There was a time when one writer more than any other seemed to capture the darker side of the imaginations of a generation of young male readers, and on a vast scale too. A writer that dealt with the taboo, pushed boundaries, felt dangerous to read, was scorned by the consensus of literary respectability, but whose name was a byword for action, thrills, and sensational storytelling.
In previous decades occult horror writer Dennis Wheatley, and military action writer Sven Hassel, who wrote of the explicit adventures of an SS penal regiment, occupied this mantle and became the biggest selling authors of their respective eras. Their novels were hidden in school desks and their names carried a unique charge of static electricity and excitement.
James Herbert was probably the next British writer who became as popular in the same way, with a similar reputation, because his books conducted the same edgy electrical force into another generation of readers. But his readership stayed with him and grew and renewed itself over four decades, something that Hassel and Wheatley were denied. James Herbert didn’t go out of print, ever. The literary notoriety of The Rats and The Fog, the subversive and anti-establishment tones, the gruesome scenes, not only endured, but have been further embellished by thrillers and supernatural mysteries by a writer who was adept at causing a visceral discomfort in readers, that was never contrived and seemed to be what that writer needed to express.
James Herbert also seemed to be the major precursor to a new approach to horror fiction in the golden age of the mass market blockbuster novel. Like Stephen King in America, no one was writing horror quite like this before. The characters were often ordinary people in ordinary circumstances pitted against extraordinary forces, that could be natural or unnatural depending upon the story, be it science fiction thriller or supernatural horror. A kind of blue collar horror that encompassed the monstrous in the everyday, and was written in the idioms of regular language, a more accessible discourse unchained from an educated middle class voice. In fact, quiz any literate adult in Britain about horror novels, and the two author names you will hear straight away, and nearly every time too, to this day, are those of Stephen King and James Herbert. The two most enduringly popular horror authors in the Anglosphere.
They were pivotal in popularising the modern, popular, multi-plot story-driven structure of mass market novels in horror. They may have made horror novels bigger, the plots more complex, more heavily researched, the themes and ideas more contemporary with less reliance upon traditional tropes; they widened its social scope and the ideas the field could embrace, and probably broke the genre free from its historical reliance upon the short story collection. What also strikes me as similar between the two writers, is just how much they care about their craft.
Having heard James Herbert speak about his life, as well as other major figures in British post war horror fiction – the alumnus of Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Graham Masterton, Clive Barker – something else struck me about this field. Not only do each of these writers have a unique voice, purpose and approach, as well as having created impressive bodies of work, whether horror is in favour with publishers or not, but these authors also all appear to come from ordinary backgrounds (as do most horror authors I have met who have emerged since the nineties). Before the sixties, this seemed unusual in the field. Or at least anything based beyond thoroughly educated middle class characters, circumstances and settings could feel rare. Following this thought, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft (and I suspect Oliver Onions), all knew terrible privations at one time or another in their lives, and I wonder if that is why they tended to write some of the most affecting and memorable horror fiction . Which also makes me wonder if modern horror writers can be called the angry young men and women in post-sixties Britain, with James Herbert chief among them at the beginning of his career?
And what’s to be applauded in an age of generic, fleet following fiction genres, that publishing and the book trade so often eagerly underwrites, is that James Herbert achieved so much on his own terms and in his own way. Respect.