Goodbye, Jim Herbert

Reading & Writing

fog uk

theratsThe US literary horror boom of the 1970s didn’t go unnoticed over here. Publishers suddenly saw that there were some excellent writers emerging, including Michael McDowell, Jeffrey Konvitz and Thomas Tryon, and striding above them all was Stephen King. The most famous genre writers are rarely the best (compare JK Rowling to Susanna Clarke) but they touch a nerve in the greater part of the reading public, which I regard as an entirely separate, brilliant skill. King married old, old plots with an appealing kind of new populist Americana. While not much of a stylist, his great skill was in setting up character conflicts that paid off in really satisfying ways for readers.

As the US horror genre took wing and started to soar, UK publishers sought ways to induce the same effect with homegrown writers. Here the genre was in the doldrums, trapped in a prewar twilight of ghost tales told in gentlemen’s clubs, and James Herbert was the former copywriter rude boy who shook the good taste out of literary horror.

His books were gloriously, shockingly un-PC (try reading ‘The Fog’ now and see how that works for you). No-one had really done this before in England, and if he wasn’t much of a stylist either, he could drag a reader kicking and screaming through a succession of increasingly horrific events, leaving them breathless at the closing page. Unlike his US counterparts, he chucked in a lot of sex, too.

I wonder if he was aggrieved to find ‘The Fog’ so clearly lifted in films like ‘The Crazies’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Mist’? If so, he didn’t appear to show it. His novels became tamer and more traditional, reaching an audience of some 40 million, and he was awarded the OBE, much to his surprise and everyone else’s surprise. His were very English horror stories, utterly unironic and relatively contemporary, rooted in time and place.

In another time he’d have been regarded as an energetic pulp voice, but in the 1970s, when every schoolboy had a book in his back pocket, he was ubiquitous. He died aged 69.

15 comments on “Goodbye, Jim Herbert”

  1. steven nash says:

    I’ve not read The Fog but if the Mist is very similar then Stephen King’s short story is to blame rather than Darabont’s film.

    I need to read more of James Herbert’s work.

  2. Alison says:

    I think that they were very much of their time. I did try and re-read a couple of his books about 3 years ago and just couldn’t do it – they worked then; I’m not so sure about now. They have a very ‘Hammer’ feel about them – as you say, very English and very, very rooted. But he certainly helped bring horror into the mainstream.

  3. David read says:

    One if my abiding memories of being a teen, 15 I guess, was reading The Dark. I was lying on our sofa completely engrossed in a particularly gribly bit, my Mum had been repeatedly offering me a bag of crisps. I was oblivious and didn’t hear, so mum threw them, they landed on me and I nearly jumped through the ceiling!

    I have to say I hadn’t read any for many years and someone loaned me Ash, but I couldn’t get through more than a third of it. Just didn’t seem to gel.

  4. Sair says:

    I loved all his books as a teenager,they are perfect teen horror stories! XD I especially remember reading Sepulchre when i was about 15 and it was gloriously over the top, a deliciously depraed read! ^_^

  5. Keith Heeney says:

    I am shocked to hear of Mr. Herbert’s death. He is/was more scary then Stephen King. I rmember reading the Dark in my late teens and reaaly scared me that I would not turn out the lights. Thanks for the scares jim maybe you are scaring one or two people up there. You scared me.

    R.I.P. James Herbert 1943-2013

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    I know an awful lot of people who read James Herbert as a teenager as you say, and I was certainly one of them. Since too (and without any shame). He had a wonderful habit of spending a chapter detailing someone’s life only to have them horribly killed at the end of it (rather than just being another dead body). In this he did show, not tell. We were rarely told the thing was bad, we were shown it. I used his books as an example of why I dislike the term young-adult, or teen fiction in my book group the other month. When I was a teen I read Herbert, and King – and Moorcock, and Zelazny, and Dick. And still do when sometimes I just want to wander down the long tatty bookcases that plot my life.

    Sure his protogonists are almost always scruffy men in their 30s, loners with a talent, and capable of throwing a punch. Inevitably they would always hook up with a scrawny woman. But the hero is rarely the most interesting part of his stories. The stories are, and the whatever-is-the-dark thing is shown by how it affects the people it touches (and usually eats). There’s even plenty of London-porn* in Rats and Domain for example – and surely anyone that likes B&M is here to some degree for the London-porn.

    There’s nothing wrong with liking Herbert’s body of work. They are damn readable and there’s nothing amiss with that. If we read them as teenagers then at least nothing in them sparkled in sunlight…

    RIP James Herbert. The man done good.

  7. Alan Morgan says:

    *As opposed to weapon-porn.

  8. Mike Cane says:

    >>>but they touch a nerve in the greater part of the reading public, which I regard as an entirely separate, brilliant skill

    Ah, that’s it. The words I was looking for to express that “something.”

  9. Bob Low says:

    I also read James Herbert’s books avidly as a teenager. Although I havne’t read his work for some years, I could never think badly of the man. A school friend of mine, even more of a Herbert fanatic than I was, wrote regular fan letters to him, and he responded personally, and warmly to each one. Encouraged by this, we put together a home printed ”Horror Magazine”, containing stories and reviews that we had written, and sent it to Mr. Herbert for his views. The general quality and tone of this item can be understood from the fact that the ”lead story” of its first and only edition was entitled ”The Dildo of Death”(not one of mine). Not only did Mr. Herbert take the time to read this ghastly rubbish, he responded with a lengthy, detailed and constructive letter ,trying to find some positives to say, and encouraging us to do better in future.I never met him, but I always think of him as a thoroughly decent bloke, and I was very sad to hear about his early death. Condolences to his family, and friends. I imagine he must have had many of the latter.

  10. Mike Brough says:

    Much missed. A very English/British writer.

  11. Chris Lancaster says:

    I was genuinely upset to hear about James Herbert’s death. I’ve seen many of the musical heroes of my teenage years (Freddie Mercury, Stuart Adamson, Michael Hutchence, to name a few) fall by the wayside, but James Herbert is the first of my favourite authors to head up to the big publishing house in the sky.

    I think the first James Herbert book that I read was probably The Rats when aged about 13 or 14, and having recently had my introduction to Stephen King via the book (not the film) of The Shining. Whereas King was talking about a culture and places about which I knew little, Herbert’s books were set in places such as the town in which I grew up. This gave them a connection which made them seem very real; coupled with the fast paced action and the compulsory (and often slightly kinky) sex scenes, I loved them. The Rats trilogy was simply terrifying, and even now I can probably quote the opening chapters of Domain off by heart, so frequently did I read and re-read it. Nevermind the rats themselves, this was the 1980s, and nuclear war was something that seemed if not likely, then certainly possible.

    Whilst books such as The Dark and The Fog seemed written mainly to shock (I can never see a pair of garden shears without thinking of one scene, and wincing), other books were more thought-provoking. The Survivor was one of these, and, even more so, was Fluke, which dealt superbly with the subject of reincarnation. Whilst there weak points in the Herbert canon – the cop-out pseudo-Christian ending of The Dark, for instance, and the the horribly misguided ’48, I can honestly say that I greatly enjoyed all of Herbert’s books, even last year’s Ash, which got very mixed reviews.

    Over Christmas every year, I make a list of books that I know are being published in the coming year, with author, title and publication date. This is pinned to the wall in my study, and forms my ‘essential book buying list’ for the coming year. Some names – King, Fowler, Herbert, Clive Barker, Stephen Baxter, amongst others – have appeared on this list every year for the 20 or so years I’ve compiled it. Next year, there will be one less name on the list. James Herbert, you will be missed.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Weapons-porn. That’s a word I could have used a while ago. I’ll admit that the complete engagement with horror material that seems to be essential to the mid-teen male would appear to negate everything I said earlier, it may actually be that it is the necessary exposure to fear that develops the proper mental response mechanism that some medical people have talked about recently.

  13. Bob Low says:

    Chris-its good that you’ve reminded us that Herbert could be quite clever, as well as shocking. As well as ”The Survivor”, and ”Fluke”. ”Haunted” had an original twist. There are still some scenes in ”The Fog” that have stayed with me-the village whose entire population walk into the sea, for example.His popularity and success were entirely deserved.

  14. J. Folgard says:

    I read your post yesterday (along with a fine piece by Malcolm Edwards at the Gollancz blog), and remembered having enjoyed a handful of novels when I was a teenager, and then ‘Others’ a couple of years ago. I also dug out my DVD of ‘the Survivor’ with Robert Powell (which led me to the brilliant ‘Harlequin/Dark Forces’ later, incidentally). Today, the paperback edition of ‘Ash’ just showed up at my favorite bookstore and I bought one, because it looked like another big, fat, enjoyable if a bit old-school horror thriller, and the train ride back home was a pleasure. It’s true that his books had faults, sometimes glaring, but they were always a good ride -so here’s to him.

  15. Dylan Lancaster says:

    I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death. I have had quite a lot of time off work recently due to an accident and was re-reading some of his books, I finished Nobody True last week. I was a big fan of his later books from 1986 onward.

Comments are closed.