Once...by James Herbert
The International Bestseller
For Thom Kindred, life is nothing spectacular. A stroke victim, Thom finds himself partially incapacitated and battling daily to regain control of his life. Moved by haunting dreams of his youth, he travels back to the wooded land where he grew up to recuperate. Surrounded by the comforts of Castle Bracken, Thom plans to relive/b>
The International Bestseller
For Thom Kindred, life is nothing spectacular. A stroke victim, Thom finds himself partially incapacitated and battling daily to regain control of his life. Moved by haunting dreams of his youth, he travels back to the wooded land where he grew up to recuperate. Surrounded by the comforts of Castle Bracken, Thom plans to relive old, forgotten memories.
But Thom's return has stirred an ancient evil at Castle Bracken, one cloaked in the guise of a friend. His only chance for survival lies in a world that he no longer believes in.
International bestselling author James Herbert opens the door into a place of wonder and terrible danger; where the unexpected becomes the norm, where the separation of dreams and nightmares is thin, and where "Once upon a time . . ." doesn't always lead to a happy ending.
"The king of British horror."-Publishers Weekly
"A new James Herbert novel is always a mesmerizing experience."-Fangoria
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.15(d)
Read an Excerpt
MEET THOM KINDRED
He'd had no idea how he would feel returning to Castle Bracken after all these years. How long had it been? Sixteen, seventeen years? Yes, seventeenhe'd been ten years old when they had sent him away to boarding school. One month after his mother's death.
Thom used the "spinner" attached to the Jeep's steering wheel, a device that enabled him to turn the wheel using his right hand only, his left arm still weakened from the strokethe "cerebrovascular accident," as the clinically cold medical profession liked to name it. Because the four-wheel drive had an automatic gearshift, he was able to keep his left foot on the metal rest, which came standard with the model, his stronger right leg taking on the work of accelerating and braking. The Jeep swept into the narrow, hedge-lined lane and picked up speed again.
How much had changed in his absence? he wondered. Not much, not much at all, he was willing to bet. Certainly not as far as the manor house itself was concerned. Built almost four hundred years ago in the Jacobean period, there had been few renovations carried out since, apart from the usual upgrade of facilitiesplumbing, mains electricity, and the likeand certainly no additions, except for the banquet, which was not an integral part of the house but a fancy (there were those who misguidedly called it a folly) that had been erected a mile or two from the mansion in a woodland clearing. Thom wondered how he would feel about the place called Little Bracken, the cottage he had once regarded as his only true home. He'd been away a long time and had changed; from what he remembered of his last visit, so had the cottage.
Thom Kindred was twenty-seven years old, lean but not thin, of average height, with thick, tangled mid-brown hair that strayed over his shirt collar at the back. He was blue-eyed and his regular if not handsome features were slightly marred by a two-inch scar on his left cheek, another smaller one descending from his lower lip, both wounds sustained in the car crash almost four months before. He had been lucky that the visible injuries were not worse, airbag and seatbelt combining to protect him from serious harm as the car he was driving ploughed into a fortunately unoccupied bus shelter. The shelter was demolished, his estate car a write-off; but it was the blood clot in a cerebral artery that might have killed him, for the brain reacts badly to having its blood supply cut off, even if only temporarily.
He was unconscious for sixteen hours, drifting in and out for another ten. When eventually he had properly regained consciousness, his left arm and leg were paralyzed and his entire bodynot just his headfelt as though they had been pounded by a heavy-duty sledgehammer. The doctors were surprised that he should have suffered a "haemorrhagic infarct" at such a young age (although they assured him it was not entirely rare) and further surprised there had been no warning (this, they further assured him, was not rare at all). Unfortunately, the same doctors could not say whether he would ever walk unaided again, or even if he might regain the use of his left aim and hand, because it would take time to ascertain the damage to brain cells and tissues. Yet he was young and strong, so they remained optimistic. However, for Thom, the wait was frightening; even more so because of his chosen and beloved profession, which required the full use of both hands and arms.
Thom Kindred was a carpenter, a master carpenter, you might say, the kind of caring craftsman who would choose his wood by touching it first, caressing its grain with fingertips, by leaning close and smelling its scent, feeling its dampness or dryness, its strength, sturdiness, its suppleness, softness; only men could Thom sense the wood's "soul." If convinced of its worth he would cut into it, still testing the quality by the resistance offered or the compliance accorded. He valued both hardwoods and softwoods equally, for each had their place and applications; he could even be amazed by their contradictionssome conifers, like the Douglas fir or yew, were softwoods, yet they produce a harder wood than many of their opposites, while balsa, the softest of all, was a hardwood. Thom had an affinity with the material he used that usually came only with years, perhaps several decades, of experience (and even so, that was never guaranteed), a kind of synergy that he discovered when he carved his first piece of wood taken from the forest floor when he was six years old.
Thom was successful enough to own his own workshop situated in a not-yet-fashionable area of North London and he sold exclusively to upmarket stores or individual dealers; he also took on private commissions. Some of his finest pieces had been exhibited in certain art galleries, for his design could be as exquisite as his workmanship. He dealt only in one-offs, nothing was ever reproduced, never made in bulk, and he employed no one but himself, because he was the only person he would trust to carry through his creations with the diligenceand devotionthat he demanded of himself. He even swept his own floors.
Now all this was at risk. The fingers of his left hand had become clumsy and sometimes his whole arm felt numb. He often felt exhausted after only mild but prolonged exertion, and each time he suffered a headache he feared the worst. Yet the medics and, latterly, his physiotherapist had insisted that he was lucky, that it wasn't often such swift progress towards recovery was made after such an intrusive "brain attack." Thom hadn't the knowledge to agree or disagreewhat the hell did he know about strokes and their aftermath? He remembered the first few weeks, lying helpless in a hospital bed, his body leaden, his left arm and leg virtually immobile, the frozen numbness of half his face, the incontinence, the slurred speech, the complete exhaustion and confusion; and the indignitiesbeing turned over in bed like a helpless geriatric by brisk nurses, the Convene attached to his penis, there to funnel uncontrolled urine into a plastic bag, the bed baths, and eventually the accompanied trips to the lavatory and the embarrassment of someone watching over him as he defecated. Oh, he'd made good progress for sure, but the fear was always with him, because those same doctors, the neurologists and the haematologists, could not say whether or not another blood clot might form, damming an artery until sheer pressure caused the blood to burst through and flood his brain again, destroying cells and damaging tissues deep inside his head so that this time, recoveryany recoverymight be an impossibility.
He pushed the dread away and slowed the Jeep Cherokee as a sheep suddenly pushed through a gap in the hedge ahead of him. The animal stopped dead in the middle of the lane when it saw the approaching monster, giving out a startled bleat.
"Yeah, you too, dip-sheep," Thom replied with a smile, his mood instantly lightening. Years of living in noisy, overcrowded, Kentish Town had enhanced his appreciation, of the country way of life. He poked his head out the open side window.
"You gonna move for me?" he called down to the puzzled sheep. "I'm not backing up, not for you, not for nobody."
The animal casually turned away and began chewing at the hedgerow on the other side of the narrow lane.
Thom gave a sharp beep on the horn. In another time he might have left his vehicle to force the sheep back through the gap in the hedge physically, maybe even repair the damage to the shrubbery; but it had been a long drive from London and he was anxious not to exert himself too much, particularly after the repeated cautions of his doctor. He was supposed to be convalescing for the next few months, not pushing the butts of wandering sheep.
Easing his foot off the brake, he allowed the automatic gears to roll the Jeep forward. The animal was sideways on to the vehicle, its rear almost halfway across the little lane, its other end, the feeding end, still tugging at tiny succulent, summer leaves. Thom applied the slightest pressure to the footbrake, just enough to slow the creeping Jeep even more.
At first the renegade sheep refused to get the message but soon realized a fleecy rump was no match for a ton and a half of moving metal. It shifted position, champing jaws never leaving the food supply (Thom wondered if the creature had eaten its way through the opposite hedgerow), angling its stocky body so that the Jeep could squeeze by without crushing it.
"You ever heard of road rage?" said Thom, carefully watching the woolly rump below. Not for a moment did the sheep stop chewing. "No? Well, you're pushing your luck. And by the way, those berries will give you bellyache."
Thom chuckled to himself and brought his head back inside. A chaffinch swooped low into the lane, heading for the windscreen like a kamikaze pilot bent on self-immolation, zooming upwards at the last moment so that Thom almost flinched at the anticipated impact; beyond the hedgerow to his right, two wood pigeons called monotonously to each other; the sweet, chrysanthemum-like scent of the Compositae drifted through the windows. It was glorious and he closed his eyes for a moment to enjoy it all.
It was good to be back. Okay, three or four months' convalescence might be too much for him, boredom could set in long before the rest period was over, but right now it felt good, so very good.
It was as if the countryside, this Shropshire countryside, was his natural habitat, the mean and grubby city he had left behind a purgatory to be endured while he earned a living, suffered for the love of his craft. Unfortunately, it was a penance to which he would have to return once recuperation was complete. Don't push it too hard, his advisors, professional and otherwise, had warned: recovery, if it was to be, would take its own time and rushing the process might only instigate rebellion, make his condition worse. Unfortunately, insecurity had always been the bug in Thom Kindred's psyche. His life had never been easy for him, at least, not after his first ten years when his mother, Bethan, had dieddrowned, they had explained to him, drowned while her mind was "unsettled." Suicide had not been mentioned, but when he had grown older and less innocent, he had drawn his own conclusions. With no choice in the matter, because there was no father to take care of him, Thom was shipped off to boarding school in Surrey (not quite as far away as possible, but pretty near so).
Even then, Thom was aware that he should have been grateful to his benefactor, Sir Russell Bleeth, father of his boyhood friend Hugo (Sir Russell's other son had been killed in Northern Ireland years before, yet another reason, it seemed to Thom, for the old man's unremitting air of bitter anger), but he wasn't. Instead, he had felt resentment, for he had had no wish to leave Little Bracken, whose isolation was his security, the woodland his playground.
The boarding school near Guildford in the county of Surrey had felt like a prison to him during his first term, with its harsh discipline and strict rules, aid it hadn't helped that its inmates initially had not taken to this odd and shy new boy, who apparently had no fathernot one that he knew, that isand who, had it not been for some rich patron, would have been a pauper (Thom had been a little too honest when answering the questions put to him by inquisitive peers, all of whom seemed to come from wealthy backgrounds; even those whose parents were divorced at least knew who their fathers were. He also had no awareness of society'sparticularly that of the young and callow varietyrule that anyone deemed different from itself is treated as an outsider and, in some special cases, as an outcast).
Fortunately, all this changed during the second term when Thom overcame his timidity and stood up to the mob, taking on the worst of his tormentors and acquitting himself very well. It wasn't long before he had made some good friends and when his prowess on the sports field was discovered he soon became something of a hero. Those early years of good, healthy country living had left their mark on him. Always running everywhere, unless strolling with Bethan, weaving in and out of trees, constantly scaling the most interesting of them, leaping over fallen lumber or from stone to stone across bubbling streams, had made him agile and quick, as well as endowed him with enduring stamina.
Academically, he was no smarter and certainly no dimmer than most of the other kids in his year, but he made another discovery about himself. Often, at fee-paying private schools such as his, selection was not necessarily decided by a child's intelligence, and in despair, some of the less bright pupils were encouraged to look towards the crafts, particularly the hard-edged kind such as wood-and metalwork. Parents liked to see at least some result for their hard-earned cash, and if little Johnny could at least make an ashtray or herbs rack, then not all was in-vain; they could boast that their son's brilliance was on the "creative" side. Thom realized his true talent lay in working with his hands, particularly in creating things made of wood.
Ever since Eric Pimlet, Bracken's gamekeeper and estate manager, had given Thom a whittling knife for his sixth birthday, he had loved carving, shaping things from branches, creating little ornaments, gifts for Bethan. He had gone on to appreciate the texture of wood, its grain, its hardness and its softness, the very difference between timbers. His proficiency quickly earned him more popularity among the other boys, whose skills were less obvious than his; they sought advice or help from him for their own projects rather than seek it from their caustic and impatient woodwork master.
Even so, despite his easygoing nature and natural abilities both in sport and crafts, Thom remained something of a loner, one of the gang when it suited him, but mostly a little apart from the crowd.
Surprisingly, given his fond memories of Little Bracken, he rarely went to the cottage on his return visits to the estate between school terms, preferring to stay in his allocated room at the Big House, enjoying Hugo's company if his friend was not holidaying abroad somewhere, otherwise entertaining himself designing pieces of contemporary furniture, then attempting to make them using Castle Bracken's empty stables as a workroom and borrowing whatever tools he could cadge from Eric, who also provided him with the wood. Thom had taken the walk to the cottage only once and had been disappointedno, more than just disappointed; he had been unsettledby what he had found there, and it had nothing to do with the layers of dust that muted everything inside, nor the cold dank smell of emptiness. It was the absence he found hard to bear, the lack of presence that was not just to do with his mother's death; it felt as if Little Bracken's spiritits vibrancy, its warmthhad vanished also. Thom had felt a stranger inside its walls, and this had confused him. Worse, it had frightened him too.
Once, Little Bracken had been his refuge, his security; now it was a void.
When he closed the cottage door behind him and strode down the short path of broken flagstones, grass growing through the cracks like inverted tassels, Thom had been sure that he would never again return to Little Bracken.
• • •
It wasn't far to the estate now. He had reached a T-junction, then turned into a broader road, where traffic was busier and speed appeared to be requisite. Thom was always bemused by the Shropshire countrysideindeed, by most countryside on this little island, Englandwhere one moment a person could feel so isolated he might just be the only one left alive on the planet, the next as if a giant curtain had been whisked away to reveal a raging six-lane motorway, or a view over a smoky industrial valley. At least the Bracken Estate was vast enough to convince yourself you really were totally cut off from civilization, and in those deepest parts of the woods you could feel so alone it was scary. Yet over the last few awful months, that was all he had wanted: to be on his own, away from probing medics and bullying nurses, away from well-meaning but tiresome friends and acquaintances who seemed to think that what he needed was good cheer and constant encouragement. He needed to reclaim his strength, regain his vitality, find his life force again. As he had brooded in his hospital bed, forced into an inactivity that had been alien to him for a long timesince he was a child, in factand badly frightened by the shaking suddenness of his invalidism, his thoughts had constantly returned to the only secure home he had ever known (even as a successful craftsman he could only afford to rent apartments in London, never staying in one for long, always becoming discontented after a few months, perhaps even then subconsciously looking for a place where he could feel safe once more). And his dreams, too, always brought him back to Little Bracken.
The memory of his last visit had dimmed; the dust left in his fingertips, the emptiness he had felt within its walls no longer mattered. All he remembered was the fragrant smell of freshly picked flowers, sunlight streaming through open windows, glorifying the flagstone floor. The sound of his mother's soft, sweet voice as she sung elegant little songs be hadn't heard since.
Thom's clear blue eyes swept over the hazy, distant hills and somehow he was reassured by their lack of drama, their very gentleness seeming to mirror the calm that he was already beginning to feel. He passed a wayside inn constructed of limestone and timber, thick, climbing ivy clothing its walls; there were clutches of small cottages, some built with local red brick while others were of limestone and timber, like the inn. On his left, the fields fell away to dingles filled with rhododendron bushes of pink, white, and purple; to his right there was only dense woodland, but he knew the entrance to Bracken was not far. Despite the fatigue, his heart lifted.
Within moments he had reached the modest lane, which to the casual traveller might appear to be no more than a small break in the trees bordering one side of the road, for there was no sign to indicate its purpose. It seemed that past masters of the Bracken Estate had favoured seclusion and the present owner was of the same mind. But then, once inside this vast parkland retreat, with its acres of forestry, pastures, and lakes, a river meandering through it all, it was easy to appreciate their choice. The estate was a tranquil haven kept secret from a madding and maddening world.
He brought the Jeep to a gradual halt and when the opposite lane was dear, swept into the opening on the other side of the road. He immediately found himself in gloom as the leafy branches stretched overhead to meet one another and provide the narrow lane with its own natural canopy. Woodland scents drifted through the open windows, their blending potent and stirring memories of childhood pleasures, the way such aromas often do.
Thom breathed in deeply, flushing the staleness from his lungs, his bead becoming slightly dizzy with the rapture. He was nearing home and there was a growing excitement within him.
The sun-dappled lane was bumpy, poorly maintained, a further disincentive to the inquisitive uninvited, and Thom happily bounced around in his seat, eyes alert for any small animal or deer that might dart across his path, wary of low branches that might scrape the Jeep's paintwork. He was smiling to himself, occasionally chuckling out loud, enjoying the ride and fully aware that he could have taken the smoother and broader road on the far side of the estate, one used by tradesmen and drivers of larger vehicles, who preferred to use the longer but less rigorous route. There was a rustling in the bushes about fifty yards or so away in the trees, an animal probably disturbed by the noise of the Jeep's engine. A sudden, more violent movement, and then something quite large broke loose and dashed further into denser undergrowth. Just before it vanished completely, Thom glimpsed the long, sleek back of a deer and his excitement notched even higher.
The arched gateway to the estate proper soon loomed above the tree ahead, its soft red sandstone in harmony with natural colours around it. As he drew nearer, Thom had the urge to put his foot down on the accelerator, to get through the entrance as quickly as possible lest the old bricks should tumble and fall upon him. It was an odd and irrational fear, for although the structure appeared weatherworn and venerable, he knew it was sound. The gateway was built in an era when longevity was taken seriously, a time when masons and carpenters took as much pride in their work as did the master builders and architects who hired them; the estate's discreet entrance would last as long as the Big Houseas a boy, Thom has always called Castle Bracken the "Big House"itself, which shared the same materials. Yet the trepidation stayed with him and he did press hard on the pedal until the Jeep was through. Thom assumed the iron gates themselves had been left open in expectation of his arrival, or that nowadays nobody bothered to close them at all (there was no longer a gate keeper, Hugo had told Thom on his last visit, and old Eric Pimlet rarely troubled himself with them). He noticed the tall gates were pitted and rusted as he sped by and there was something sad about the neglect; he remembered that twenty years ago these iron gates always gleamed a shiny black and were always kept locked, stalwart sentinels against the imagined foe without.
The ephemeral shadow that fell over the vehicle was so deep that it became night for a second or so. It was instantly chilly toonot just cool, but breath-catching icyand Thom's whole body shivered.
Then he was out into the sunlight once more, grassland opening up all around him, the long road, smoother-surfaced now, although still potholed here and there, leading straight towards the distance rise on which the Big House stood, its sandstone walls flushed warm by the sun, its edifice somehow inviting on this day.
It really did resemble some small but fabulous mediaeval fortress, a splendid refuge inside a wonderful haven. A sanctuary's inner sanctum.
Yet Thom frowned as he journied 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 aweand in dreadof this fearsome, cold place.
Copyright © 2002 by James Herbert
Meet the Author
James Herbert is one of the world's most popular novelists. His books are sold in thirty-three foreign languages, including Russian, and Chinese. Widely imitated and hugely influential, his books have sold more than fifty million copies worldwide. He lives in London, England.
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