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Thursday, 21 March 2013

James Herbert RIP

James Herbert died yesterday, aged 69. 

The news made me stop and consider. Though I no longer read horror (What is left to say? What is left to prove?), when I was a kid, Herbert was one of the greats.

Some say he was just one part of that great era of seventies and early eighties horror. Others say he led it, being one of the most influential authors of that time, possibly ever.

When James Herbert was young, he was an advertising executive in London. One day, in a meeting, a long boring meeting, he sat there and wondered, idly, what would happen if his boss suddenly walked to the window, opened it, and jumped out. 

In that moment he became a horror writer (see footnote)  and that idea formed the basis of one of his later books – The Dark.

Herbert went home that night. He had been cogitating on a newspaper story about plague pits[1] being discovered in Central London and also, an increase in the domestic brown rat population and, inspired, he began to write. 

That story became his most famous book – the smash hit debut novel The Rats - the book which made him a household name in the UK.

The Fog followed; then one of his best works, Survivor. 

Horror was big business at that time. Guy N Smith wrote about crabs. Shaun Hutson majored on slugs. Richard Piers Rayner published Homonculus, one of the greatest weekend potboilers of all time. 

Dennis Wheatley novels flew off the shelves (The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil, A Daughter). The brilliant Ramsey Campbell (The Doll Who Ate Its Mother, surely the finest title of a horror book ever) stalked the bookshop, and Herbert Van Thal was still editing those macabre New English Library anthologies[2]

Graham Masterton (who used to edit Penthouse), wrote Manitou, and The Heirloom, one of the finest horror novels ever written. 

Of course, Stephen King was at his very peak, publishing The Shining, universally acclaimed as the best horror paperback ever written, along with Salems Lot, Pet Semetary and The Dead Zone.

Shadowland, Ghost Story and Floating Dragon introduced the world to Peter Straub. Nick Sharman wrote the now forgotten Judgement Day, and Thomas Tryon sold millions with the creepy, devastatingly climatic, Harvest Home.

It was a grand time, a brilliant time to be young and in love with horror novels.  

And James Herbert was consistently up there with the best.

Excoriated by the critics for his bloodthirsty scenes, his bad taste gore, his limited prose (James was unapologetically from the story-focused “so, there was this big rat” school of writing so beloved of most Indie writers), and in their venom, most British critics in particular, missed the black humour inherent in his work.

In Danse Macabre, King quotes the wonderful scene in The Dark on Bournemouth beach where a heartbroken lesbian walks into the sea at night with the intention of committing suicide following the breakup of her relationship. 

Then, as it is very cold and very dark, she changes her mind and decides to make a go of her life, only to discover the entire population of Bournemouth walking into the sea, toward her, possessed, mindless; the sheer weight of numbers drag her to an ironic, watery death.  

His books are full of that, as well as any number of eviscerations, decapitations, disembowellings, and enough cannibalism and bloody deaths to keep any young gorehound happy for a month. 

His books were cheap, cheerful, fun and – again, as King describes - firmly in the Pulp tradition of the fifties magazines, a son of Robert E Howard, writer of Conan The Barbarian

My two favourite Herbert books are favoured for two different reasons. 

Survivor is the only book where I have been scared to turn the page.  

I was thirteen, in a caravan on a cliff just outside Padstow in Cornwall, at night, with the wind howling, the van swaying and full moon. I could hear the sea outside crash against cliffs. 

And I was reading Survivor by torchlight – the scene where the hero returns to the crashed plane to search for something. To use a gaudy phrase, I shat myself, and in the unlikely event of James Herbert reading this in heaven, I can see him smiling - for that is the goal, isn’t it, of a horror author. 

To make your readers shit themselves with fright.

Secondly, The Spear. That book has everything. 

In the seventies, books about the German experience in the war – think Sven Hassel, Leo Kassler – were extremely popular and by the early eighties, there were many books about the occult aspects of the Third Reich, particularly the SS. 

Not too proud to jump on a bandwagon, Herbert penned a tale about the hunt for the Spear of Destiny (which was borrowed by the producers of the Keanu Reaves Constantine vehicle), which never fails to engage the reader. 

It rock and rolls. It has everything. Women in leather (think Castle Wolfenstein), big castles, big trucks, evil Nazis, Satanic rituals, gun battles, horror demons from Hell and the ever present stink of the most evil man who ever lived, Adolf Hitler himself. 

And against them, on single Englishman, the brave (but unreliable) protagonist to whom the world will owe a debt if he manages to stop the resurrection of a certain bespectacled chicken farmer from Munich

Not particularly scary, it’s still riveting and as thrillers go, it’s his best. I still have it on my shelf and I cannot say that for many horror novels from that era.

Like King, as the world changed, Herbert went into lighter stuff, fantasy-focused and female-friendly novels such as The Ghosts of Sleith and The Magic Cottage and that’s fair play: As I said at the beginning of the retrospective, what was there left to say about horror? When you've sliced off a head a hundred times, does the law of diminishing returns apply for the hundred and first decapitation? 

Herbert (and King, and the rest) seemed to think so.

Despite that, I consider myself lucky to be there for his peak and that peak was high indeed.

Thank you for those great teenage memories, Mr James Herbert. RIP.

[1] I found it ironic that he died the same week as the  most recent discovery of a plague pit in London
[2] One I still remember now – it haunts me – about a centenarian woman blackmailing her lodger into one last night of sex
[3] Stephen King writes a wonderful synopsis of Herbert’s early career in Danse Macabre.


  1. Wonderful tribute for an incredible writer .. thank you for sharing x

  2. Thanks, Wiz. I love this. James Herbert was a huge influence for me and my first book obsession, where I had to go out and find and purchase everything he'd written that I could get my hands on. My bookcase is filled with his books, some of my most prized possessions. I cried when he died because I felt like he was immortal and it brought home the fact just how human he was. I feel as if I've lost a very good friend because he helped me through some very tough times as a young teen.