“Henry Guilfoyle was slowly drinking himself to death.”
More the words from a mid-afternoon play, or perhaps a late era Beatles song, the tale of a fallen salesman who founds shelter in a bottle hardly seems the stuff of nightmares, but this was the start of something a lot more sinister. Namely, Rats.
Admittedly, in 1974 when The Rats came out, the first few pages about a forty one year old man having an affair with a sales colleague who was himself a teenager probably seemed more shocking to a less enlightened generation, who had never read anything quite like this.
And so, within three weeks of publication, the first run of 100,000 copies of James Herbert’s debut novel had sold out. At the age of twenty eight, to write a cutting edge and modern horror story, James shot to critical acclaim, and with good reason. Like Stephen King, working simultaneously across the Atlantic, he took horror away from country mansions and European landowners with ancestral misdeeds and made it relevant to the mood of a country unable to combine aspiration with grim economic and social reality. Growing up in London, James certainly knew the mind-set of its inhabitants and the lay of the land, and managed to tap into a fear and paranoia that would become a hallmark of his work for years to come.
Some writers can be consistent without overachieving, some can lapse from greatness to mediocrity; after such an outstanding debut, much was expected of Herbert, and only a year later he again delivered a horror tour de force, The Fog. Often confused with John Carpenter’s 1980 film, this 1975 novel was a far more graphic and frightening experience, and captivated readers with its macabre story of a mystic (excuse the pun) fog that turns those it shrouds with a psychotic, malevolent rage.
These two volumes began an impressive forty year span of books, each compelling and enveloping in their own ways, but each taking a life of its own. Herbert turned the success of the first Rats book into a trilogy, with Lair and Domain rounding off the set, and in 1996 he would return to an overrun war-torn London in ‘48, which tells the tale of an alternate post blitz era, where Hitler’s last act was to set off a chemical weapon that is destroying the world through slow blood poisoning.
However, his fans would also appreciate the depth and variety of his work: Fluke was a fantastical novel which tells the tale of a man trying to find his family, only to realise soon he has died and is reincarnated as a black Labrador, while The Magic Cottage is a more ethereal tale of a young couple who move into an idyllic cottage which seems wonderous and enchanted at first, before things start taking a turn for the worse, but he also played with the conventions of more traditional British horror with The Ghosts of Sleath where a private investigator is sent to examine strange goings on at a country manor where all is not as it seems.
There are many mediums and industries where two standout achievers always seem to be selected as benchmarks for comparison, and horror writers are no exception. For his long and successful career with stories that transformed and reinvigorated the genre, Herbert will always draw comparisons with Stephen King, which is akin to comparing Bill Gates to Steve Jobs. Both may be leaders and innovators in the same industry, but that’s where the similarities end, with each having a unique voice and territory, and Herbert has his own inimitable style. A quiet family man, he was awarded an OBE in 2010, and only last year released what was to be his last novel, Ash.
James Herbert will be sadly missed by several generations of book lovers across the world, but he leaves behind a lasting legacy of brilliantly written, fascinating stories that any Geek Chocolate reader would enjoy.
But maybe, just maybe, don’t read them before bed.