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James Herbert – A Legend

James Herbert. Image © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson

The death of James Herbert this morning at the age of 69 marks the end of a significant era in horror literature. His debut novel The Rats, published in 1974, was a flesh-creeping, nightmare-inducing, page turner, which became an instant best-seller, spawned sequels, adaptations and a 40 year run of success for its creator. His most recent novel, Ash, had only just been released in paperback by Pan Macmillan.

I’m sure column inches will be filled over the next few days and months in newspapers, literary journals and genre publications as critics revisit his works and no doubt opinion will continue to be split. For some, he was little more than horror’s Dan Brown (as I’ve seen several people comment already) – not really a literary giant, but a popular, page-turner of an author. For others, he was a god of horror.

Bedlam will be spending a little time looking over Herbert’s body of work this year, and I hope you’ll join in our exploration. We’d been discussing a career overview interview with his publicists for quite some time, and now that the main thrust of his publicity for Ash and the BBC adaptation of The Secret Of Crickley Hall  had died down I’d been hopeful we could finally find the time to work on the piece together. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be, but we’ll be paying tribute all the same.

My own journey with Herbert is fairly short but intensive, and certainly satisfying. I’ll share it with you.

His was a name I knew from my teenage years. My brother Jonny had been a fairly avid reader back in the 1990s, and had sat recommending both The Fog and The Rats to me at length, although at the time I was a little  confused about The Fog, mistaking it for having something to do with the John Carpenter film which I’d seen and loved. For the next decade Herbert’s books sat on bookshelves staring me down, demanding to be read, and yet somehow being resisted. Sure, I read the blurbs, admired the smart design work (usually Herbert’s own – he’d been an art director before he was ever an author), but not in the habit of borrowing my sibling’s books.

And then we met – very briefly – at Ingrid Pitt’s birthday. I’d been working with Ingrid a lot at public shows through my association with Hammer, and on arrival at the bash in Hammersmith, found I was marked out as a special guest along with the likes of Caroline Munro, Kate O’Mara and James Herbert. (Ingrid wrote about it here).

Not long after that I picked up my first James Herbert novel. I was to be over in Edinburgh visiting Jonny and had spotted a rather attractive paperback copy of The Rats outside a second hand bookshop in Belfast. Needing something for the weekend’s reading, I bought it, and set about devouring it en route on the ferry. Walking through Stockbridge the next day I spotted a copy of Fluke, and my Herbert odyssey was off.

Suffering from a lifelong phobia of rats, that debut novel would be a perfect starter for me – striking a nerve like nothing else, and filling the deepest recesses of my mind with absolute fear and dread.  I needed to reach the end, but I needed more. Strange how adrenaline works. From there I delved into the terrifying fear of The Fog, the catholic manipulation of Shrine, eerie villages in The Survivor, a loveable dog in Fluke, and so on.

I’d just read The Dark when I discovered that Ingrid had written an adaptation of it for the screen at the behest of John Hough, which led into interesting diversions with Ingrid’s memoirs and a couple of informative chats with John, and then back to James Herbert and my attempts to get him to write the foreword for Ingrid’s as yet unpublished memoir The Hammer Xperience. But ill-health and on-going work on Ash made that impossible.

In October of last year I was down in Hastings as a guest at the Queen of Horror festival, to launch Ingrid’s posthumous book Dracula Who..?  James had been invited too, and while we were launching (quietly) upstairs, James was downstairs signing with the other guests. I finally got a bit of time to sit with James and chat, and we talked of Ash and his work, the career interview idea for Bedlam, of his and Ingrid’s friendship, of the tribute to Ingrid he included in Ash, about The Dark, of Hammer films (who he told me had been keen to work with him recently, but he was too busy on Ash to contemplate), about Dracula Who…?, and about my brother. I’d hoped that Jonny could have been there that weekend (he’d worked with me and Ingrid a few times), but couldn’t get the time out, so I told James about how I started reading his books, and James dedicated a special birthday inscription on a copy of Ash for Jonny, which I gave him the next week. It was a lovely gesture, and one that some authors wouldn’t have been prepared to make.

He was absolutely charming, and very softly spoken and very optimistic. Plans were made to sort out the interview once Crickley Hall was out of the way, and I gave him a copy of the limited edition Dracula Who…?

Later on we shared a stage, as friends of Ingrid during a special tribute piece, that involved most of the guests from the weekend – Barry McCann chairing with myself, Damien Thomas, Robert Young, Madeline Smith, Renee Glynne, Tony Rudlin, Carol Cleveland, John Hough and James Herbert filling up the rest of the space. It quickly became a rather more wider interest discussion on horror, with dear John Hough and James almost interviewing each other. Well over time, it was hard not to listen to the master. He’d not been expected to stay more than a couple of hours for the signing, and yet he made a point to hang around and chat and hand out the fiction awards for the weekend and meet the newly appointed festival ‘Queen’. He was a little frail – relying on sticks for mobility, and told the audience that all that sitting behind a desk writing meant his legs weren’t exercised enough, but he was determined to get more active.

One of the worst things about this job is marking off those who touch our lives and then leave the stage too soon. Is hard enough when you admire someone from afar, but once you’ve spoken with them, engaged and talked as a person it hits. I’ve been blessed in that so many of those I meet are a far cry from the potentially aloof or rude people they could be. Screen actors live like ghosts through projections of their work, authors live on through their words being spoken and read. My last conversation with James was on the promise of we’ll talk again soon. While I can’t ask him the questions I want to and get his firm answers in response, James can continue to talk to me and his hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers (54 million copies+ sold to date) through his work. That’s quite a landmark to leave.

Ash may not have been the swansong that fans (or he?) would have chosen to leave – it isn’t genre redefining, not indelible on the memory, not timeless, rather an of-the-moment, conspiracy laden horror thriller – but it stands as yet another original gripping page turner, positing bold ideas and leaving the reader to question their perceptions of popular figures. It proved Herbert still had bite, and more stories to tell. And even if the worst thing that can be said of Ash is that it made people pine (and return to) his earlier work, then it still served to remind us of how solid and original his writing can be.

Bedlam editor Robert J.E. Simpson and author James Herbert. © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson

I still have a handful of his novels left as virgin reads to me, their deflowering will be all the more poignant in the coming weeks and months. One thing I didn’t mention to him in Hastings was that we share a birthday, and James would have been 70 in a couple of weeks’ time. I’ll be raising a glass in his memory, and toasting one of the most influential genre writers of the 20th century, with one eye on that old railway bank across the road and the rats’ lair…

Robert J.E. Simpson