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Literature / The Ghosts of Sleath

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A 1994 novel by James Herbert. Three years after a nervous breakdown induced by the events of Haunted, parapsychologist David Ash remains dedicated to exposing hoaxes, but has been irresistibly convinced of the actuality of ghosts.

Called to the secluded village of Sleath to investigate appearances to bereaved mother Ellen Preddle by the ghost of her recently deceased son Simon, Ash learns of a recent influx of ghostly encounters throughout the village. Disembodied children's voices are heard singing from a disused and empty school, the haystack fire which incinerated George Preddle is seen to burn again, and the ghost of George has apparently returned to further molest the ghost of his son.

Insight from the vicar's daughter Grace Lockwood and maverick psychic Seamus Phelan hint at a sinister connection between the hauntings...

The tropes of Sleath:

  • Abusive Parents: Discussed.
    Ash: Men have slaughtered their families and women have smothered their babies under the misguided notion that they were protecting their loved ones from the wicked realities of life.
  • Accidental Murder: Trainee poacher Mickey Dunn, on a nightly raid on the Lockwood Estate, is petrified by a strange haze in which float several slowly assembling human body parts. He fires his crossbow, and unwittingly kills gamekeeper Jack Buckler.
  • Anomalous Art: In the Reverend Lockwood's study, a painting of Lockwood Hall, independently of any perceptible flame, melts, cracks and smokes.
  • Arbitrary Scepticism: Farmer Sam Gunstone, having seen a spectral haystack fire, puts the phenomenon down to hallucination - but on seeing it again in the dead of night, realises he's fooling himself.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Black Boar Inn owners Tom and Rosemary Jinty, while outwardly civil, secretly loathe each other.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Hellfire Club founder Sir Francis Dashwood is depicted to have taken the credit for doing so from Sebastian Lockwood, whose murderous attempt to harness spiritual energies had some success.
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Or rather jaywalking ghosts - driving to Sleath, Ash is horrified to see, in the road before his car, the figure of a young boy. Ash swerves, and thinks he's hit him - but the boy is nowhere in sight.
  • Big Eater: As well as his own pub breakfast, Seamus eats half of Ash's.
  • Big Fancy House: Lockwood Hall, now derelict and inwardly charred, was the seat of generations of Lockwoods, several of whom held in Sleath some role of ecclesiastical authority. The basement was used for Human Sacrifice, and holds the embalmed corpses of several Lockwoods.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Ash is bereaved by the horrifying death of Grace, the danger is passed, and the villagers begin to come to terms with their trauma.
  • Bloody Horror: Sleath's old whipping post is sometimes seen to bleed.
  • Came Back Wrong: Having drowned in the bath, the ghost of eleven-year-old Simon Preddle remains naked, wet, and seems unaware of his grieving mother's presence.
  • Creepy Children Singing: From inside an empty school, an unseen choir of children are heard to sing the hymn "Lord of the Dance."
  • Crippling Castration: Seen to have been inflicted on the ghost of Joseph Munce.
  • Darker and Edgier: Much more depravity than in Haunted.
  • Daylight Horror:
    • Eighteen-year-old Ruth Cauldwell, walking home by the woods, is followed by boyfriend Danny Marsh, who makes clumsy advances. Traumatised by childhood molestation, she flees, and sees, amidst a breeze-blown swirl of leaves, the castrated ghost of Munce, her molester.
    • Ralph Cauldwell then takes his daughter's frightened babble to mean Danny's attempted rape. With a mallet, Ralph bloodily batters the youth nearly to death - all on a bright summer's day.
  • Death of a Child: Eleven-year-old Simon Preddle, and numerous Human Sacrifice victims throughout Sleath's history.
  • Flayed Alive: The last Lockwood descendants, Carl Beardsmore and Grace Lockwood, by the ghostly victims of the Lockwood rituals.
  • Eldritch Location: Sleath is believed to stand on a "ley line" of the earth which nurtures spectral activity. This has apparently been enhanced by Ritual Magic.
  • Elemental Barrier: When the hauntings escalate, an uncannily dense fog descends on Sleath, to deliberately enclose the village.
  • Everything's Deader with Zombies: Seamus Phelan, leaving the abruptly darkening church, hears, from behind, a stone sliding from the sarcophagus of Sir Gareth Lockwood. On abrupt exit, Seamus catches hints of a fetid smell; slow footsteps, and a shadowed figure. Whether the centuries-old corpse really is animate, or this is just a spectrally induced impression, isn't entirely certain.
  • Foreshadowing: The ghostly young boy seen by Ash on the road is Grace's classmate Timmy Norris - who, during a mystic ritual at Lockwood Hall, was sacrificed in her place.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Whilst inspecting a return of the spectral haystack fire, Nellie Gunstone, wife of farmer Sam, succumbs to emphysema, and in death, retains a look of horror. However, on lifting of the vengeful, village-wide spectral fog, this fades to a look of deathly peace.
  • Human Sacrifice: A large part of the Lockwood dynasty's Ritual Magic. The church records reveal Robert Guy Lockwood, under pretence of religious penance, to have overseen the drowning in the village pond of numerous mentally and bodily ill children.
  • Immortality Seeker: Sir Gareth Lockwood, thirteenth century governor of Sleath and practitioner of Ritual Magic learned from his stint in The Crusades. Several of his descendants followed suit, the latest being Carl Beardsmore.
  • Kill the Cutie: Horrifyingly and devastatingly so with Grace.
  • Magnetic Medium: While Sleath's spiritual turbulence has heightened to general revelation of ghosts, Ash and Grace's psychic buoyancy, to Lockwood Hall's crypt, aids the arrival of a frenzied spectral mob of murder victims.
  • Mental Fusion: In a sudden, sensual embrace, Grace and Ash suddenly sense each other's memories.
  • Merger of Souls: Numerous victims of the Lockwood rituals manifest as an amorphous haze.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Reverend Lockwood, heir to the depraved mysticism of the Lockwoods, managed to spare young Grace from sacrificial murder, and sent her away from the village for protection.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Seamus Phelan, on exiting the empty church, isn't quite sure whether someone is following him...
  • Occult Detective: Ash might be considered one. Having predicted various disasters with minimal success in their aversion, psychic Seamus Phelan has come to investigate Sleath.
  • Ominous Fog: On the morning following Seamus Phelan's unearthing of Sleath's horrific history, a dense, pale yellow mist has descended on the village. Amidst it, the quiet streets hold briefly manifest silhouettes; and the village pond freezes over.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Ghosts here range from harmless discarnate spirits to numerous disconnected spectral body parts floating in an ethereal haze, to amorphous, semi-corporeal hordes able to form lethal claws.
  • Psychic Powers:
    • Ash and Grace share an intuitive insight, both into the emerging crisis and each others' pasts.
    • Seamus Phelan, having predicted several major disasters, hopes to prevent such horror in Sleath.
  • Psychic Sex: During lovemaking, Ash and Grace's thoughts once more merge; this time in emulation of their current bodily exchange.
  • Rape as Drama: The mutilated ghost of a child molester returns to haunt his victim.
  • Revenge by Proxy The ghostly victims of the Lockwood rituals seek this on the Lockwood descendants.
  • Ritual Magic: Used by Sir Gareth Lockwood and his descendants to harness the transition of the spirit, in attempt to pursue immortality.
  • Sad Clown: Seamus Phelan, outwardly genial and flamboyant, is inwardly burdened by the horrors anticipated by his sixth sense.
  • Sadist: Eighteenth century squarson Sebastian Lockwood, for such crimes as unlicensed trade, kept enthusiastic record of such punishment as fatally lashing the miller to his own millwheel.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • With the inn parlour beset by lethal poltergeist activity, Rosemary runs - leaving husband Tom fatally impaled by shards of glass.
    • Following the crisis, a devastated Ash just wants to get away from Sleath.
  • Sinister Minister: Sir Gareth Lockwood, thirteenth century governor of Sleath and veteran of The Crusades, was more a "mercenary of the Devil" than a "soldier of God." Several of his descendants entered the clergy, and continued his macabre practises.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: A not-quite-forgotten history of Black Magic, sadistic corporal punishment and infanticidal Human Sacrifice. While many villagers suddenly intuitively anticipate belated dire consequence, they keep their vague suspicions to themselves.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: When their thoughts merge, Ash perceives Grace's memory to be blocked by a murky blank spot. When she was a child, her father, member of a centuries-old occult society which preyed on the spiritual vitality of children, reluctantly took her to such rites at Lockwood Hall, where he narrowly managed to avert her ritual murder.
  • Vengeful Ghost: A singularly horrifying example - in Lockwood Hall's crypt, spectral victims of ritualistic murders assemble in an amorphous haze of intermittently realised figures, whose ethereal claws relentlessly strip the flesh from Lockwood descendant Carl Beardsmore. And then Grace.
  • Villainous Lineage: For centuries throughout the Lockwood lineage - although not all of them. Carl Beardsmore, cousin to Reverend Edmund Lockwood, aims to reap the earnings of his murderous ancestors, and scorns Edmund and Grace as weak.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Several of the historical Lockwoods.
    • Munce the child molester.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: During their brief psychic union, Grace senses Ash's childhood memory of older sister Juliet's drowning, and denies his culpability.
  • Your Head Asplode: In shielding Grace, the Reverend Lockwood takes a shotgun blast to the head.