Everyone agrees what the best music in the history in the world is, right? Yeah, it’s whatever tunes reached your eardrums during those precious formative years when every minor mood change is a rollercoaster and the tiniest events assume the greatest significance. We all recognise this as it applies to music but the literary analogue is rarely mentioned. Anyone who spent too much time with their head nestled among the pages and their mind in another dimension while growing up has those authors who will stay with them forever, who moulded their literary tastes, sense of humour/morbidity, morality and more besides. Today I lost one such figure, James Herbert.
I first encountered his work while browsing my dad’s bookshelves, the only sci-fi/science library I ever needed. I’d already dabbled with Stephen King but even as an early teen I could recognise the cloying sickliness of his folksy Americana, marring an otherwise unsurpassable horror canon. As soon as I saw the title ‘The Rats‘ on the spine I knew this was worth an investment of time. It was exactly what I needed – a gore-drenched tale preying on our modern suburban fears as well as our primal disgust of all things scuttling. None of King’s cutesy breaking the fourth wall, this was all razor-sharp and crammed full of flawed characters, stupid mistakes, sarcasm by the bucketload and the natural ability with language which propelled King to his status. James Herbert was my new obsession.
First task was to complete the Rats trilogy. Lair was mildly disappointing but Domain blew me away and was my first experience with the genre which was to become my home from home – post-apocalyptica. I mean, mutant rats devouring the scattered survivors in the wake of nuclear holocaust? What’s not to like? From there I moved on to The Fog – not, as I had expected, the novel on which John Carpenter’s classic was based! This fog managed to be even more sinister, the episode involving the mass drowning at the beginning haunting my thoughts for months afterwards.
The Dark, Sepulchre, Haunted – you name it, I had to read it. Even his less stellar offerings managed to captivate me through his utterly believable characters, endless imagination and ability to turn the most innocent situation into a font of creeping dread. Recently I returned to one of his works which had failed to impress me as a teenager, The Magic Cottage, and found it transformed beyond all probability into one of my new favourite books, reminding me of none other than Neil Gaiman who in earlier years was unknown to me other than as the co-author of Good Omens. That his books can stand the test of time and even sneak their way onto your top ten list without so much as a by your leave is testament to the fact that he was far more than just another horror hack. He was a master of his game, never making ripples as large as some of the other players simply because he didn’t have to.
Today he died at his home. He was 69, not a bad innings but tragically short for someone with as great a talent as he possessed. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that we may have been robbed of some amazing works. Instead I’m going to focus on the legacy he left behind, the fact that he transormed his genre and lent it a level of respect during a time when it was sorely lacking. Over the next few weeks I’m going to revisit those classics of my youth in tribute to the man we lost, perhaps posting some reviews here but more likely just doing it for my own damn pleasure.
Thank you James, and goodbye.