Tributes have been pouring in since the news broke that James died yesterday at the age of 69 - author Neil Gaiman speaking on Radio 5 said, “Jim’s [sales] numbers were extraordinary and he was very grumpy that nobody noticed. He’d point out that he had outsold Stephen King in the UK. He was a bestselling author which I think also meant that he felt he wasn’t getting the attention that he deserved. He wanted the things he wasn’t getting. He wanted critical acclaim and I don’t think he felt he ever got it even when some of his novels did get serious critical attention."
I'm not so sure than Herbert's success wasn't noticed, though - he was awarded the OBE in 2010 for one thing, and in terms of popular fiction his was. and is, a giant name. Perhaps Herbert was always overshadowed by Stephen King - both men came onto the scene around the same time but where King was comfortable in the media, Herbert tended to shun the limelight. He would turn up on the UK chat show circuit when he had a new book out but would vanish soon afterwards, only emerging when he had another book to tout.
"I hate violence and I didn't plan to write horror; it just poured out of me. The great thing is that you can write humour, romance or political thrillers under that genre." James Herbert
There was some critical acclaim and anyone wanting to find out more about the author should check out By Horror Haunted which was written by Stephen Jones and is a serious study of the author's vast contribution to popular fiction.
Four of his novels – The Rats, The Survivor, Fluke and Haunted – were made into films while one of his later works, The Secret of Crickley Hall, became a three-part supernatural thriller for the BBC last year. None though were particularly memorable.
"Another good writer lost, and one who was a commercial success, too, although I understand he had
his ups and downs and insecurities." author Keith Chapman
Herbert was born in London in 1943, the youngest son of East End market traders, and got his first work in advertising, becoming art director and head of the agency he joined. At the age of 28 he began writing his first novel, a story of London being overrun by mutant, flesh-eating rats. When The Rats was finally published in 1974, the first print run of 100,000 copies sold out in three weeks. Many critics took the book at face value and bemoaned the extreme violence, but failed to pick up on the clever political allegory within the book.
“The Rats was one of the first novels read outside school. Enjoyed watching my son read it. RIP.” author, Mark Billingham via Twitter.
Herbert improved as a writer as he went on, and I still feel that his 1986 novel, The Magic Cottage is one of the finest dark fantasies every published and can stand proud alongside the very best of the horror/supernatural genre.
“Deeply saddened to hear today that my dear friend, writer James Herbert, died last night. Will miss you lots, Jim, you were a diamond. RIP.” Crime writer Peter James via Twitter.
Over the years I've written several articles about James for the Archive and some time back mentioned concerns for his health when a writer friend, a man who shall remain nameless but shared a publisher with James, told me he had bumped into the author in London and that he was frail and needed help walking. There was also the fact that Herbert's last book, Ash was delayed and delayed until finally seeing print last year.
He will be deeply missed - James Herbert was a true people's writer - the author himself didn't give a shit for literary pretensions and wrote to entertain, that he entertained so many of us shows how great he truly was. He wasn't writing for the pretentious knobs who think a book holds no worth unless it is angst filled and a slog to get through. He was writing for ordinary people, working people and offering an entertaining escape from the grim reality of everyday life. He was brought up himself in a working class environment and he never stopped caring about working class issues, even when great wealth and success came his way.
I am deeply saddened by the loss of James Herbert and although I didn't really know the man I have lost something very real to me. I grew up reading his books and although I didn't follow him so much over recent years, I did pick up his books from time to time. I've read The Rats at least six times and Magic Cottage even more than that. I can still remember the feelings of dread I experienced when first reading, The Shrine and I guess I owe James Herbert for many many hours of enjoyable reading.
Thank you, Mr Herbert - rest in peace, sir. A true gentleman.