I was saddened to read today that James Herbert has passed away, aged 69.
A British horror author who had a huge impact on the whole genre, he doesn’t need lengthy introduction here at the Hellforge. I’m not going to explain the nature and history of his influence as it has been done many times by better scribes than myself. But everyone who has read and loved an author’s novels has a personal journey and for me, James Herbert was a predominantly formative part of my lifelong love of the macabre.
It began as a kid when merely seeing the cover of “The Fog” in a bookshop gave me a genuine night terror. I was smitten before I’d even read a word and a couple of years later, even when I was a little more seasoned, many a sleepless night would be inflicted by “Moon”.
Well-thumbed copies of “The Dark” and “The Rats” were passed around the playground and you only had to let the paperback fall open to find the most visited and lurid passages. I can’t imagine it happening now, but a small group of 11 year old boys could be reduced to hushed, attentive silence when one of them pulled a copy of “The Fog” and started to read the school gym massacre. Or the lesbian scene, obviously.
Not unreasonably, I wasn’t allowed the extreme ones by my folks at a young age. But I eventually managed to talk my mum into letting me buy “Fluke” and “The Survivor”, explaining that they weren’t really horror (true), “The Magic Cottage” and “Shrine” as they were just about ghosts and not that bad (hmmm… partly true) and “The Spear” because that was just a historical story, like the war films I watched with my dad (an utter lie). The others were easily borrowed and smuggled, naturally enjoyed more by their forbidden nature, and as time went by, the ban was either forgotten or abandoned and my shelf filled with all those glorious black paperbacks with the stark titles and ghastly artwork.
Due to the content of his work and the slightly creepy author photographs, which was all I had to go on, I’d imagined him to be quite a sinister bloke. But one Halloween, I stayed up late to watch a horror special and saw him in interview. From then on, I understood him to be an eloquent, polite and engaging man with a warm twinkle in his eye. The mystery died a little, but the respect grew.
He was also a huge creative inspiration to me at this time, and I churned out many a derivative excercise-book novel, complete with short titles involving the definite article and covers that swiftly depleted my red and black felt tips.
I continued to enjoy his books after school, though mostly lost touch after the excellent “48” in the mid 1990s as his output slowed, and revisited last with “The Secrets of Crickley Hall”. But despite his reputation, I always appreciated the way he strove to improve and expand his craft rather than just treading water with the same-old through the years. The explanations for his graphic beginnings always made perfect sense, but his passion and professional attitude drove him forward.
I recently reread “Domain”, being a fan of apocalyptic fiction and giant rats, and was pleasantly surprised at how well it had aged. I particularly enjoyed the set-piece deaths from briefly introduced survivors: ghastly intermissions from the main action. The first time around, the chapter involving a man trapped in a bunker with the neighbour’s despised cat didn’t even require an appearance from the rats to have a tremendous effect on me. It began a slightly masochistic obsession with entombment that still manifests itself – worryingly often – in my own writing today. Reading it again was an extraordinary combination of nostalgia, therapy and realisation.
I never met James Herbert, and had toyed with the idea of attending FCon last year – at which he was a guest – but it was not to be. There’s more than a few amateur stories in a box in my loft that wouldn’t exist without him, and he is responsible for many good times to which a weathered section of my bookshelf will attest. And as I still have a couple of his later works to read, the journey isn’t over yet.
My thoughts go out to his family and friends, and I’m glad at least that his passing was peaceful. A pioneer, a gentleman and a very fond slab of many a childhood.