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Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Archive icons - James Herbert

Let's talk James Herbert - the best-selling horror author and recipient of the OBE has a new book out this September - the author burst onto the scene in 1974 with his novel - The Rats - an immediate best-seller, the book seemed to catch the Zeitgeist and started a string of gruesome but increasingly complex works. Of course the timing of the book helped - it was 1974 and the horror genre was about to enter a golden age led by Mr Herbert and a then unknown American author named Stephen King. In fact King's debut, Carrie didn't come out until a few months after The Rats had topped the best-seller lists. But, more than anything else, the thing that made the Rats such a massive success was the style of writing - previously British horror was dominated by a verbose style demonstrated by the likes of Dennis Wheatley, and here was this new young turk, writing with a working class voice and using working class characters to carry the story.

In short - James Herbert kicked arse!!!

I was nine years old when The Rats burst onto the scene but I think I was a few years older when I came across the dog eared paperback which was one of the hot topics in the school playground.

It was the extremely graphic (for its time) horror that appealed to us snobby nosed kids and although I've read the book several times since, I think the first reading was the best. That's the one where you turn the pages with your mouth hanging open.

 It made the author an instant superstar and in the UK, at least, he was a bigger seller than Stephen King. In fact in the UK it was James Herbert who was given the tag, King of Horror.

A title that the author never seemed perfectly comfortable with -  the author has cropped up on UK chat shows from time to time, and he always seems to squirm when the interviewer questions him about the gore and violence contained in his books. However this visceral quality only belonged to his early books and by the time of 1977's The Fluke, the author's fourth novel, his books had become much more complex and assured than his early work. That's not to take anything from his early work though and The Rats, The Fog and the Survivor are all totally enjoyable reads - And of course enjoyment is the main reason to read. The books have been very influential and in no small way  inspired the splatterpunk horror movement that emerged towards the end of the decade.

The Jonah though was more of a fantasy than a horror novel - marketed very much as horror, the story of a man reincarnated as a dog, and told from the dog's point of view, is a beautifully written fable with that dark twist the author is renowned for.

Herbert's follow up to Fluke, The Spear was a curious hybrid of the horror and thriller genres, and in turn he followed this up with Lair, a sequel to his first  novel, The Rats. He would also publish a third novel in the Rats saga, Domain in 1984 which sees the rats finally dominated after mankind has been virtually wiped out following a nuclear war.

Since then the author has experimented with his genre - giving us traditional horror - The Dark, adult fairy Tales - The Magic Cottage, supernatural chillers - The Haunted, and pretty much everything in between. Herbert doesn't mess around and can usually grab the reader by the end of the first page.

James Herbert was born on April 8, 1943, in the East End of London, the son of street traders. His family lived at the back of Petticoat Lane in Whitechapel—once the stalking ground of Jack the Ripper. Age ten, he passed the 11+ exam and won a scholarship to St. Aloysius Grammar School in Highgate. At sixteen he went to the famous Hornsey College of Art, where he studied graphic design. This led to him joining a leading London advertising agency, where he worked his way up to the position of Group Head/Associate Director.

Feeling there was more he could do, at the age of 28 he started secretly writing a novel. Ten months later he had completed The Rats—inspired by his childhood upbringing and depicting a London overrun by monstrous, flesh-eating rats of unknown origin. He submitted the manuscript to six publishers on the same day. Within three weeks he had received three replies. Two publishers turned the novel down, while the other enthusiastically accepted it. 

As a teenager I devoured each and every one of Herbert's books and whenever a new title was released I'd buy it, read it and then pop off a letter to the author. And you know he always replied - I've still got these letters somewhere and will dig them out one day - there's an article in those alone. 

1 comment:

Col Bury said...

Great shout, Gary. Read 'em all. The Rats trilogy really got me into reading and, subsequently, writing. I particularly loved the 'working class' approach, and Herbert's humour, for me, sets him apart from Mr King, just.

Ps. 'Nobody True' is a supernatural masterpiece.