James Herbert passed away today at his home in Sussex at the age of 69. Three authors had a huge impact upon my childhood; the first was Stephen King, the second Terry Pratchett and the third and most influential of the three was James Herbert.
Perhaps it was the brevity of his novels that made them so easy to pick up. The Rats is a book that can be digested in one sitting, The Dark a novel that to this day I hammer through within 24 hours, even though I know each scene before it arrives. But for whatever reason James Herbert’s novels form my earliest memories of reading.
Herbert is one of those rare authors than can actually conjure horror out of the fantasy. Stephen King managed it with Pet Semetary, and Herbert is the only author to do likewise with the brilliantly creepy asylum scene in The Dark. I remember listening to the audiobook version as a boy and being unable to sleep that night, my mind locked in that hellish building surrounded by countless lunatics laughing at my captivity.
As I’ve grown older I’ve often returned to Herbert’s writing, and although he never reclaimed his earlier brilliance, I will always remember him as my childhood hero.
In honour of Britain’s great horror writer, my top five James Herbert books:
The story of a man who thinks he’s a dog, or a dog who thinks he’s a man; this fantasy tale is more light-hearted in content, but perhaps more grownup in theme. A man finds he’s been reincarnated as a dog and decides to track down his former life to save his family from his killer. This was later turned into a film in which all the melancholy was drained away to make it more appealing to the audience. Do yourself a favour and read it instead.
Herbert’s crossover into erotica, once concerns itself with witches, hell-hagges and fairies. Thom Kindred is torn between good and evil as they both vie for his soul and occasionally.. er.. fluids.
3. The Rats
The first James Herbert book I read and the earliest book I can remember reading. The Rats is a cracking read which established Herbert’s knack for introducing a character, making us love them, then killing them in a stomach churning way. Giant rats wreak havoc on a grimy London. This was remade into a terrible film, so ignore that one. Would make a great movie one day if someone stayed true to the story and setting.
The third book in the Rats Trilogy, but curiously the Rats are no longer the main antagonist: this time it’s man. London had been destroyed be a series of atomic explosions and the few survivors have been driven underground. However, deep below the rubble the rats are waiting; they have finally inherited the Earth. I still have vivid images burnt into my mind of the opening of this book in which character after character is given a brief past before being vaporised by the explosions. It was that realism that made this opening perhaps the most horrific I’ve ever read.
1. The Dark
My favourite James Herbert book of all time is this nasty little tale depicting a battle of good vs evil, light vs dark, that tears London apart. A ritual suicide sparks a growing wave of madness that spreads across London, its influence gaining momentum with each violent night. The government scramble to make sense of the phenomena throwing science against mysticism, but nothing seems to penetrate the Dark. It is the moral ambiguity of the Dark that excites me the most, the idea that evil lurks inside every human and given the right circumstance it can seize control, and most chilling of all: no-one actually did anything they didn’t secretly want to do all along.