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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Britain's internet habits have been revealed in a new survey
tech
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
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

Pricing Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style