Hats off to James Herbert, a master of his art

james herbertTHE kids of today have got it easy, of course. All that young adult fiction out there, waiting to be discovered.

It wasn’t like that for my generation. My transition from Clive King’s Stig of the Dump and J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet to cult reads like Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners came via an altogether more rugged, steep gradient.

I can’t remember any peer pressure, but I wasn’t the first at my school to discover James Herbert, who died this week just short of his 70th birthday. Looking back now, I wonder if he was writing teen fiction before there was even a name for it. Either way, his books were the talk of the playground and classroom at one stage, and in time I was intrigued enough to get hold of my own copies.

herbert ratsThe Rats was the one that got us sitting up and taking notice. It sold 100,000 copies in the first fortnight alone, despite mixed reviews. Herbert was 28 at the time. That was in 1974, when I was only six, so I only got to read it in around four years later, during middle school.

It was graphic for sure, whether we’re talking about the gory scenes of mutilation or the other X-rated scenes that went hand in glove with that, so to speak. Either way, it certainly had an impact on this impressionable youngster. I’ve not gone back to re-read those books anew, but can see now how important they were, setting me up for a move towards Stephen King and beyond. The fact that The Rats held something of a message about the decay of post-war London was probably lost on me.

Within a few years I’d moved away from horror, but like to think I learned a lot about suspense and writing along the way, and have Herbert and King in particular to thank for that. Both had that rare ability to make you feel you were entering a dark room or wood with their main characters, unsure what you might find there, every creaky floorboard or crack of a branch likely to spring real horror upon you – slow-building drama that drew you in.

Herbert had a lot to answer for my generation in certain respects. Let’s face it, chances were that those embarrassing sex education lessons in stuffy classrooms with hot-under-the-collar teachers came too late, so to speak. Instead, the teenage lad’s learning zone was more likely to be outside the school disco, through a secret stash of dodgy magazines or a well-thumbed paperback by this East End author, springing open at select passages.

By the time I was reading The Rats, there were more contenders from the same writer, his second book, The Fog, taking us from man-eating giant black rats to accidentally-released chemical weapons unleashing insanity and depravity in equal measures. And unlike the unrelated John Carpenter film from 1980, I could relate to the geography too.

Herbert clearly never forgot his London roots, and when he moved on it was to settle in West Sussex, so we had that South-East bond in common. Not as if I saw much evidence of frothing fog-affected victims in suburban Surrey or saw too many disease-carrying vermin around my neck of the woods. That said, Guildford band The Stranglers practised in my village scout hut at one stage, so maybe they got the inspiration there for the ground-breaking Rattus Norvegicus album.

herbert survivorHis third book, The Survivor, about the aftermath of a terrible airline crash, made more of an impression. All three had an influence on this young teenager, but the supernatural horror aspects of the latter perhaps asserted more resonance.

I seem to recall being disappointed with Fluke. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to see what life might be like if i was to be reincarnated as a dog. Incidentally, I think I borrowed my copy from the travelling library that visited the bottom of the road. I can still feel that vehicle rocking as you walked towards the back, and not because someone was in a dark corner reading The Rats.

Then came The Spear, a supernatural horror with a chilling depiction of the rise of neo-Nazism in the UK. This was evil that a council house lad with leftist sympathies could get his head around – conspiracy theories, degenerate Americans, arms dealers, the occult, right-wing activists, and a secret bid to resurrect Heinrich Himmler. I had Donald Pleasance in mind as the latter when I imagined the screenplay.

Lair was next, the follow-up to The Rats picking up where we’d left off, but taking his rodent invasion to the countryside now. I think I made a mental point at that stage to keep out of Epping Forest, and have kept to that somehow.

By that stage, Herbert had finally given up his day-job in an advertising agency and was writing full-time. I vaguely recall 1980’s The Dark – kind of The Fog pt II – and 1981’s The Jonah, by which time he’d moved towards thrillers (with plenty of horror thrown in though). I was probably scaring myself witless with King’s The Shining and Salem’s Lot and a few early VHSs then, and pretty soon I’d lost that early love/hate relationship with horror. Luckily I got out before Freddy Krueger came to town too. Nightmare.

Music and comedy had re-taken centre-stage, most of my reading out of school by then involving film and music biographies, and any features in Smash Hits then the NME. Like many authors, music played a big part in Herbert’s story too, his Desert Island Discs radio outing with Michael Parkinson in 1986 suggesting a love of rock’n’roll – from Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill to Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues – as well as Edvard Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt and Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite, the latter of which he felt musically mirrored the plot of a few of his novels.

herbert cottageHerbert kept on writing, publishing 23 full-blown novels in all, of which six were adapted into films or for radio or television, selling 54 million books worldwide, translated into 34 languages. Within 15 years – while still portrayed as the writer who brought us The Rats – he’d even moved on to three-word titles, maturing with works like The Magic Cottage, shifting further away from sci-fi to supernatural elements. He also illustrated his own work and had a hankering to write children’s books too. That never seemed to come to fruition though.

By 2010, he was an OBE, and a BBC TV adaptation of The Secret of Crickley Hall made an impact only late last year. I recall an interview with the man himself by Graham Norton on Radio 2, and outings on the BBC Breakfast sofa too, a walking stick at his side and age starting to catch up, although this man in black still had a hankering for his drainpipe trousers. As it was, Herbert’s death came soon after the paperback release of Ash, which saw a return to his parapsychologist and cynical ghost-hunter, first introduced in 1988’s Haunted.

TV Times: Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis featured alongside Dougie Henshall in last year’s BBC adaptation of Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (Pic: BBC)

While my own sphere of reading changed over the intervening years, I acknowledge a debt to James Herbert. Above all, I truly respect a fellow working-class writer who overcame the odds and did most of his own promotional work, long before that was seen as the way forward in the publishing world.

Many more great writers were inspired by him in their impressionable years, from Neil Gaiman to Ian Rankin, quick to praise an author who took horror away from the Hammer era and made it more relevant to the world we were living in.

You were a master in your field, and came over as a good bloke too. RIP Jim.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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