Stoned Immaculate

Shrine by James Herbert (1983): Late British “chiller” writer James Herbert is in fine form here with this lengthy supernatural thriller about miracles and monsters and money-grubbing. In a small town near Brighton, a 12-year-old girl seems to start performing miracles, from levitation to healing the sick. She says she’s operating on the behest of the Virgin Mary. But if so, why does she seem so focused on the ancient, weirdly twisted oak tree near her parish church?

Herbert deftly juggles a fairly large cast of characters, keeping things in the air while he also develops the supernatural and possibly psychic manifestations that begin to cause people from across Great Britain and, ultimately, the world, to flock to the small church. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic authorities fast-track their investigation into whether or not these events can be classified as ‘true’ miracles worthy of endorsement by the Church.

The miracles are a bonanza for the town’s businesses and for the Roman Catholic Church. But as the girl seems to become more powerful, the skeptical parish priest seems to noticeably weaken and wither the longer he remains in close proximity to either her or the church. And whenever the girl heals people, terrible things happen to nearby livestock, a fact that goes unobserved by the general population.

A strange alliance will be created between the two priests who are skeptical of the whole affair and the ambitious, agnostic small-town journalist who first reported the story and has become famous because of it. But their efforts may be impotent, given the power the girl appears to possess.

Herbert really does a lovely job here of mixing deft characterization, social commentary, occasionally gruesome horror effects, and more rarefied moments of existential and psychological terror. A scene in the church basement amongst ancient, broken statues really does the job. So, too, does the finale, an apocalypse that manages to evoke pity as well as horror. Highly recommended.

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