Talking Terror: The James Herbert Interview

09 October 2012

By Pan Macmillan

James Herbert was interviewed by Johnny Mains 
First published in Fear and The Paperback Fanatic magazines

Johnny Mains: To take you back to the beginning with your first book, The Rats – it’s one of the rare horror novels that seem to have transcended the genre and is a book that everyone knows about, no matter the walk of life they come from.

James Herbert: I was half watching a quiz show the other day and it was called Celebrity Chase and on this particular episode one of the questions was, what was James Herbert’s first book – and he got it right the guy – and I thought, my god, over thirty years ago it’s still being spoken about! But that’s the secret between myself and Steve King – we started off virtually together, he was just a few months behind me with Carrie, with the same publisher, New English Library. But they made a terrible mistake as far as I am concerned, a marketing mistake – they labelled the books in their lists (the catalogues they sent out) as ‘the nasties’ and amongst the crabs and every other bloody animal, they had James Herbert and Stephen King. Not only did I go mad for myself, I went mad for Steve – he’s always been a quality writer. But it was too late, the damage was done and the trade knew us for years as the ‘nasties’.

JM: What made you think you could get away with that kind of horror and the explicit sex and violence, which for the time was really unheard of. What made you think it would work?

JH: I didn’t think it would work, I had a very good job in advertising, I didn’t need the money – I just sat down and did a horror story which the like no-one had ever done before. Traditionally, a chapter of a book would end with the sex and the horror in ellipses, you know – dot, dot, dot – but I carried on from there with whatever was going to happen. I firmly believed that if you get hurt, if you get hit with an axe, it bloody well hurt and there would be a lot of blood. Unlike the cartoons, or the John Wayne films of the time, but I thought there’s much more to this. I think you could call all of my books morality plays, even the early ones, but of course nobody realised that because they all focused on the horror and violence. And for me it was the same as sex – if I could write about violence in that detail, why couldn’t I write about sex in detail? Sex to me – was and is, a wonderful thing. And between my hero and heroine – their sex was always a beautiful, tender, loving thing. Now subsidiary characters – I could have fun with their sex scenes. And so I got the reputation for sex and violence, which I’m not complaining about – it’s got me where I am today, it’s made me my money.  I mainly write different kinds [of horror] – there are still some very graphic scenes of horror when it’s necessary. But I think my books are different, they’ve just moved on.

JM: I think one of the most horrific scenes that you have ever committed to paper was the castration scene in The Fog...

JH: It’s so weird Johnny, all those years ago that scene is still remembered. With The Rats and The Fog – which have never been out of print, there are still set-pieces that people just don’t forget. It was based on a gym instructor that we had – he was a sadist, and it was my own little way of getting back at him. It was a grammar school, we were only eleven years old and he used to terrify us. He made no exceptions for me, because I never had the kit, we were so poor, the football gear – in fact my first pair of football boots were bought by my mother, years later in Brick Lane.

JM: What were you doing before you started writing?

JH: I was working in advertising as an art director for five years in the West End of London. I realised as soon as I was writing books full time (before I was writing them in the weekends and during any other spare time), I had to decide if it was one or the other . . . I had to make the decision to either stay in the job I loved or start this new job that I had being doing for five years which I loved even more, because I was king, I played God, characters did what I wanted them to do; whilst in advertising everything is brought down to a certain level. So that’s how the career began, and because I no longer had to work in London we moved down to Sussex.

JM: Who was your editor at New English Library during that time?

JH: The chief editor at NEL then was Walter Briggs. My editor was a young guy called Martin Noble. They asked me for all of my other manuscripts that I had which had been turned down years before and I said to them that I didn’t have any, that The Rats was my first novel. And they said ‘Oh, come on’ and I was like, ‘no, I promise you,’ and so on. So they asked if they could sign me up to write the next three books and I said no way. I was in advertising; I had a good job and didn’t even know if I had another book in me, that The Rats could have just been a flash in the pan or that I could even do another book. But I did, I wrote the book.

JM: The signing session for you at the World Horror Convention was quite a long one. What’s been your longest?

JH: My biggest signing session was 800 people – that was in Smiths in St. Albans Circus, that was a good few years back when Haunted came out – and another great one in New Street just off Liverpool St, where they went round the block, but they all went like that and in the end I stopped doing them because they were just so exhausting. I like to if I can, to talk to each customer, to see if it was worth their time in queuing , to make them feel good – it took a long time. I played this trick I did at every one, signing sessions were always good, but when it got down to the last person, someone who had probably waited three hours, I’d put down my pen and say “No, that’s it, no more today” just to watch their face. Then I’d say “No, only joking,” and then give them a good signature.

JM: Where did the inspiration for Ash come from?

JH: The inspiration for Ash actually comes from The Queen herself. I’ll just give you the quote that I use from the beginning of the book. It was when the butler, Paul Burrell,  was in court for allegedly stealing Princess Diana’s gifts that she had been given and some were very, very expensive. And he was in court and at  the end of the first or second week, when he was due to give his testimony, the Queen got in touch and said that she remembered Burrell had told her that he had kept some of Diana’s goods. Now the whole thing was quashed. Now I don’t think that’s the reason. I think when Burrell was going to go into the dock he was going to reveal too much, much too much; he had inside information. And also at one of these press interviews, he said that the Queen had said to him: ‘that there are dark forces at work in this country about which we know little.’

Now I’ve got [the quote attributed to] Queen Elizabeth II and in brackets the word allegedly. And I’ve had put that to cover myself. But I believe she said that, and when I heard it I thought that is great.

But I didn’t think of a supernatural power, I thought of a group or a consortium of individuals that ruled this country in another way. The Queen herself has a special consortium, Queen of the Garter or some fancy title . . . And that’s what gave me the idea for the book. It tackles subjects that have not been mentioned before.  Some I investigated, some I speculated, some I guessed and others were factual and my challenge to the reader was to decide for themselves what’s fact and what’s fiction. I had scenes like why did Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy leader parachute into Scotland. How did Lord Lucan vanish. And other things; like why did Harold Wilson, Britain’s Prime Minister (second term ’74-’76) suddenly resign and why was the country making plans for a military coup at around the same time. Now that is fact and I give reasons for it.

JM: Was it always going to be a David Ash book?

JH: I had the idea and I had this haunted place, which I won’t say too much about. Of course David Ash was in Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. And I thought that this guy was interesting, he was a parapsychologist and he has such psychological baggage because he believed that when he and his older sister were kids, he thought he killed her. They both fell in the river, his father jumped in and only had time to pull David out, while the sister was swept away and drowned and she had been haunting him ever since. But he wasn’t sure if that was in his own mind or of there really were ghosts. But with every case he went into, and he became a well-known parapsychologist by that time, he tried to prove the non-existence of ghosts. Usually he did – 8 out of 10 times he did. Until he went to the mansion called Edbrook. When I got the next idea about The Ghosts of Sleath which came years later and again it was about ghosts and investigators – I had this guy who everyone seemed to like, and who I liked – I thought he’d be ideal for that book so I used him again. And for Ash, which is the final in the trilogy, I didn’t have to look any further.

JM: It’s a bit of a busy time for you then, what with The Secret of Crickley Hall coming to the small screen.

JH: They’re playing it over three nights over Halloween, an hour each episode. I’ve not seen the finished product yet but I did go up to see some of the filming. I went up for half a day and met the director and it’s all fine. Now I didn’t think it was filmable, but he’s found a way to make it filmable and I came away, let them get on with it. I read his first script for episode one and thought it was brilliant. Then I read the script for the second and that was when things began to change and I decided I wasn’t going to read any more, it was up to the director, it now has to be his vision. Always disappointing for a writer, but it happens every time. Steve King couldn’t give a toss, well he gets upset, but he said ‘Jim, they pay you the money, you take the money and if it’s great you get the credit and if it’s rotten, then it’s the filmmakers.’

JM: What’s next for you?

JH: I have a lovely idea for the next book, while I was on holiday I laid down the foundations, writing in the shade for an hour a day, making up all of the character names etc. A new, original idea, but I won’t tell you the title. I never tell anyone the title!