James Herbert, Once... (Tor, 2002)

ď...Thom frowned as he journeyed down the long road towards Castle Bracken.  He felt like the child he had once been again, a little boy who had always been in awe Ė and in dread Ė of this fearsome, cold place.Ē --from p. 28 of Once...

As far as we can tell, my husband and I are the first human beings to live on our land.  Our brand new house is surrounded by an acre of weeds, bushes, and old trees both alive and fallen, most of which have probably been here for a mind-boggling length of time.  Until recently, Iíve had this nagging desire to get out there and pull up those stumps, whack those offending weeds, cut the wild grasses, put up fences, and plant my own nice, neat lawn and garden in their place.

But these days Iím not so sure.  A few evenings ago it rained.  Because I love the rain, I was staring out a window when out of the corner of my eye, a few hundred feet away, I thought I saw something that just couldnít be.  What had been an ordinary tree stump surrounded by lush green brush became something else.  Iíd never noticed it before, but it looked like a fey woman sitting there in the tall grass.  Now, even in the broad daylight on a sunny afternoon, I can see her there.  Of course, Iíve resisted actually stepping outside and getting a closer look, as I know when I get near enough she will again become just a tree stump.

Such is the effect that James Herbertís Once... has had on me.

Once... is the story of Thom Kindred, master carpenter and stroke victim, come home to the woods of his childhood to recuperate and relive some of the magic of his youth.  His health still fragile, Thom desperately needs to take it easy, but fate -- or something, anyway -- seems to be working against him.  Almost from the moment he arrives strange things -- some wondrous, some horrific -- begin happening around him.

There is a warning on the title page of this book that says, ďWritten only for adults...Ē that should not be taken lightly.  Indeed, there were many times when I felt that I would never be grown up enough for this story.  Iím not big on gore, and there was plenty to be had in this novel.  What disturbed me the most, however, was the sex.  With several years of romance novel reviewing behind me, Iím pretty well accustomed to reading graphic sex scenes.  But nothing could prepare me for the perversity and violence that pervades the erotic passages of Once...  Disturbing, to say the least; if I hadnít been obliged to give this book a thorough read I would have skipped them entirely.

Though I detested portions of it, by the time I turned the last page, I had to admit I really liked this book.  Iíve already mentioned that it inspired me to look around my own world with a slightly less closed mind.  Beyond that, what really strikes me about Once... is that it is really all about love.  Romantic love, familial love, love for the earth; itís all there.  In the end, itís not so much good that prevails over evil, but love that wins out over hatred.  Thus, in spite of the ugliness that dominates most of its pages, the message of Once... is ultimately a positive one.

It's absolutely not for the squeamish, but I recommend Once... to any full-fledged adult not overly prone to nightmares.  It also helps if you donít have a phobia about spiders or wasps.

[Christine Doiron]

I couldnít find an official James Herbert Web site, but this fan site is dark, beautiful, and appropriate.