James Herbert: Author whose talent for making the flesh creep sold tens of millions of books

 

James Herbert was a writer of horror books who turned a difficult childhood into a dark creativity which made him a best-selling author who specialised in making the flesh creep.

He set the course of his highly successful career with his first book, The Rats, which conjured up a London overrun by mutant flesh-eating rodents. That horror classic, with its cover depicting vicious rodents with razor-sharp teeth and menacingly bloodshot eyes, was the first of two dozen which sold over 50 million copies in more than 30 languages.

His output led one critic to describe him this week as "the weirdest, the nastiest," an epitaph Herbert would probably have appreciated. In a more conventional tribute his publisher Pan Macmillan said of him: "He was one of the keystone authors in a genre that had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. His death marks the passing of one of the giants of popular fiction in the 20th century."

Herbert was born in April 1943 in the East End of London, the third son of street traders who lived in a crumbling slum at the back of Petticoat Lane, a district once menaced by Jack the Ripper and, later, the Kray Twins. The family home was on a cobbled street lit by gas lamps. If his parents went out for a drink he was sometimes left alone in the house, which he found particularly creepy.

"My greatest fear was being plunged into darkness when the electricity failed," he related in a newspaper interview last year. "Then I had to go down to the cheerless cellar clutching a shilling for the meter, with nothing but a candle. That's if I had a shilling.

"If I didn't I hurried to bed, because my gothic imagination ran riot with thoughts of Dracula and other monsters. That environment fuelled the macabre side of my imagination. I might not have become a writer had I not been born there."

Rats ran riot in the ruins of an area where wartime bombing raids had left mounds of rubble. The back yard was the scariest place of all, being "alive with rats" attracted by rotting fruit and vegetables dumped from Petticoat Lane. His talent was to convey to his readers something of the terror he felt as a boy.

Rats were not his only childhood problem. He loved his mother – who passed on to him her storytelling skills – but he remembered his father as "a terrible gambler, drinker and womaniser." He could also be violent – "I got used to ducking chairs," Herbert recalled.

At the age of 10 he won a scholarship to St Aloysius Grammar School in Highgate, then went on to Hornsey College of Art to study graphic design, print and photography. He found work in advertising, where promotion came quickly. He was 28 when he began writing The Rats in his spare time, a task that took him 10 months. When he sent it off to half a dozen publishers five of them were not interested but the sixth recognised its appeal. Published in 1974, it sold 100,000 copies in three weeks.

Its graphic violence was unusual at the time: "I hate violence and I didn't plan to write horror," he once said. "It just poured out of me." He kept writing, and selling, until recently: his latest book, Ash, was published just last week. He also had a knack for choosing chillingly intriguing titles such as The Spear, The Dark, Sepulchre, The Fog, Creed, Portent and Lair.

Some of his novels were made into film and his ghost story The Secret Of Crickley Hall was adapted for television and broadcast on BBC in December. It told the tale of a family who moved to a spooky house after their son had gone missing, only to discover the building was haunted and contained hidden terrors.

Herbert felt more films should have been made of his books, and felt too that his genre was underrated in Britain. He complained: "They take horror seriously in America. Here it's a dirty word." At the same time he readily acknowledged that he took second place in the hierarchy of horror to the American writer Stephen King, describing him as a naturally brilliant genius and saying he envied his talent.

The millions of books he sold brought him wealth, most noticeably in the shape of a mansion set in 30 acres in Sussex. They also brought him recognition in very different ways: in 2010 he was awarded both an OBE and the title of "Grand Master of Horror" by the World of Horror Convention.

In terms of wealth he he said he always knew he would make money, having visited Monte Carlo as a teenager and caught a glimpse of the very rich. "I swore to myself that one day I'd be one of them," he said.

His tough childhood was the most unpromising start on his path to riches, yet his years of opulence in Sussex were achieved not despite his early days in the slums of the East End but because of them. He is survived by his wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1967, and their three daughters Kerry, Emma and Casey.

David McKittrick

James Herbert, author: born London 8 April 1943; OBE 2010; married 1967 Eileen O'Donnell (three daughters); died 20 March 2013.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers