SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

James Herbert: King Rat Remembered (1943-2013) ~ A Sad Goodbye To the Great Horror Novelist James Herbert as he leaves the Magic Cottage Forever.

As a boy, only three names mattered in horror fiction to me: Stephen King, Clive Barker and James Herbert.
It's the same today. Only those three names, whether in new editions being released or in filmed adaptations - or best of all in brand new work, really and overwhelmingly excite me. They are still the names that I seek out first in every bookstand, even though I've read probably all their work, so far.
The picture of Herbert hidden within every dust jacket in his earlier books, leaning against his desk, battered black leather jacket - looking for all the world like a character in one of his own, soaringly imaginative and secretly exciting novels, is one of the few author pictures I think to be on a par with the contents of the book itself; in that it actually agrees with the words inside. 
This man's greatest books dared mention extremes of sex, death and threat, in 'Incredible Hulk' TV series-like 'money shot' moments of the kind when the Hulk comes out to play ball - you always knew you would get a certain number of these unexpectedly supremely twisted, randomly perverted or outrageous, eye-pinging, bloodcurdling moments per book; the mark of a true crowd-pleaser, of a showman. 

These moments of worst-imagined horror would often be nestled among the more traditionally bad things that go bump in the night in the loft, usually in a suburban setting but one that would also often be curiously fairy tale-like despite their humdrum familiarity or when hidden within a gentrified landscape. And Herbert loves to rustle around in the darkest countryside or remotest landscapes in his fiction; be caught among those twisting woods and forgotten ivy-clad hollows, tumbling hills and sea-sprayed corners and even once wrote a non-fiction book revelling in such strange and secret things; 'James Herbert's Dark Places' (1993).


The more critics or fellow authors - anyone, rubbished Herbert's work, the more I knew I was in debt, for the rest of my life, to this storyteller. He was just, well; the coolest fucking writer around. I wanted to be James Herbert one day, even though, now I'm older, I know I never will be; I don't think any other British horror writer has ever captured the populist vote as effortlessly as Herbert while still remaining a British eccentric - or if not an eccentric, certainly a defiant outsider.

To fans, he was the anti-hero of horror fiction, right until the end - the thorn in the side of upper-shelf snobbery. Yet, like Stephen King's best novels (a man also often targeted by literary snobs who don't realise how life-exploring, poetic and unhindered the genre can be) and Barker's too, Herbert's books often examined the human condition in stark sweet detail. They meditated on the metaphysical and took horror beyond creaking doors into apocalyptic visions of the future (in '48), out of body experiences (Nobody True), into reincarnation (Fluke) and through mythological, surreal and romantic landscapes (The Magic Cottage - possibly my favourite Herbert novel, as rich in the pollen-spurting, woodland creaking love of the countryside and fable as a lush Thomas Hardy novel twinned with the puffball magic and quiet sexual longings of an Angela Carter). 

Actually, a plague of rats, may well be the nightmare James Herbert will be best remembered for - in the same way King gets Carrie or Barker gets Candyman. But it's the quieter, thoughtful works of soaring, amazing, erotic imagination and slow-building, often achingly introspective and reflective masterpieces of terror written with a sense of restless daring and determination to not be typecast while still always being so familiar as 'a James Herbert book', that make up many of the man's best novels. The Rats, though, is a classic first novel and remains a sullen, sunken masterpiece of pulp terror, smart and sassy and full of shocks - and the third book in the trilogy; 'Domain' sees the rats run wild in a post-apocalyptic landscape that sets the book apart, not just as great crowd-pleasing horror, but as a science fiction masterpiece as good and exciting as Pierre Boulle's 'Planet of the Apes'.

The James Herbert route of adventure took us to many exciting places of terror that had an especially memorable outing to a Quatermass-like quiet village for a ratcheting-up of unsettled unease in his classic second novel (post-Rats); 'The Fog'. In an essential 2012 interview with Sabotage Times, Herbert says that director John Carpenter who made the 1980 film also called 'The Fog' and which was supposedly unrelated to Herbert's novel from 1975, had been visiting Salisbury Plain - the location of Herbert's story, on holiday, prior to making the movie: "He liked the title, but went back with a completely different story about pirates – he could have called it 'Pirates of The Mist' or something" Herbert commented.


More nightmares followed: neo-Nazi cults and relics (The Spear), a storm-lashed, coastal town for a narcotic thriller (The Jonah) and even more rising dread in 'The Survivor' - of a plane crash, and the mysterious events that follow; a story idea that predates the Final Destination movies by half a century. Herbert thought the film version of 'The Survivor' starring Robert Powell was  too muddled and criticised the direction (there's no doubt that Herbert was fiercely protective of all adaptations of his work and I know of at least one well known scriptwriter who had his adaptation of a famous Herbert novel vetoed at the last moment): "I still think it's an intriguing story," Herbert once said of the film, "with something to be made of it - but they just go away and do their own thing."

Stephen King, Clive Barker and James Herbert are unashamedly popularist - but only because they have so many followers, not because they play anything safe. The opposite, in fact; Barker's works especially still shock and examine themes we sometimes feel that he (and the reader also) really shouldn't be examining while King mixes up works of campfire-like storytelling bathed in rich characterisation and tell-tale boyish wonder across all genres while retaining a unique voice - one long adventure, many different plots.

Herbert also has that unique voice and takes his own peculiar obsessions (not as extreme as Barker's delving into the undead and post-coital, post-corporeal pain and unrest but more akin to King's weird tales in regular places of upright folk) and brings them out into the open; picks these recurring themes of dreadful things in confined settings happening to normal people who become suddenly abnormal by the scruff of the neck and feeds them to the rats or lets them be haunted to death for our bloodthirsty pleasure. Herbert dares, often, to wonder what afterlife brings and often explores what bad things good people can do to each other when made to do so by events beyond their control - often highlights the breakdown of society as a constant reminder of a 'Lord of the Flies' school of thought in his best work. The books of King and Herbert especially, are also mostly cinematic in their execution.

Though relatively few of Herbert's books have been filmed, the ones that have - especially Haunted (1995), Fluke (1995) and The Survivor (1981) have a cult following, as does the low budget adaptation of his novel 'The Rats',  going by the title of Deadly Eyes (1982) that Herbert also wasn't too impressed by. He certainly made some gentle fun of the canine cast that wore the rat suits in this most 'horrific' of adaptations: "They dummied up Toronto to look like New York, and they dummied up Muppets and Dachshund dogs to look like rats. They looked pretty good from a distance – until they started begging and barking."

I have, right beside me now as I type, a copy of James Herbert's 'Ash', given to me as a Christmas present. Growing up, it was the latest release by Herbert, Barker or King that was always the first choice to wrap by friends or family. This latest James Herbert book, now in paperback, is (I noticed in a bookshop last weekend; just a few days before Herbert passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 69) currently at the top of the UK book charts.  I stood looking proudly at 'Ash' sitting above all the other book titles and thought to myself that this - THIS! - was such a brilliant two-fingered salute to any doubters out there, and a confirmation (if needed) that Herbert's books are still loved and adored by his many fans as much today as ever before, if not more so. Not bad after a gap away from any new writing of six years.

I was still thinking about Herbert's successful return to the charts in the days before he died. This hardback version of 'Ash' was beside me when I heard the unexpected bad news. I don't know if I can ever finish this book now, I feel too sad to read on in a way, at least today. But of course, I will.

A few months back I reviewed the first episode of Herbert's TV adaptation of 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' for Seat at the Back. I wrote back then, "With a new bestselling novel 'Ash' scaring off those hundred Shades of Greys and a lavish BBC TV adaptation of his work frightening the primetime 'Downton Abbey' slot viewers on a cosy Sunday night - it's the year of the wise old rat for sure". In the end, it was just a few months. I never expected it to all end so soon. James Herbert was (despite the hard-edged posturing and often sinister, secretive, common denominator charisma that the press liked to portray him as having) a very quiet, private, clever and thoughtful man and, like one of our best known actors in the same genre; Peter Cushing - actually a true gent.

Obituaries are easy to write. The passing away of an actual hero, an idol, a boyhood obsession, an ongoing fixation, isn't so easy. It's hard for the magic to be over. I don't think the magic is over. James Herbert has left an enduring legacy to horror fans - and to fans of great storytelling, horror or not. Last year, at the London Frightfest film festival, a hardened crowd of horror fanatics watched as adverts for Herbert's latest novel pounded across the screen before the fright flics ready to roll. There were murmurs of appreciation, respectful awe, not a single jeer (and from this 5-nighter crowd, many films had a lot of jeers and mocking ripples of laughter). I think James Herbert, whether you are a fan or not, is a name that holds a great deal of respect. I was, I have to say, sitting in that audience with a great big smile on my face, even if (had you been looking at me at the time) you wouldn't have been able to see it. I'll miss your books, James Herbert, but I have a feeling you will really be enjoying the afterlife, and wishing you could let us know whether the places that you imagined, were just as you suspected.


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer/ March 2013


1 comment:

  1. WesternWayDomesticGoddess10 October 2014 at 06:32

    Great article. I devoured his books when I was a teenager. Loved the gory descriptions and spooky storylines, was quite a horror fan back then, both films and novels (although funnily never got into Stephen King novels), and his books would be passed around at school. One of my favourites was 'The Spear'. I must admit I have not read any of his books for quite a while now, but did used to see him on 'The Wright Stuff' Channel Five television programme and was surprised by him as he was totally opposite to how I imagined him to be when I was reading his books as a teenager. He seemed so gentle and quiet and not at all terrifying like his books ! That saying I did not read his later novels but I did watch the ITV adaption of 'Secret of Crickley Hall' which was excellent, and reminded me of what a good storyteller he was and I was very saddened when I heard of his untimely death, he was very much a part of my teenage years.