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The Books Interview: Nasty, naughty - but nice

James Herbert, the sulphurous prince of horror yarns, reveals his softer side to Peter Stanford
In the front hall of his West Sussex home, in the shadow of the Devil's Dyke, James Herbert has two chairs that once belonged to this century's most notorious satanist, Aleister Crowley. He likes playfully to challenge guests to perch in them to see if they get any unpleasant vibes. Further down the corridor to his office, Herbert points out a framed photograph of a sinister-looking, fleshy-faced man with Fifties-style slicked back hair and a wicked leer. It is Dennis Wheatley, in his day the most celebrated writer of horror stories in the world, and a man with an insatiable and unpleasant interest in the occult.

Such trappings fit neatly with 56-year-old Herbert's own reputation as British publishing's current prince of darkness, our answer to Stephen King and the bestselling author of a string of 18 horror novels. But the proximity of Crowley, Wheatley and the Devil had managed to make me decidedly uneasy about Herbert himself. I was beginning to regret not leaving his address with a close friend who could phone the police if I unaccountably went missing.

My jitters had first surfaced as I read his new novel Others (Macmillan, pounds 16.99). It was so disturbing that I had to sit in my small son's bedroom, with his Tigger under my elbow and his Noddy cushion propping up my head, as if to shield myself with innocent goodness as I ploughed through a hell of abused bodies and a one-eyed limbless creature with a giant penis who copulates with the eye sockets of people he has dismembered. I couldn't help but feel soiled.

The man who has conjured up such an apocalyptic vision, dark and strange enough to rival Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, could not possibly be normal, I had decided. Yet, once we had walked on by the occult memorabilia and settled down to coffee and home-made carrot cake, it soon became clear that James Herbert is a benign pussy cat. He even revealed, as if sensing my nervousness, that - cradle Catholic as he is - he had invited the local priest in to bless the house.

A simply-dressed, slight, round-shouldered man who has never lost his East End accent, Herbert affects none of the Gothic flourishes, black velvet capes and wild eyes that go with the stereotype of a horror writer. Indeed, he sets about deliberately to ridicule the image created by his writings. The Crowley chairs are intended as a joke, he explained, an immediate send-up for any visitors who believe they are entering the Hammer House of Horror.

His office, with its beige carpet, austere modern furniture and air of good order, could easily belong to a successful accountant. And he is certainly successful. His books sell by the bucket-load around the world. Macmillan has just signed him up on a pounds 1m.-per-book deal. And he has a dedicated following of fans who will rush out to buy his every work as soon as it appears, then take to the Internet to discuss their dark insights into his soul.

But, for Herbert, writing is much more than a very profitable business. Over three decades, he may have got used to the neglect, bordering on scorn, of a literary elite which dismisses him as an alien species, but he clearly has not let this disdain dent a healthy self-confidence. "Sure, I'm never going to win the Booker and I have no great literary pretensions," he says, "but I know how to write well. I do it the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper and I know my spelling and grammar. And I feel that Others could happily stand up against anything written by, say, Salman Rushdie."

The name is not picked at random. Herbert and Rushdie used to work for the same advertising agency, creating naughty but nice slogans. Both were restless and both aspired to write. There the similarity ends. At 26, Herbert shut himself away in his spare time and created The Rats, which in one particularly stomach-churning passage (and one that Herbert himself, later to become a father of three, now regrets) depicts a small baby eaten alive by rodents.

Its publication in 1974, along with the parallel rise of Stephen King across the Atlantic and the release of The Exorcist, marked something of a renaissance for the horror genre. The outdated Wheatley world of aristocrats with crazed laughs (often played by Christopher Lee) was replaced by modern, apparently sane people suddenly prey to terrifying supernatural goings-on and outbreaks of bone-crushing violence.

Herbert's image as a writer is still very much dictated by those early books. "Often I'll meet people who, when they realise I'm James Herbert, will say `Oh we read The Rats and The Fog [its best-known successor] but after that we grew out of you'. Well, I've grown of me in that sense. I've moved on as a writer. Its just that people don't seem to have noticed."

You get the distinct sense that James Herbert wants a new pigeonhole, and preferably one marked "to be taken seriously". It's a fairly common trait among bestselling supermarket authors. Susan Howatch, another star of Sainsburys in the Seventies, is battling to reposition herself as an upmarket heir to Anthony Trollope. Patrick O'Brian, captain of the profitable but unfashionable backwater of naval adventures, has found himself likened to Jane Austen by A S Byatt. And P D James has succeeded in broadening her appeal beyond the narrow and often enclosed world of crime fiction to win highfalutin plaudits.

Herbert's Others wears its literary allusions on its sleeve. The main action mirrors the voyage through the many layers of Dante's Inferno. Religious imagery and references to redemption and rebirth chime in with all the regularity of the angelus bell. In other recent novels, Herbert has written with passion about the environment ( Portent), about religion (Shrine), about the Second World War (`48).

Such experiments have not so far been noticed by anybody but his dedicated fans, because outsiders tend to stumble at the obstacle of that stock element of horror. Yet Herbert understandably refuses to move away entirely from the niche market he has done so much to create. He believes he can keep a foot in both camps. "It's one of the wonderful things about the horror genre," he says. "It allows you to cover so much - romance, humour, history, crime. "

In Others, he continues to exhibit that social conscience by tackling two very sensitive subjects: children and disability. The "others" are babies so deformed at birth that their parents are told they are dead - but they are kept by wicked doctors for cruel experiments. Herbert insists in an end-note ("lest I be accused of possessing an inordinately warped imagination") that he has real evidence of such a practice in an East End hospital.

Yet, in conversation, he admits it happened many years ago and that the combination of routine ante-natal scanning and legalised abortion - which he "loathes" - makes his storyline implausible in modern Britain. However, he reaches into his desk draw to produce a newspaper cutting to show that there are wards of severely disabled and abandoned children in Russia and the developing world. His concern for their fate is clearly genuine and, because it stands in such stark contrast to his usual cynicism, quite moving. An idealist hidden behind the brutal world of his novels, Herbert keeps his charitable activities private but does much for underprivileged children.

His depiction of disability - in particular in his main character, private investigator Nick Dismas, and his love-interest, Charlotte - will be more controversial. Even in a post-Hoddle world of sensitivity, Herbert is happy to admit that he is not politically correct on the subject. He talks of cripples and claims that it is patronising to do anything else. For Herbert, disability is a lifetime's burden, a daily grind that dominates every waking hour. "People may put on a front, but if you're born diseased or abnormal, then it is a hindrance to life."

That negative picture is to some extent relieved by the book's uplifting ending. As a moral tale, albeit one of a decidedly old-fashioned variety, Others is perhaps more easily identifiable than some of his other books. But Herbert feels that all of them contain a moral message that counterbalances what might otherwise be a roll in the gutter of lurid fantasies. And that is the fascinating things about him: the combination of a strong moral sense - he does not, for instance, allow his 15-year-old daughter to read most of his books - with a boundless and disturbing imagination.

It's a circle that can't quite be squared. Why commit such details to paper if you consider them dangerous for some potential readers and when you know that many of them ignore any trace of a message? But the very fact that Herbert is so acutely aware of these contradictions is in itself interesting. It signals that there is something more than meets the eye about both the man and, lurking behind the blood and guts that spill over every page, about his books.

James Herbert, A Biography

James Herbert was born in 1943, the youngest of three brothers, in London's East End, where his parents ran fruit and vegetable stalls. Educated at a Catholic grammar school in Highgate, he studied at Hornsey Art College and worked his way up to be creative director of an advertising agency before publishing The Rats in 1974. It was made into a film, as were The Survivor (1976), Fluke (1977) and Haunted (1988). His books have been translated into 33 languages and have sold 40 million copies. He has also published illustrated graphic novels and collections of non-fiction. Married for over 30 years, he has three daughters and lives in Sussex.