Hooo haaa haaaaa haaargh, etc: Pat Black
James Herbert was the godfather of British horror. His books, which dished out lashings of sex and gore, were massive bestsellers. Alongside Stephen King, he helped usher in the Horror Boom - a golden age of schlock and awe lasting from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
After The Rats scampered into the public consciousness in 1974, Herbert remained on the bestseller lists for the rest of his days. His popularity threatened to make horror mainstream, if not quite respectable, no matter how grim the content.
While he may once have been the stock-in-trade of sniggering schoolboys, passing dog-eared paperbacks between them like porn, or stealing a quick glance at the dirty bits from their parents’ shelves, the author grew to become an elder statesman in British publishing. Herbert’s books were on everyone’s shelves.
Many readers over 35 will have been dismayed when he died in March 2013, aged 69. It's jarring when people who dominated the arts in your youth pass on, whether you were a fan or not.
I was a fan.
So, sit back, relax, and pour yourself a glass of something red, as we take an affectionate look at the career highlights of this revered and much-missed writer.
That's the one with... what's it about, again?
James Herbert was a working class art school boy born during the war, much like Lennon and McCartney. He was an advertising executive barely out of his twenties when he sold The Rats to the New English Library – perhaps the definitive Horror Boom publisher.
Herbert was paid a £150 advance for his story of a decaying and neglected east end of London – some parts of it still in ruins from the Blitz – being menaced by giant, mutant, pink-tailed nasties. It must have seemed like the author would take his time earning the advance back, after the book was memorably skewered in the Observer by Martin Amis (writing under a pseudonym), who said it would "make a rodent retch".
Herbert was apparently devastated by this notice, but the last laugh belonged to him. He was given a far larger cheque than £150 – and many more besides - when the print run of 100,000 copies sold out in a matter of weeks. I'd imagine Martin Amis wouldn't mind having that sort of success, just once.
London school teacher Harris is the hero thrust into the centre of events and confronting the story's final two-headed horror - but The Rats is all about the victims.
Whether sympathetic or unsympathetic, Herbert painted convincing pictures of ordinary characters plunged into nightmare scenarios - and often ending up eaten alive by a swarm of pointy-toothed buggers. The tragic Irish down-and-out, Mary, who gives us a whole new appreciation for the phrase “fond of the bottle”, is the pick of the bunch, although it was quite daring of Herbert to begin his book with a gay character whose life goes off the rails when he is forced out of the closet in those less-than-enlightened 1970s.
Set pieces include an attack on a Tube station. I read this chapter while on a train with my parents, coming back from a holiday.
Surely there is a German word for that strange thrill of ghoulish glee? Something a bit more subtle than schadenfreude..?
Herbert followed The Rats with an even more startling book. The Fog sees Britain in chaos after a noxious yellow fart emerges from a crack in the earth. The gas drives anyone who sniffs it into a frenzy of sex and violence, like any good Fajitas Friday should.
John Holman is another unlikely everyman hero who is thrust into the centre of the story after he contracts - and survives - the disease.
Set pieces... good lord, where to start? Mad priests; planes crashed into towers; evil children; mass suicide at the beach; emasculation; decapitation. The Fog is an absolute feast of blood, sex and murder. Like The Rats, the chapters alternate between Holman’s hero’s journey, and one-off chapters detailing complete and utter bloody madness.
There were also one or two eye-opening sex scenes for the young Pat. I’m a little embarrassed to recall one chapter with two characters named, let’s say, Joe and Mary. I was confused about who was doing what to whom, until I realised that Joe was a girl, too. Herbert’s naughty scenes may not have been the healthiest way for younger readers to learn about sex, but you never forgot them.
The Fog is not to be confused with the John Carpenter film of the same name (although many people apparently did, in those information-starved times, with some not realising until the movie was half-done), because Herbert’s novel is surely unfilmable.
As the back cover blurb memorably shrieked, “For God’s sake, don’t leave this on aunt Edna’s chair!”
Back on-point. This bonkers novel concerns neo-Nazis attempting to resurrect a zombie Heinrich Himmler, and a cult surrounding the Spear of Longinus, the holy artefact that supposedly pierced Christ's side on the cross. A former Mossad agent, seemingly signed on a loan deal from an Alastair MacLean novel, is out to stop the baddies.
Nazis and the occult grant storytellers such rich material, as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas discovered with Raiders of the Lost Ark. They make obvious baddies, with little political fallout or cultural guilt attached. Oddly, despite its supernatural bent, The Spear is more action/adventure than horror - the best bit being the haunted tank car chase. It’s right up there with Herbert's very best work.
For my money, Herbert was better at writing action than scenes of horror. Perhaps he would have been more suited to a tale of gangsters set in London’s east end? Maybe, in time, he would have reinvented himself as a writer of gritty thrillers.
Sadly, we’ll never know.
The rats are back - bigger, hungrier, nastier, skreee-ier. The action shifts to Epping Forest as the rats spread and multiply... although I have to confess that a section with a flasher pestering people is the thing that stuck in my mind most of all.
Herbert ripped himself off in this supernatural-themed re-tread of The Fog. Once more, society breaks down, thanks to a descent of demonic darkness rather than a waft of yellow flatus. Murder is once again the norm as the sunlight is blocked out and the whole of London is possessed by a malevolent entity.
In the best scene, an entire football stadium gets wiped out.
Herbert wipes his hands, and continues.
I can remember telling people when I was 13 that the second half of this book was "the best I've ever read". At the same time, I also told people that Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was the best album ever made.
I no longer hold these opinions.
A little girl can perform miracles. She starts to attract what you might call a cult following. However, the source of her power isn't some heavenly entity, but a wicked witch.
The finale to this book could only have been written by someone who had a catholic education. I know, because when I was a boy I once finished a horror story about demonic possession in a similar way.
If only things were that simple, Jim!
This is James Herbert's unacknowledged masterpiece - easily the best book he ever wrote.
Domain sees the UK turned into a toxic wasteland after a nuclear strike. A ragged band of survivors try to overcome radiation sickness, the breakdown of society – and each other.
You know what would make this scenario even worse? Yep, those pesky rats!
The opening nuclear attack is harrowing. The disease suffered by the survivors is horrifying. The rats' gradual incursion into the storyline is nightmarish. The survivors’ encounter with fellow travellers harbouring evil intentions, as in The Road, is scary. Their battle to escape a flooded containment facility over-run by rats is exciting. The whole book is...
Look, do yourself a favour. If you've never read any James Herbert, start with this one. Don't worry about it being the third in a trilogy, or even that it features rats. Domain marks Herbert’s finest hour, and it stands alone.
There's a killer on the loose. Jonathan Childes has a psychic link to the maniac. The police won't listen to him. The killer's on the way to the island where Childes is hiding out.
I've made Moon sound more exciting than it is. This stuff began to seem hackneyed and over-wrought, even to a 12-year-old. Even though people still go to see fortune tellers and listen to “psychics”, it's hard to think of a novel with these topics being a best-seller today.
It features a nasty killer, though, and an excellent twist.
There's an evil thing... something malice... ancient terror, thingy... in a house... Or a castle…
Again, like The Dark, I recall being fully invested in this book, although I couldn't tell you what it’s about or give you a detailed character list for a million pounds.
The main character's love interest likes having her backside skelped, though, so if that's your thing, carry on, soldier.
The not-best of James Herbert:
I learned a valuable lesson from Creed - not to trust the gushy testimonials printed on the back cover and inside pages.
I can still remember some of these. “Unputdownable”... “his best yet”... “turbo-charged and spewing black fumes”.
Absolute nonsense. An attempt to send up the horror genre, Creed is an embarrassing misfire about a seedy paparazzo who takes a picture of a demon having a w*nk - yes, really – and discovers his camera can capture otherwise invisible images of monsters and nasties.
I do not know what his “critics” were thinking, although I have my suspicions as to what they were smoking. It's the horror comedy that's neither scary nor funny. There’s a kernel of a good idea in there, but it’s interpreted poorly.
“For completists only” – Pat Black, Booksquawk.
That said, Herbert insisted several times that Creed was the book he most enjoyed writing.
I didn't go back to James Herbert until I re-read The Rats, years later. I began to realise there's more to life than horror novels, as I realised there's more to music than Iron Maiden albums. Not that there's anything wrong with these things... I felt better for trying other stuff, though.
Herbert has cited Creed as his favourite novel. I wonder if this is the same as when bands – Iron Maiden, for example - say their newest album is "definitely their best" (although I am reliably informed that Maiden’s latest is very good indeed).
That said, Herbert brought out some very well-regarded novels in the latter part of his career, such as ’48 and The Secret of Crickley Hall, and posted some of his best reviews. But it’s his early shockers that will survive, and keep people coming back.
There may be something in Stephen King's comparison between Herbert's fulminating early books and the spitting, snarling London punks of the late 1970s. They might not have cared, they might not have changed the world, but their work has endured.
I hope the same is true of James Herbert. We are bombarded with insincerity whenever anyone remotely famous dies, but I can say with total honesty that I was troubled by his passing.
I've got fond memories of watching him appear on the Terry Wogan show on Hallowe'en night in 1988. I said to my folks: that's the guy who wrote The Rats. There's the guy in my corner.
I bought Herbert's last novel, Ash, after I saw it advertised on Amazon for 20p. (Not a typo: 20 pence. I don’t think you can even buy a sweet from a shop for 20p any more.) This was a couple of years before he died.
I was outraged by this. 20p?! I felt so bad about taking the deal that I bought The Rats, too. That made it up to a whole pound.
I've still got Ash waiting on my Kindle. I owe the man a read, so stay tuned.
If you've never tried James Herbert, seek out the early stuff - particularly The Rats, The Fog, The Spear, Domain and The Dark.
I shall miss him. He’s part of growing up, for me. James Herbert was a one-off, and the landscape hasn't quite been the same since he left us.
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