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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
news
Environment
environment
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
film
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
film
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing