With Halloween nearly upon us, London swallowed up by fog last week and his new novel ASH recently published, it’s only fitting to be talking about James Herbert. In extracts from an interview by Douglas E. Winter, the Grand Master of Horror describes his childhood in London’s East End and how it inspired his visceral first novel, THE RATS.
James Herbert was born on 8 April 1943, in the East End of London, the third son of street traders. His family lived at the back of Petticoat Lane in Whitechapel, in a house that had been condemned as part of a slum clearance scheme. Bombs had ravaged half of the street during World War Two, and only gutted shells of houses were left standing. The ruins were alive with rats.
James Herbert’s surroundings have changed since his youth; but he has never escaped the rats that once besieged his home. They have helped make him Britain’s bestselling writer of horror fiction – and also one of the most maligned and least understood horror writers working today. From his first novel, The Rats, Herbert’s fiction has been identified so closely with violence that he is often accused of writing solely for the sake of violence.
‘What we lived in was a slum. It was a very narrow street, cobble-stoned, only gas lighting in those days. Two doors from our house was a little alleyway where Jack the Ripper cut up one of his victims. We had two monster cats to keep the rats down.’
His novel was a pilgrimage to his childhood, and a confrontation of its paramount image: rats.
‘Big ones – monster rats. I mean, my cat actually came home bald once; he had been in a fight with a rat. And I used to watch them out the window. We always had a window open in the summer, and one day, the cat jumped in with a big rat in its mouth, so that obviously stuck with me.
‘I came back from a Friday night drinking session, and I switched on the TV. Dracula with Bela Lugosi was on – where the madman, the one who eats spiders, said he had this dream, this vision of a thousand rats looking up at him, staring at him, with red eyes. And for me, as an art director, that was very visual. I could see myself looking out the window, and a thousand rats staring up at me. And it all clicked.’
‘The whole idea was a kind of allegory of one man against a system, and this is what I do with nearly all my books. It is one man against the system. Now it’s a system that we all know, that we have all come up against, whether it’s political or the tax man or your boss. It’s a system that’s eternal and you are up against it all the time. I’ve always been up against it and I’ve enjoyed the fight. The rats represented that big system, which is not necessarily evil – but to me, it is, because it’s invulnerable, we can’t actually beat it. And that’s why The Rats was open-ended: the hero won his individual battle, but the system still marched on. It still won. He didn’t get rid of it. It still went on.’