Goodbye, Jim Herbert
The 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.