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Literature / The Secret of Crickley Hall

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A 2006 horror novel by James Herbert.

Almost a year following the disappearance of five-year-old son Cam, Gabe and Eve Caleigh take twelve-year-old Loren, five-year-old Cally and dog Chester, to semi-stately Crickley Hall, just outside the Devonshire village of Hollow Bay; both for Gabe's new engineering commission and a much-needed change of scene.

Save for unaccountable floor puddles, perplexing noises, occasionally glimpsed "white shadows" and the house's brooding ambience, the Caleighs comfortably adjust to village life. On discovery of old-fashioned children’s toys locked away in the attic, kindly old caretaker Percy Judd recounts wartime evacuees billeted to the house, before apparently drowning in the great flood of 1943, suffered under the brutal discipline of brother and sister Augustus and Magda Cribben. A semi-conscious encounter with a familiar-seeming indistinct child-like figure persuades Eve that Cam may still be alive and trying to psychically contact her. Desperate for confirmation thereof, she approaches traumatised local psychic Lili Peel, who fears a malign presence to lurk within the house...

In 2012, the book was adapted by The BBC into a three-part miniseries, written and directed by Joe Ahearne, perhaps best known for his prolific Doctor Who direction. Bar regional relocation and some minor variations in plot and characterisation, it was faithful to the novel, and was praised by Herbert.

The 2006 novel provides examples of:

  • Agent Scully: Downplayed; while Gabe clings to increasingly implausible mundane explanations for the unaccountable noises, he admits the undeniably oppressive ambience of Crickley Hall, and eventually, with everyone else, sees the ghosts.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence:
    • Said by Lili Peel to happen to departed spirits. Aged seven, she befriended Agnes, an unaccountably arrived girl in Victorian attire. The confused child, on being told of Heaven, grew increasingly transparent, and announced her summons, as though from another room, to somewhere inscrutable. On bidding her friend a fond farewell, Agnes faded to an orb of light, merged with another arrived seamlessly through the door, and vanished.
    • Later seen to happen to Nancy and the evacuees.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: After verbally and physically abusing Loren, Seraphina empties the bag of Loren's new friend Tessa onto the floor of the school bus. Loren punches Seraphina on the nose, and is as surprised as anyone.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Averted. Faced with irrefutable indication of ethereal presences in the house, Eve's receptivity to the actuality of ghosts is reasonable. The good authority of reputable psychic Lili Peel attests the deceased Cam to be in a place of peace. The bereaved Eve's trust in this is depicted as very reasonable.
  • Big Fancy House: Before a tree lined gorge Devil's Cleave stands Crickley Hall. Not quite big enough to be a manor, its outward aesthetic is grimly functional. While the storey-spanning hallway is impressively large, the house has a sternly dour feel.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Gordon Pike, really Maurice Stafford, charms everyone with an air of gentleness and geniality. He's really a sociopathic sadist, who believes his murder of one last child of Crickley Hall, namely Loren, will appease ghostly tormentor Augustus Cribben.
  • Blitz Evacuees: Several were billeted to Crickley Hall.
  • Broken Bird: Entreated by Eve to help psychically contact her missing son, Lili Peel, traumatised by an episode with a malign ethereal entity, forces a brusque aloofness.
  • Broken Tears: Having finally identified the clothes and subtly deformed hands of a small corpse, Gabe returns to Cam's preserved bedroom, and weeps for his son.
  • Brother–Sister Team: Some nasty ones: Seraphina and Quentin Blaney, Augustus and Magda Cribben.
  • The Cavalry: In the cellar, when the insane Gordon Pike tries to push Loren into the well, the ghost of Nancy Linnet, the evacuees' kindly young tutor, arrives to frighten him to a point where he topples into the well himself. Percy then arrives, and helps the straining Gabe pull Loren to safety.
  • Cheerful Child: Cam and Cally.
  • The Corruptor: The Cribbens to Maurice Stafford. Both nurture his tendency to submit the other orphans for brutal punishment. Masochistic Augustus has the boy flog him with a steel-studded cane, thereby honing a brutal sadism. Magda, who takes the twelve-year-old to her room for copulation, on having pushed Nancy down the cellar stairs, encourages Maurice to bash in the young teacher's head.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Very much averted with kindly old Percy Judd, Crickley Hall's gardener and handyman.
  • Cute Ghost Girl: Whereas the ghost of Nancy appears to most as a decomposing corpse, her old love Percy sees her as her old self.
  • Dark Is Evil: A malignant spectral figure, the ghost of sadistic Augustus Cribben, appears in dark silhouette.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The ghost of Nancy Linnet appears to Maurice Stafford, (who, along with Magda Cribben, murderered her), as a grotesquely decomposed walking corpse, which frightens him away from his attempt to murder Loren.
  • Death of a Child: The orphaned evacuees. Cam is later revealed to have died in unknown circumstances.
  • Eagleland: Averted with Gabe, an American engineer who settled in London.
  • Elective Mute: On the night of the great flood of 1943, when Augustus murdered most of the evacuees, Magda, who herself co-murdered Nancy, fled Crickley Hall, and was found several miles away, seemingly unable to speak. Determined to prevent exposure of her and her brother's crimes, she remains silent to this day.
  • Empathic Environment: Despite its natural splendour, rustic charm and generally friendly locals, Gabe and Eve sense in Hollow Bay a mournful ambience; perhaps aftertaste of a destructive 1943 flood.
  • Energy Absorption: Throughout the stay at Crickley Hall, Loren is frequently tired. Lili Peel accredits this to energy drainage by the hauntings, drawn as the ghosts are to adolescent life force.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Chester is immediately terrified of Crickley Hall, and later runs away.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The now-aged Maurice Srafford, under the name Gordon Pike.
  • Former Teen Rebel: Gabe, born in Galeseberg, Illinois to an absentee father and an alcoholic mother who often commandeered their shared bed for liaisons and died of liver failure when he was twelve, fell in with a gang of delinquents. The Illinois Institute for Delinquent Boys encouraged his affinity with machinery.
  • Friendly Ghost: The ghosts of the children, one of whom briefly comforts the grieving Eve. Nancy, their young tutor, later arrives to frighten away the murderous Maurice Stafford.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: On the night of the great storm of 1943, Augustus Cribben, having been flogging himself with his steel-studded cane, learns of an escape attempt by the remaining evacuees. He stalks naked through the darkened house, and murders them all.
  • The Fundamentalist: The authoritarian mania of Augustus and Magda Cribben is driven, at least partly, by religious fundamentalism.
  • Fun-Hating Confiscating Adult: In 1943, a charity supplies the evacuees with a stock of toys. The Cribbens have them locked away in a storeroom - although, when the Reverend Rossbridger calls round for tea, allow the kids to play with the spinning top.
  • Genre Savvy: On finding Chester, Percy secretly takes him in, knowing dogs always fear Crickley Hall.
  • Ghastly Ghost: The shade of Augustus Cribben appears in sinister silhouette, strikes Loren with a phantom cane, tries to drown Eve in suddenly frozen bathwater, and seeks to imprison the spectral evacuees in his obsessive custody.
  • Ghostly Chill:
    • Following appearance in Loren and Cally's bedroom of a silhouetted apparition, the room's temperature lowers severely. The same sinister shade, when unwittingly contacted by Lili, intensifies the shadows and chills the room to a point which nearly puts out the fire. Lili explains spirits to drain atmospheres of energy.
    • Late one night in the bathroom, the light blows, and the bathwater abruptly chills and freezes around Eve.
  • Good Shepherd: Reverend Trevellick is genial and welcoming. Tragically averted with his 1943 predecessor Horace Rossbridger, oblivious to the evil of the Cribbens.
  • Haunted House: Yes.
  • Hostile Weather: In 1943, a flood washed away the bodies of the murdered evacuees. Another one soon threatens similar destruction.
  • Howl of Sorrow: On Cam's disappearance, Chester howled for three nights.
  • Important Haircut: On Cam's disappearance, Eve, numbed by grief to sundry tasks, cut her hair to urchin-style length.
  • I See Dead People:
    • While the whole family hear perplexing sounds and Gabe finds unaccountable pools of water on the floor, a dozing Eve sees two indistinct figures. She and Cally see solid-looking faces in an upstairs window, and, in a cloud of sunlit dust, the unmistakable outlines of dancing children.
    • When playing in her room, Cally happily converses with the otherwise unheard voices of "children." When Gabe looks in on her, he briefly sees, around his daughter, tiny points of brilliant light.
    • Aged seven, Lili Peel encounters Agnes, a girl in Victorian attire who understands herself to have died of diphtheria.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Sociopathic Gordon Pike, having dragged Loren down to the cellar with intent to drown her in the well, is, by sudden appearance by the spectral corpse of Nancy Linnet, whom he helped Magda murder, frightened to a point where he falls to a watery grave.
    • Elderly Magda Cribben, after years of silence on the crimes of herself and her brother, is frightened to death by his ghost.
  • Knight Templar: In 1943, Augustus and Magda Cribben piously take responsibility to mould the evacuees in their care into "proper young persons" - the slightest misdemeanour, if that, incurs severe physical brutality. On the night of 1943's great storm, a migraine-crazed Augustus, to purge them of their supposed wickedness, murders ten of the evacuees.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Seraphina and her brother sneak into Crickley Hall with intent to leave a dead rat in Loren's bed, and get the living daylights scared out of them by the ghost of Augustus Cribben.
  • Legend: Landlord Sam Pennelly, with playfully affected solemnity, says Devil's Cleave to have been named for the Devil's having bitten into the land. With teeth worn to the gums, he's said to have vowed revenge...
  • Light Is Good: The benevolent ghosts appear as white shadows, brilliant points of light, and radiant orbs.
  • The Lost Lenore: On Percy's conscription into the war, he and young tutor Nancy remained in contact, before she was reported to have unaccountably left her village lodgings, presumably for London, where she was suspected to have been killed in an air raid. She was murdered by Magda Cribben and Maurice Stafford.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Invoked by Gabe's scepticism and Gordon Pike's theories, but averted; Crickley Hall is definitely haunted.
  • Mr. Fixit: Gabe loves any form of machinery.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • On their second night in Crickley Hall, Gabe, Eve and Loren are woken by a persistent knocking from a landing cupboard - which, on their inspection, gets louder. On inspecting the interior, Gabe ventures two water pipes as an explanation - but can't account for the shuddering door.
    • The same night, Cally is frightened by a silhouetted figure briefly seen lurking in the corner of her bedroom.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different:
    • The ghosts of Crickley Hall appear as pale, misty silhouettes; tiny points of light, animate outlines in sunlit dust, a dark silhouette, a corporeal apparition which intermittently fades to transparency, corporeal apparitions, and finally, brilliant orbs of light.
    • Similarly, Lili's childhood friend Agnes initially appears solid, but gradually fades in definition on veering to the next dimension.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The Caleighs are grief-stricken over the unexplained disappearance of Cam, their five-year-old son. His body is eventually found.
  • Psychic Powers: From childhood, Lili Peel was able to sense the location of misplaced objects, and to perceive discarnate spirits. At seventeen, she telepathically communicated with a comatose young boy, whose recovery she correctly predicted. She later bolstered her craft shop profits with psychic readings. Having been brained by Gordon Pike's walking stick, she retreats outside, and in a trance, senses the 1943 murder of the evacuees.
  • Sadist: Augustus Cribben takes pleasure both in flogging and being flogged with his brutally fashioned cane. It rubs off on Maurice.
  • She Knows Too Much: In 1943, on learning Magda to have confined eleven-year-old Susan Trainer to the cellar for supposedly premature menstruation, Nancy denounces the regime of the Cribbens. Fearing a report to the authorities, Magda hastily pushes Nancy down the cellar stairs. At Magda's encouragement, Maurice then bashes in Nancy's head.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Cally has Shrek-themed bedding, and is a big fan of Bart Simpson.
    • Gabe and Eve met in a bar in "pre-film Notting Hill".
    • The secretive catatonia of Magda Cribben somewhat recalls Psycho.
  • The Sociopath: Possibly Maurice. At twelve, for favour of the Cribbens, he turns in for brutal punishment the other orphans, and helps Magda murder Nancy. Throughout adulthood, he blithely exploits others for the sadistic sexual pleasures honed in him by Augustus, whose posthumous pursuit he aims to evade by trying to kill one last child of Crickley Hall.
  • Starting a New Life: Gabe, having been transferred by APCU Engineering Corp to its British subsidiary company, went on to have three children by London magazine writer Eve Lockley.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Maurice Stafford ingratiated himself to the Cribbens by snitching on the other evacuees.
  • Supernatural Light: The ghosts are sometimes glimpsed as white shadows and brilliant points of light When they cross to the next plane, they assemble in the hall as orbs of light.
  • Technology Porn: In-Universe, Gabe disassembles and rebuilds machines for the fun of it, and delights in taking his family to South Kensington's science museum, where Cam used to thrill at the steam-train engines.
  • Unfinished Business: Augustus Cribben, having "cleansed" most of the sinful evacuees by murdering them, seeks to finish the job with. The now seventy-five-year-old Maurice Stafford, persecuted by Cribben's ghost, believes Loren will suffice.
  • Vengeful Ghost:
    • Lili Peel's affair with Don incurred the obsessive wrath of wife Marion, who shortly afterwards died of cancer. During a psychic reading, Lili was terrified by the sudden alteration of the voice and face of elderly client Agnes Clavelly to those of the deceased Marion, who briefly, violently resumed her wrath.
    • The crazed ghost of Augustus Cribben stalks Maurice into old age. Maurice believes the murder of one last child of Crickley Hall will satisfy his assailant.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: In 1943, Reverend Horace Rossbridger recommends Augustus Cribben as a suitable guardian for the evacuees, and admires his disciplinarian principles.
  • Women Are Wiser: Averted, Magda Cribben is just as cruel as her warped brother.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Both of the Cribbens terrorise the evacuees with brutal discipline but Augustus, in the grip of a migraine, attempts to circumcise five-year-old Jewish orphan Stefan, then leaves the boy to bleed to death. He then murders the remaining orphans with his bare hands.

The 2012 BBC miniseries provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Deviation: The story is relocated from Devonshire to a rural North West setting.
  • Adaptational Nationality: American Gabe is now English; Polish orphan Stefan is now German.
  • Adaptational Personality Change:
    • Gabe's scepticism here extends to a barbed jibe at the local vicar.
    • Nancy is more openly assertive, slapping Magda across the face.
    • In contrast to book's coldly raging brute, this version of Magda has a snide vindictiveness.
  • Redemption Rejection: Here, the ghost of Augustus Cribben explicitly declines to move on with Nancy and the evacuees.
  • Spared By Adaptation: Stefan doesn't bleed to death from botched circumcision, but lives to be Happily Adopted.

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