James Herbert O.B.E (see, even Her Majesty likes horror) is the UK’s Stephen King. He’s a man who almost single-handedly dragged the genre screaming and kicking back into the mainstream from the dark cupboard under the publishing stairs where it had been hiding – in the UK at least.
His novels have sold millions across the world and have been translated into 33 languages. Small and wiry, and always attired in black, he has a physicality and sartorial sensibility that suits his profession; there’s an air of occult professor about him.
I don’t think he’s as good a writer, technically, as King. But he’s a fantastic story-teller. Shrine is a personal favourite from my youth. I remember being terrified reading it. So dipping into it again was the proverbial trip down Memory Lane. Naturally I didn’t find it quite as scary second time around (well, I know what happens), but it’s still a cracking tale and a good place to start if you’re looking to sample Herbert’s dark wares.
Tapping into his Roman Catholic heritage, Shrine is a story – a warning – about religious hysteria. When you consider the rise of secularism in the West, it’s quite ahead of its time. It begins when Alice, a deaf-mute, sees a vision of a lady who claims to be the Immaculate Conception. Suddenly Alice can speak. What’s more, other ill pilgrims are seemingly cured. These miraculous events quickly snowball and see the location of the visitation, an old, twisted oak tree (uh oh), transform into the eponymous Shrine.
But of course, everything is not as it seems, and the full horrifying reality of the ancient evil that lies behind the religious fervour is slowly revealed by cynical local reporter Gerry Fenn (Herbert in disguise?), together with tortured local priest, Father Hagan. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and something altogether more corrupt is a classic horror meme and is expertly constructed by Herbert.
Like all good authors, he has an uncanny knack of getting his claws into you. It’s always ‘just one more page’. Such are the ways of the master story-teller. Arise , Sir James of Herbert.