Fri
Oct 26 2012 11:30am

Homage to Horror: A Discussion of James Herbert

Homage to Horror: A Discussion of James HerbertThere 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 OliverOnions), 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.

 

This content originally appeared on the Tor Books UK blog.


Adam L. G. Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. A graduate of the University of St Andrews Masters programme, his new novel is Last Days. He is also the author of Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16 and The Ritual.

2 comments
Grady Hendrix
1. GradyHendrix
What Herbert would you recommend? I've always wanted to like him more than I do, but have only read The Secret of Crickley Hall (recently) and The Fog when I was a kid. Neither made a huge impression on me (I was a King fan, through and through) and I'd love to know what's considered his best.

It's an interesting theory about privation inspiring horror writers, but I think that people like Henry James, Edith Wharton, and M.R. James all had comfortable lives, and they've turned out some of the most famous ghost stories of their time. But maybe the difference lies in the fact that James, Wharton, and James all wrote more about ethereal ghosts and spirits, and writers like Le Fanu, Lovecraft, King, and Herbert wrote about a more physical, visceral horror?
adam nevill
2. anevill
I think the idea I was suggesting is not a universal link to writing horror and social class/poverty/lower social order, Grady, but a possible link in post sixties British horror. And perhaps the US too in this period. Whereas the late Victorian, Edwardian period onwards was dominated by the writers you mention, and the Benson's etc, with more traditionally and classically educated pens. As much as I adore their work, I don't think Wharton, or either of the James's, could be seen as politically radical (beyond being artistically radical in Henry James's case). But Lovecraft's ideas were fairly radical, as was Machen's view of progress (see The Hill of Dreams) and even Blackwood's mysticism seems to go beyond what most writer's can achieve (why?). I think Herbert's novels like The Fog and The Rats are significant in that their is a subversive quality to them, a "rage" underwrites them. At least that's what I interpreted. Same with Barker's Books of Blood. Also, in all of the conventions I've attended, events and so forth, I've only ever met one writer of horror who appears to have a more upper middle class background. Whereas as other post sixties genres seem to have a wider spread of social classes represented. I might be totally wrong, but the idea of horror being a home for "angry" outsiders does interest me.

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