James Herbert: By Horror Haunted
I remember, as a young lad (I must have been about 11), being fascinated by the cover of James Herbert’s novel Moon. There was something incredibly evocative about it’s minimalist design: simple white lettering on a black cover, the top corner of which featured a glinting full moon peaking out from behind the blackest clouds. It was evocative, eerie, and hooked me every time I saw it on book shop shelves (which was a lot as the novel was a huge best-seller). It was the key moment when I noticed the power of a brilliantly designed cover. The fact that it was for an author whom I’d already found an inspiration was a bonus.
James Herbert’s The Moon
James Herbert, tragically, died today at the too-young age of 69. News of his passing has shocked and saddened me. Without any sense of hyperbole, he was a true inspiration to me. I discovered his writing through my father, himself a life-long horror fan and reader of dark fiction. Herbert was Dad’s writer of choice, preferring his lean, mean, stream-lined prose to the more fanciful (and indulgent) Stephen King. I think it’s important to rank Herbert and King alongside each other. Both emerged in the early 70′s, on either side of the Atlantic, and whilst King may have reached more stratospheric heights of success and critical acclaim, both writers (independently) brought fresh new voices to the somewhat staid Horror novel genre. As King himself noted in Danse Macabre, “Herbert… never pulls back from the crunch; instead, he seems to race eagerly, zestfully, towards each new horror.” This became the hallmark of Herbert’s early work: insanely brutal and floridly realised violence.
James Herbert’s The Rats
His début novel, The Rats, may, at first, appear to be a trashy “creature-feature” tale of mutant rats invading the East End of London, but what could have been silly and out-dated (even for 1974) becomes terrifyingly powerful and indelible under Herbert’s punkish guidance; in one chapter alone, both a dog and a baby are overwhelmed and torn apart by The Rats, a scene so shocking it still raises the eyebrows nearly 40 years later. This was the angry, feverish horror prose of a generation of writer/reader bored with the traditional likes of Dennis Wheatley; Herbert was pulling horror from the pages of gothic melodramas and thrusting it into the post-Vietnam-desensitised real world. His atrocities matched the horrors seen from distant war-shores, but relocated to cosy ol’ England.
James Herbert’s The Fog
It was Herbert’s second novel, The Fog, that I read first. It had a huge impact on me. Like his début book, The Fog had a plot-line straight out of cheesy B-movie horror cinema: a top-secret military chemical weapon is unwittingly unleashed on the English countryside, turning anyone who enters it’s drifting, unstoppable, gaseous cloud into raving, psychopathic monsters. But it was the sheer skill with which Herbert told his tale, in an episodic series of escalating horrors, that dazzled me. His inventiveness with the “set-piece” and sheer brilliance at conveying action and horror, blew my young mind. He was writing scenes better than those I was watching in my favourite horror films. These horror vignettes imprinted themselves on my mind; scenes so perverse and chilling that they’ve rarely been bettered and remain as vivid now as when I first read them: a destructive fissure in the ground of a small country village; a mass suicide on the beaches of Bournemouth; a farmer killed by his own cattle (animals killing humans recur); a crazed school gym class; and, perhaps most chillingly prophetic, a jilted pilot turning his plane into London’s high-rise Post Office Tower. As King notes, there is a gleeful “zestiness” to the manner in which Herbert tackles each perverse act, though I’d argue he takes enough care rounding out characters (even those he’s about to kill) to avoid being callous. Sure, this was the work of a fledgling writer, a young one too (Herbert was 32 when it was published), and crudities abound. But this is still a powerful book and one that set a benchmark style for the author: he would return to the novel’s formula of mixing a central plotline (the hero’s part) with vignettes of national/global catastrophes, in works like The Dark, Domain and Portent. For me, these felt like his most “cinematic” of novels.
Of course, violence was only one of two things Herbert’s early works were notorious for: the other was sex!
Ask any horror fan of my age (late thirties/early forties) and it would not surprise me to hear that their early notions of sex were formulated by James Herbert! His novels were rife with the most explicit of sexual acts, written in the most anatomically descriptive manner. As an adolescent, the photographs of Playboy may have provided the visual stimulation, but Herbert provided the full-on instructional manual! Okay, so what if many of these lascivious chapters ended in some grotesque death? In truth, of course, Herbert was just playing up the most traditional ingredients of the exploitation genre: sex and violence. And, as with his violence, Herbert took just as much care and detail in presenting his sex scenes as “real” and vivid. What did occasionally feel like naive cheap-thrills in early books (for instance, the most evocative scene in The Fog – the mass, lemming-like, drowning of an entire city’s population – is preceded with the rather on-the-nose recounting of a doomed lesbian affair) would evolve into a more mature and sensual eroticism in latter works, such as the demented Creed or the erotically-super-charged Once. But this reputation as a writer of hard-core sex and violence tarnished Herbert’s critical reputation as a purveyor of trashy, if popular, horror.
James Herbert’s Fluke
Frankly, this is unfair. Herbert’s fourth novel, Fluke, is as drastic a departure from the fetid worlds of his previous works as you can get: a modern fairy-tale of a man reincarnated as a dog. And if you’re expecting said dog, the titular Fluke, to be some rabid-crazed monster a la Cujo, you’d be very wrong: Fluke is a gentle yet haunting tale, one full of descriptive prose and emotional warmth. It’s a wonderful book and one I always recommend to new readers. If Herbert never quite skirted with the peripheries of literature the way, say, Stephen King (arguably) has, that’s not to diminish the undoubted evolution of his writing style and skills. As King pointed out in the excellent biography James Herbert: By Horror Haunted, “someone who had not followed (James Herbert) from his first novel in 1974 to his most recent in 1992 would probably not realise they had been written by the same man.” I’d argue that Herbert evolved even further after King wrote that comment: read, say, The Survivor (1976) back to back with Others (1999) for a clear example of author evolution.
James Herbert’s Creed
There is another reason I took to Herbert’s work: he wrote about a world I could identify with. Born in the East End of London, Herbert moved to the countryside of Sussex where he wrote most of his twenty-three novels. I, contrastingly, grew up in Sussex and now find myself writing this on the edge of East London/Essex suburbs. Of course, that’s where comparisons between Herbert and myself end! But it did mean that his novels featured a sensibility and geographic locations that I recognised: they weren’t a world away from me like, say, the lands presented by American authors. When I found myself attending university at Bournemouth I won’t deny that my mind flashed back to that infamous scene from The Fog every time I walked the beach promenade! Likewise, Herbert seemed as interested in the paranormal and spectral as I am; many of his latter books focused on the supernatural (including my personal favourite, The Ghosts of Sleath), though he would temper his enthusiasm for the genre with a strong sense of scepticism (often through his recurring character of David Ash, debunker of fraudulent mediums, etc.). Indeed, in what is often considered to be the most “English” of horror genres – the gothic ghost story – many would agree that Herbert wrote a modern classic: Haunted (which began life as a script for an aborted BBC drama; ironically, the BBC recently screened a three-part adaptation of Herbert’s penultimate novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall. Hopefully, they will re-screen it as a tribute).
James Herbert lived so local to me that, as a teenager, I was once given his address by a friend (don’t worry, I had no stalking intentions!) But I never did pluck up the courage to post him that fan letter I wrote. Of course, I regret that now (that said, I still remember my excitement at walking past Herbert whilst out in Brighton once!) Perhaps this obituary is my way of rectifying that?
James Herbert’s Last Novel: Ash
I, of course, have not done justice to the brilliance and influence of Herbert’s work. I’ve not even mentioned his earlier career in advertising that shaped his hands-on approach to the design and promotion of his novels (back to that brilliant cover for Moon). Neither have I expressed my genuine bemusement that so few of his works have yet to reach the Big Screen when so many are screamingly cinematic! (I would love to see a big-budget versions of Domain or Creed!)
I will end, however, with this; there are two reasons I find myself an eager, if somewhat frustrated, writer of Horror Fiction: the first is my love of horror cinema; the second is the profound impact James Herbert’s novels had on me as a young reader. He made me want to tell horror stories, and to tell them my way I wanted and without compromise.
If you’re already a fan of his works, I cannot think of a better tribute to the great, late, James Herbert than curling up in bed with one of his chilling books and reading a few pages tomight… and if you’re new to his work: I envy you…
Rest in peace, Jim…
Horror Master: The Late James Herbert