British horror author, James Herbert, who has died at the age of 69, was often known as ‘the UK’s answer to Stephen King’. In actual fact the pair were fond friends and their careers began rather fittingly almost at the same moment, Herbert had his first novel, The Rats, published just a few months before King debuted with Carrie in 1974.
Over his 20-something books Herbert has sold over 50 million copies, a number only bettered in the horror genre by none other than King himself. But, Herbert was the undisputed number one British author of frightful fiction and he was certainly a big part of my growing up.
I tried getting into King, I really did, but his books just gathered dust on my shelf, Herbert was another matter entirely. Before you knew it you’d be half way through a book and half way through the night with dark circles under your eyes and a crick neck to boot.
I entered into Herbert’s vividly descriptive world, like most no doubt, through The Rats and its sequels Lair and arguably his magnum opus, Domain. The original’s locations were heavily inspired by Herbert’s childhood, and the latter, rather ironically seeing as it dealt with London after a nuclear attack, blew me away, the opening chapter with the melting policeman setting the tone of furry things to come.
The Fog, no nothing to do with the John Carpenter film, was swiftly consumed after that, along with Jonah, The Survivor, Haunted, ’48, Portent and The Spear, a personal favourite which would make such a great film, all receiving well-worn spines and dog-eared covers. They were perfect for any teenager, full of glorious descriptions of death and full of just as glorious descriptions of sex, and as with most horror it didn’t generally end very well. ’48 was a (then) rare purchase in hardback, I bought it when I was at University and it dealt with an alternate World War 2 reality, it was also written in the first person. I remember buying that hardback edition, probably my first. It almost seemed akin to Charlie buying his Wonka Bar.
Those early works, in particular, still hold an amazing sway and power, the imagery they produced (even when you close your eyes) still remain. They are just so raw and nasty, almost primeval and totally unputdownable. Talking of imagery I always liked the covers, which were apparently all designed by Herbert himself as he used to work in an ad agency. I’ll always remember his folded arm stance in that black leather jacket as well for his book photos.
I’ve a sneaking suspicion that The Rats and Company will be padding their way back down from the loft, as I am sure they will be with lots of other people. Expect some of his old favourites to make reappearances on best-selling lists and on tube trains, The Rats ‘infesting’ London just like they did back in 1974 when the 100,000 run sold out in just three weeks.
When talking about his work, perhaps Stephen King put it best when he said: “James Herbert comes at us with both hands, not willing to simply engage our attention, he seizes us by the lapels and begins to scream in our faces.”
Even over 25 years after picking up my first Herbert novel I can still hear the screaming…long may it continue.