When news came down that author James Herbert had passed away recently, a gaping void opened up in the world of genre fiction. A true legend of the art had been lost, a man whose books had entertained and terrified millions of people around the world for decades. A man of rare talent, Herbert’s grasp of the English language was exquisite, with prose that was almost poetic when the moment called for it.
Adding a supernatural or horrific element to often rural English settings became a style he was greatly admired for by readers from around the world (Even to those outside Britain, those settings were made real and tangible thanks to his clear and satisfying voice). After all, the greatest impact genre fiction can have is often achieved when fantastical situations invade the world of the mundane.
Herbert brought the horror genre some of the greatest novels of his generation, including such revered classics as The Rats, The Fog, Haunted and Domain, as well as later masterpieces such as the gripping Ghosts of Sleath and the acclaimed Once… His final novels, namely The Secret Of Crickley Hall and Ash, show very clearly a writer still on top of his game. Those titles proved without a shadow of a doubt that Herbert could still deliver the goods in an age where the publishing industry – and indeed the tastes of the reading public – had changed drastically.
His style boasted a fine sense of subtlety and pacing even in more gruesome works such as The Rats or Sepulchre. That subtlety afforded Herbert greater space to build tension and atmosphere rather than just beating the reader in the face with the point he was trying to make. That was at the heart of what made him so special, his ghost stories so unnerving. That mastery of pace and gentle suggestion brought on a genuine sense of foreboding in his stories, making the payoff of each one so satisfying.
Often imitated by other writers, Herbert’s style wasn’t just a masterclass in genre writing, it was also a masterclass in writing in general. Fiction that carries a fantastical element is always more powerful when some of it is grounded in recognizable reality, and Herbert understood this very well.
And yet his novels ever really stuck to one single formula. Yes, he is mostly known for the somewhat sombre English ghost story, or his early success with evil rodents, but there is a wealth of variety to his work which kept readers coming back for more. Take Fluke for example. In that novel, a dog remembers his previous life as a human, and is driven to become involved in the lives of those he left behind in death. At once heartbreaking, heartwarming and unsettling, it was just one example of how Herbert broke the mould with his fiction.
Similarly with the much-loved Once…, in which fairytales are turned on their heads with fascinating results which border on dark fantasy. Then there are books like the underrated 48, which was an alternate history book with a horrifying twist. In all of his work, James demonstrated time and again that he wasn’t just a one-trick writer, no matter how much people would ask for more books about his infamous Rats.
Herbert was a rather private man when compared to others in the field, but that only served to build on the mystique surrounding the man and his work. And that is what he should be remembered for first and foremost – his talent and the richness he brought to the publishing industry across the decades. James Herbert’s legacy is a fine body of work that will live on forever in the heart and minds of fiction fans around the world.
An excellent (and fully supported by Herbert) biography of his life and work was published in 2003. The book – James Herbert: Devil in the Dark – was written by Craig Cabell using material garnered from a dozen in-depth interviews with the man himself, as well as interviews with those close to him and a wealth of material on his work, and is an essential purchase for any fan who wants to learn more about this enigmatic literary giant.
With the passing of James Herbert, the world of horror lost one of its greatest pioneers and exponents, but the books will always be there to be revisited and enjoyed. I suggest you revisit them now in tribute. For how better can lovers of his writing pay their respects? Read and marvel at the dreams and nightmares he brought us. Enjoy.
The Rats (1974)
The Fog (1975)
The Survivor (1976)
The Spear (1978)
The Dark (1980)
The Jonah (1981)
The Magic Cottage (1986)
The Ghosts of Sleath (1994)
Nobody True (2003)
The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006)
James Herbert: A Lost Master