Prepare to scream! James Herbert thought his terrifying novel The Secret Of Crickley Hall was too complex for TV, until the BBC proved him wrong…
21:30 GMT, 26 October 2012
21:30 GMT, 26 October 2012
Horror author James Herbert
When my agent emailed me to say the BBC were interested in adapting my bestselling novel The Secret Of Crickley Hall into a TV mini-series, I was initially sceptical.
I actually thought the book was unfilmable because the story was complicated and revolves around the Second World War, yet is simultaneously set in the present day.
It tells the story of Eve and Gabe Caleigh, whose five-year-old son mysteriously vanishes. On the anniversary of his disappearance, Gabe suggests the couple and their two daughters leave London and move to Devon to try and escape the past.
The house they move to is Crickley Hall and soon cellar doors creak open of their own accord, unseen children are heard crying in the night and water seeps through impervious rock. In the midst of it all, a frenzied spectre wields a cane.
Then, just as the Caleighs are ready to move out, Eve hears her missing son. The couple become locked in a desperate bid to uncover what connects Crickley Hall to their lost boy, as time shifts between the present day and 1943 when orphaned children from London were evacuated to the creepy house.
You can feel the suspense the whole way through. It is utterly chilling and the fact that you don't know if the parents will solve the mystery before evil engulfs their other two children only adds to the tension.
Screenwriter and director Joe Ahearne – who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on Doctor Who – cleverly manages to tell the tale in a dual time-frame.
I set Crickley Hall in a fictitious Devon village, by the foot of Devil's Cleave, a massive tree-lined gorge I based on Devil's Dyke, a 100m-deep V-shaped valley near my Sussex home.
According to folklore the area is named after a path the Devil cleaved when he tried to flood the churches of the South Downs by digging a trench to allow the sea to overwhelm the area. Legend has it he was startled and stopped before he could finish his macabre task.
Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis – and a ghostly Douglas Henshall – in the BBC's adaptation of The Secret Of Crickley Hall
I've never revealed the name of the Devonshire village I used as my inspiration – partly so local residents are not swamped by horror fanatics. But I will say that the landscape around Buxton in the Peak District, where the BBC shot the three-parter, is remarkably similar to Devon and the house they found to play Crickley is eerily accurate in mood.
Although it looks different on the outside from the one I envisaged, inside it is the same gaunt, deadly place with the foreboding feeling of emptiness in which evil could reign. I spent a day on set and as soon as I entered the house I knew it was right. The same certainty filled me when I saw the first part of the trilogy.
Suranne Jones – seen recently in Scott & Bailey and Single Father – plays Eve and perfectly captures the mother's torment. I knew of the actress only as mouthy Karen McDonald in Coronation Street and thought of her as a kick-ass babe, until I saw her sensitive portrayal of Eve.
In one scene she's talking to a paranormal expert and her emotions were so beautifully controlled it blew me away. The interplay between her and Gabe, played by Tom Ellis, is excellent.
Work commitments meant I'd rarely seen the wonderful sitcom Miranda, in which he stars, and he did have a lot to take on in this role – particularly as I often envisage my heroes as Steve McQueen when I'm writing! – but he too is perfect.
Douglas Henshall plays the ghost really spookily. It's obvious, even from the beginning, that there's something quite sinister about him. But perhaps the most inspiring piece of casting was the villain (I shan't give you his name, as that would spoil it for you).
In the hotel where I stayed the night before I visited the set, I was struck by a gentleman who had the warmest eyes I'd ever seen – so sincere. Next day when I saw him on set and realised who he was playing I thought it was brilliant casting – not the usual clich of the evil baddie, but someone who in fact comes across as the most honest person in the piece.
Of course, for a writer the hardest part is handing your work over to someone else, and letting their vision take over. I've done it four times in the past when my books The Rats, The Survivor, Fluke and Haunted were made into films.
When I met Joe Ahearne I found him quiet, unassuming and intelligent. He listened to my views, then made up his own mind. In the early stages there was a suggestion for the ending that I found implausible, and Joe altered it, but other than that he's found an ingenious way of doing justice to the story in just three hours.
I'm so confident in his interpretation that I haven't even watched the second and third parts – I intend to do that with my family in my own sitting room, like every other TV viewer.
I'm pretty sure I'll love it – and so will the rest of you – because reading and watching horror is how we get a vicarious thrill. In these relatively safe times – free in this country from famine and the imminent threat of world wars – we still like to feel the emotion of danger, secure in the knowledge we can step back from it when the book, or show, ends.
By the time you've watched The Secret Of Crickley Hall your emotions will have been given a thorough workout, and your mind aggressively exercised!
The Secret of Crickley Hall is on BBC One next month. Ash by James Herbert is published by Macmillan, 18.99.