitchingly intriguing," Jennet looks like a "fantastically beautiful" nubile young woman.
    Jennet: Their forms depend mainly on you, Thom. Your own eyes and mind interpret their energies to whatever is acceptable to you.
    Thom: But some aren't acceptable. Some are just plain horrible.
    Jennet: Those are cloaked in the nature of what they are and your thoughts are telling you so. Some of them adopt their own version of the human shape, but because they're weak and nasty, they become ugly, distorted, parodies of earthly creatures.
  • Benevolent Precursors: The faerefolkis somewhat resemble this, being inter-dimensional beings whose nurture of nature enables Earth to support life.
  • Big Fun: Portly Hugo is jolly, generous and in league with Nell, although seems to retain some genuine affection for his old friend Thom.
  • Bigger on the Inside: A jar left at the cottage door by Nell, which contains a seemingly infinite amount of spiders, somewhat TARDIS-like, to contain a dimensional portal to some ethereal realm.
  • Big Good: The faerefolkis are guided by the Magicks, an apparent Call-Back to forces mentioned in The Magic Cottage.
  • Black Magic: Nell, implied to have some innate supernatural ability, uses occult ritual to, among other things, try to acquire the Bleeth inheritance.
  • Black Speech: The spectral, rotted witches roused by Nell's overzealous conjuring taunt her in an unknown language.
  • Brainy Brunette: Nell, with her knowledge of traditional remedies, nursing, and witchcraft.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Thom, whose father died before he was born, and whose mother, when he was ten, apparently drowned herself, honed a solitary pragmatism when Sir Russell sent him to boarding school.
    • Katy Budd, Thom's physiotherapist, takes a liking to her charge; arrives at the cottage in his absence, is subjected by Nell to aphrodisiac orchid roots; flees, and is driven by Nell's familiar magpie into a car crash. Happily, she survives.
  • The Cavalry: A fleet of smaller faeries at times come to the rescue.
  • Cool Gate: An ancient book, previously owned by the cottage's past acquaintances of the faerefolkis, is used by the smaller faeries as a portal.
  • Country Mouse: Following initial unease, Thom is very glad to be back in his childhood home.
  • Creator Cameo: Of a sort; a storytelling elf goes intermittently by the names Trebreh and Semaj.
  • Crop Circles: Were made first by "ufoses," then by pixies, and then, to Jennet's amusement, humans.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Averted with Eric Pimlet, the Bracken estate's kindly old gamekeeper, who, on Thom's sixth birthday, inspired his carpentry vocation with the gift of a whittling knife.
  • Dark Is Evil: Maliciously inclined faerefolkis work their mischief by night.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: "Bones" Hartgrove, Sir Russell's foreboding valet, who used to scare Thom, knows, like his forebears, the secret of the faerefolkis; encouraged Sir Russell to accept Jonathan's union with an undine, and defends the unspoiled estate from Nell and Hugo's plans.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • On failure to scare off a surprisingly bold magpie...
    Thom: ...Yeah, and fuck you too.
    • Following the confrontation with the succubus...
    Thom: But elves aren't real, they only exist in storybooks.
    Rigwit: Aye, an' so be faeries, and yer've just seen 'em. An' so be the succubus, fer yer've just seen that evil thing too.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Averted. While Jennet must spend seven years in the Waiting Place as payment for magically influencing events to save Thom from Nell's magically induced stroke, she will return in human form to preside with Thom over the children's hospice.
  • Don't Go Into the Woods:
    • A nostalgic walk through the woods of Thom's childhood home sees him suddenly set upon by a gang of fiendish, malicious faerefolkis, who steer him into a wasp's nest.
    • Inverted; when later led here by Jennet, he finds most of the faerefolkis to be benevolent.
  • Eldritch Abomination: To Sir Russell's eyrie, Nell summons what appears to be a concentrated mass of pervasive darkness, which amalgamates into various fearsome manifestations.
  • Energy Beings: Multicoloured sparks of light, "part of the hidden life-force of all that exists," briefly heal Thom of his stroke-induced weariness.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: As a storm cloud looms directly over Castle Bracken, Thom, to aid Sir Russell against the diabolical forces within, is hindered by seemingly strategic blasts of wind; fiendish soil-dwelling dwarfs, and at the bridge, the flooded river leaps at him in deliberate torrents.
  • Evil Plan: Nell aims to magically acquire the Bleeth inheritance, and eliminate Thom, whom she anticipates to be a future threat.
  • Face Your Fears: As explained by Rigwit, Thom's only way of getting rid of the spiders is to throw their jar from the cottage.
  • The Fair Folk: Some of the faerefolkis delight in tormenting humans. Why? "For fun".
  • Fairy Sexy: Jennet and her fellow undines, as well as the smaller faeries.
  • Familiar: Atop Little Bracken's tower roof, Thom is disquieted by a magpie, which he feels seems to be watching him. The bird is later shown to have a sinister affinity with Nell.
  • Fanservice: Some sensual descriptions of Nell, Katy and Jennet, and Thom sometimes goes shirtless.
  • Fat Bastard: Averted with a Gof, a paunchy, benevolent elf.
  • Folk Horror:
    • Some of the faerefolkis enjoy tormenting humans; Thom meets several who scarily pop up from beneath the soil, driving him into a wasps' nest.
    • Nell's perversion of Wicca incorporates veneration of demons, allowing for insidious manipulation of nature, and horrifying phantasms.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Subverted; Jonathan and Bethan, indifferent to formal marriage, underwent a faerefolkis ceremony.
  • Friend to All Children:
    • The faerefolkis sometimes appear to infants and the very old, "because we like them, and they're no danger to us."
    • When visiting Katy in hospital, Thom passes a children's ward, and is moved to plan to use his inheritance to transform Castle Bracken into a specialist hospice.
  • Fright Death Trap: Attempted magically on Sir Russell by Nell. It doesn't end well for her.
  • God: The faerefolkis "call many things God," but in their position in "the essence of everything," the presence of the "Creator Being" is apparent to them.
  • Good Parents:
    • With deep fondness, Thom recalls his widowed, adoring mother Bethan.
    • On sight of her sketch of his father Jonathan Bleeth, Thom feels an instant sense of the man's compassion.
  • Guardian Entity: Rigwit, custodian of Little Bracken, also looks after Thom. Jennet is revealed to have reached back through time to save Thom from Nell's magically inflicted stroke.
  • Gut Feeling: As taught by his mother, Thom is reminded of the "inner voice": an unimpeachable awareness, innate to all, and distinct from the matter it inhabits.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Thom was born of an undine-turned-human and a human man.
  • Heaven: A vision of part of the afterlife is glimpsed by Thom whilst making love with Jennet. A vast white void peopled with joyous souls, it's said to be a "Waiting Place."
  • Healing Hands: Nell claims such ability. The faerefolkis have advanced mastery of cures, demonstrated by Rigwit and Jennet.
  • Hoist by Their Own Petard: Nell ultimately can't control the forces she's unleashed.
  • Hot Witch: Nell.
  • House Fey: Brownies "like looking after homes, especially when the owners are away."
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Thom, at average height, and Jennet at five foot (if that), although this seems to be tall by undine standards.
  • I Know What You Fear: Nell invokes phantasms to respectively terrorise Sir Russell, Hugo, Thom and, unintentionally, herself.
  • In Harmony with Nature:
    • Nell's masterful grasp of natural remedies.
    • Faerefolkis affinity with the ecosystem earns mastery of curative properties. They yearn for a day when abandonment of materialism will bring humanity back to their acquaintance, and to the "grand consciousness."
  • Innocent Aliens: According to Jennet, interstellar visitors, whose vehicles traverse such dimensions as those of the faerefolkis, are wary of contact with humans, and zoom off when they realise they're being watched.
  • Innocent Bystander: Katy Budd, Thom's physiotherapist.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Thom encounters Jennet masturbating with the aid of several smaller faeries. Unable to look away, he quickly feels guilty, though she doesn't seem to mind at all.
  • Just Desserts: The magpie with which Nell has sinister affinity, after forcing Katy into a road collision, is torn apart and devoured by crows.
  • King On His Death Bed: Elderly Sir Russell Bleeth, dying of inoperable heart disease, is bedridden in Castle Bracken's eyrie, whose glorious panoramic view of the estate seems to offer him some comfort.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: On condition that Bethan make young Thom forget all knowledge of the faerefolkis, Sir Russell agreed to take charge of the boy's welfare - although Bethan did hide the Portal Book on the cottage's top shelf, seemingly for Thom to someday find.
  • Light Is Good: While initially hostile to Thom's unwitting intrusion, the tiny glowing faeries prove benevolent. When stung to near-delirium by a swarm of disturbed wasps, a small floating orb, sent by recently encountered Jennet, guides him home to Little Bracken.
  • Lighter and Softer: By Herbert's standards, although that's not saying much...
  • Love at First Sight: Shortly following Thom's awed first sight of Jennet, the two fall mutually in love; as with Thom's parents, the attraction is implied to be innate and inevitable.
  • Love Potion: Nell plans to use aphrodisiac orchid roots to steal Thom's life juices. In his absence, Katy turns up...
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Jonathan Bleeth, original heir to Castle Bracken, whilst serving in Northern Ireland, was killed by an IRA bomb before Thom was born.
  • The Medic: When a delirious Thom recovers from wasp stings, Jennet discreetly applies soothing creams. Rigwit, to aid his stroke-induced fatigue, consistently supplies him with plum-flavoured herbal juice, and later, some rather more powerful stuffs, some of whose content he suggests Thom is better off not knowing.
  • Monstrous Humanoid:
    • From the forest floor around Thom emerge numerous leering heads.
    • The succubus, with its huge cranium, large black eyes, and muscular, leathery frame.
  • Nature Spirit: The faerefolkis live "in the spirit of nature." Without their nurture, life on Earth couldn't survive.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Nell, on the first hint the faerefolkis are looking out for Thom.
    • The succubus, just before the smaller faeries arrive.
  • Only the Pure of Heart: Debunked as a means to perceive faeries, which comes from psychic orientation.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Nell's rituals involve veneration of traditional demonic figures. Seemingly drawn to her excess of insidious conjuring, one such figure, the Diabolus, arrives to claim her soul.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: Folkloric conceptions of such beings are revealed to have been inspired by race memory.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Unintentionally summoned by Nell's conjuring, several rotted, mutilated witches taunt her with the ruinous effects of Black Magic. Thought not to be spirits of earthly beings, Jennet notes them not to be apparitions.
  • Parental Abandonment: Thom's father, revealed to be Jonathan Bleeth, heir to Castle Bracken, died before Thom was born. When Thom was ten, his mother Bethan apparently drowned herself. Having been an undine who became human, the death of Jonathan stifled the magic which kept her alive.
  • Power Incontinence: Nell's overzealous conjuring summons phantasmal emaciated crones who torment her with promises of the physically corrupting effects of Black Magic; a demonic figure termed the Diabolus, and a fatal lightning bolt.
  • Rape as Drama: In Thom's absence, Nell uses her aphrodisiac orchid roots on Katy.
  • Recurring Character: Rumbo, last seen as a squirrel in The Magic Cottage, is now a fox.
  • Sadist: Nell, enraged by Thom's recent secret venture into her house - despite herself having rummaged around in Little Bracken - leaves a jar at his door, which unleashes a seemingly infinite horde of spiders.
  • Satan: A figure called the Diabolus, "greatest demon of all," is summoned by Nell. It doesn't end well for her.
  • Scary Stinging Swarm: On early venture into the woods, emergence from beneath the soil of numerous fearsome earthen heads has Thom confusedly flee, whereupon he accidentally disturbs a wasp nest...
  • Scenery Porn: Some beautiful descriptions of the Shropshire countryside.
  • Sdrawkcab Name: Several faerefolkis are reverse named after earlier Herbert novels.
  • Sex Magic:
    • Nell tries to acquire Thom's seed, which would offer profound magical influence.
    • Sexual love, said to be "the strongest magic of all", enabled Thom's mother Bethan to become human. Intercourse with Thom later enables Jennet to cast her magic back through time to save Thom from Nell's magically induced stroke.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Hugo has always faintly reminded Thom of Toad of Toad Hall.
    • Sudden protrusion from the forest soil of grimy, scaly hands reminds an astonished Thom of late-night horror movies - he may be thinking of The Plague of the Zombies and the poster for The Evil Dead (1981).
    • Rigwit's appearance is explicitly contrasted to that of a Disney character.
    • An Icelandic singer, confirmed by Herbert to be Bj√∂rk, is said to have been an undine who became human.
    • Having drugged her with aphrodisiac orchid roots, Nell addresses Katy as "my pretty" - and, at the "witchhag utterance", almost laughs.
    • As the effect of the orchid roots wears off, Nell's crazed lust reminds Katy of Rochester's mad wife.
    • The climax, in which Nell's overzealous conjuring rouses a demonic manifestation, somewhat recalls The Devil Rides Out.
    • On departure to the Waiting Place, Jennet leaves Thom with the message "expect me." Herbert later noted this to be a deliberate nod to the autograph inscriptions of Margaret Hamilton.
  • Single Tear of Joy: On Thom's realisation of his preordained vocation to aid humanity's gradual reunion with the faerefolkis by founding in Castle Bracken a children's hospice to whose patients the faerefolkis will gradually apply their healing powers, Jennet sheds a single tear, seemingly both in sorrow at having to spend seven years in the Waiting Place, and joy.
  • Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Sir Russell's embittered aloofness is imagined by Thom to have been caused by being twice a widower, and by the killing by an IRA bomb of his Belfast-stationed son Jonathan.
  • Spark Fairy: The smaller faeries initially appear as variously coloured points of light, although, within, Thom later discerns tiny winged figures.
  • Spiders Are Scary: Never more so than when literally thousands of them magically swamp your house. Thom hates the buggers.
  • Super-Senses: On accompanying Jennet into the woods, Thom, having attuned to the dimension inhabited by the faerefolkis, sees, hears and smells, with overwhelming lucidity, the life around him.
  • Snakes Are Sinister:
    • Averted with a grass snake, happily rode upon by several tiny imps.
    • Invoked with the phantom snakes who terrorise Hugo.
  • The Swarm: A magically infinite horde of spiders.
  • Skeptic No Longer: Thom.
  • Succubi and Incubi: A succubus, though not the usual Hot as Hell kind. Thom wakes from a dream about Jennet, and then Nell, to find himself being fellated by a four foot tall, muscular biped with a huge cranium, black eyes and pointy teeth; sent by Nell to acquire Thom's seed.
  • Translator Microbes: To Thom, Rigwit's speech is, at first, barely intelligibly fast. On sensory adjustment to Rigwit's dimensional orientation, the brownie's speech becomes slower, yet flavoured with Old English. Further adjustment allows Thom's subconscious clearer interpretation.
  • True Craftsman: Thom's lifelong fascination with wood nurtured a fastidious devotion to carpentry.
  • The Vamp: Nell keeps Hugo in desirous thrall. Defied by Thom, who, while initially attracted to her, finds her advances unnervingly overbearing.
  • All Webbed Up: Nell's spiders begin an attempt at this on Thom.
  • Wicked Witch: Nell; a sultry practitioner of natural remedies and self-professed healer, who, through diabolical ritual, wields sinister influence.
  • Weird Weather: A storm cloud, focused directly above Castle Bracken, heralds a sudden unnatural hostility of surrounding flora and fauna.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Nell's phantasms seem to work like this; the spiders have increasingly tangible effects before Thom throws their jar from the cottage.