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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.