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Sussex Novelist James Herbert - Master of the Macabre

PUBLISHED: 12:40 28 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:54 20 February 2013

Sussex Novelist James Herbert - Master of the Macabre

Sussex Novelist James Herbert - Master of the Macabre

James Herbert is the undisputed king of British horror. As he prepares to collect an OBE for services to literature, he looks back over his career and reveals why his troubled East End childhood has helped fuel his macabre imagination.

James Herbert is the undisputed king of British horror. As he prepares to collect an OBE for services to literature, he looks back over his career and reveals why his troubled East End childhood has helped fuel his macabre imagination.


YOU sense that James Herbert, a former art director, knows all about playing up to his image. For photo shoots, the king of horror often sports black leather jackets and poses in one of two sinister-looking chairs that belonged to Aleister Crowley, the Satanist and self-styled wickedest man in the world. And then theres his personalised car number plate, RAT 767, a tribute to his first gut-churning novel, The Rats.

But in person, Herbert is open, friendly and takes trouble to please his interviewers, peppering his conversation with jaw-dropping anecdotes and indiscretions. His house is against type, too. He may write about creepy mansions, but he loves light, so some years ago he remodelled his 15-room home near Henfield to accommodate a bright, spacious study, and painted every room white.

He lives in some style. He has a weakness for handmade shirts and is the proud owner of a limited edition Fender Stratocaster, one of only 40 such guitars made Eric Clapton bought number three and George Harrison owned number seven. He also has an indoor swimming pool and 29 acres of prime West Sussex real estate, encompassing a bluebell wood and lake where ducks and coots nest, and deer drop in for a cooling drink.

But bluebell woods dont come cheap and Herbert has worked like a demon to acquire them. The figures speak for themselves. He has been Britains Number One horror writer for more than three decades and his books have sold no fewer than 52 million copies worldwide. Its no wonder he commands multi-million book deals; this man has clout.

And yet he has been denied the one thing he has wanted most acknowledgement. The literati have always been sniffy about his books, dismissing horror as a genre best left to adolescents. As for the broadsheets, they rarely review his books at all. And when they do... well, it prompts him to tell a story.

When his first novel was published in 1974, he naively assumed every paper would review it, but only one did, The Observer. The reviewer said it was rubbish that should be thrown in the bin, even though the general rule is that critics go easy on the first novel because youre learning, he says. But this guy, Henry Tilney, was just evil about the book, and I thought: Ill never write again.

Then the next week The Sunday Times wrote a review which said The Rats was brilliant, so I learnt an important lesson art is subjective. Im not saying my books are high literature, but they are literate. The really interesting thing, however, is that a few years ago I discovered that Henry Tilney was a pseudonym for Martin Amis.

But this year Herberts luck changed. Earlier this summer, as he was sitting down to breakfast with his wife Eileen, he heard the familiar sound of the post clattering through the letterbox. Among the customary utility bills was a brown envelope marked Cabinet Office, and Herbert froze. I thought: Hello, what have I done now?, then I opened it, read it and read it again, before turning, poker-faced, to Eileen. Youd better read this, I said. You might like it. It was a letter informing him that he had been awarded an OBE for services to literature in the Queens Birthday Honours List.

Herbert, who will receive his award at Buckingham Palace later this month, is chuffed to bits. Its a great feeling; a vindication. And I had no inkling whatsoever. I just didnt think the Establishment liked what I do.

But 2010 has been a good year in more ways than one. Back in March, he was also voted Grand Master of Horror at the World Horror Convention held in Brighton, a distinction given every four years to an author who has contributed greatly to the field of horror literature. He joins the ranks of Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz.

It was the culmination of a journey that began nearly 30 years before with the publication of The Rats, which depicted a London overrun by monstrous, flesh-eating rodents. Herbert, then just 28, had five rejection slips before he found a publisher, but the first 100,000 print run sold out within weeks and the book has never been out of print since.

The inspiration came from a line in Bram Stokers Dracula, in which a lunatic says he has seen a thousand rats with red eyes staring up from the lawns. It was also drawn from his childhood experiences in the East End of London.

In the decades that followed he built up a comprehensive catalogue of best-selling titles that includes The Fog, Fluke, The Magic Cottage, Others and The Secret of Crickley Hall. Herbert writes in longhand on A4 paper because he likes the feel of the pen on the page; Eileen types out the chapters in the next room.

One of his greatest skills is his ability to make you turn the page. Each chapter ends with a little taster of the next, a technique influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan novels. Though his books centre on the nature of evil, Herbert views his novels as morality plays where good invariably triumphs. But lets not forget the sex. He boasts he has a reputation for writing the best sex in horror fiction. Ive had people come up to me and say that when they were at college they used to study my books for love-making techniques. But the sex, he stresses, has to be an integral part of the story. If not, it doesnt go in.

He is currently half-way through his latest novel, Ash, the third in a trilogy featuring psychic investigator David Ash, which began with Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. His pubisher, Macmillan, was expecting it last Christmas. He partly blames ill health which prevented him from writing for a year (Im over it now), and the size and complexity of his latest novel. Its already 400 odd pages long with another 400 to write. He has so many ideas fizzing round his head that he keeps two notebooks about the house, so he can jot down thoughts at will.

The novel, which will have a political theme, is a radical departure for Herbert and will touch on the former UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, the elusive peer Lord Lucan and the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Its the most interesting and controversial book Ive ever written and will have to be carefully vetted by the lawyers, he says darkly. Some of the subjects are quite near the edge.

He grew up in a Catholic household, governed by a strong mother and a hard, but respected father. The family lived in a condemned house at the back of Petticoat Lane in Whitechapel, just around the corner from the Kray twins. A friend of his father called Mick the Axeman used to take him to the cinema. He was put away for life for chopping up a man.

His father, who ran a fruit stall, was a hard-drinking gambler and Herbert bore the brunt of his temperament. I was the runt of the litter. I had two older brothers who were bigger and stronger than me. His eldest brother became a market trader like his father. But Herbert and his older brother John, who went on to become a Lloyds broker, both won scholarships to a Catholic grammar school in Highgate.

His parents had a troubled marriage and his mother, who worked on a market stall by day, was forced to take a night job because his father drank and gambled away his earnings. He looked a bit like Humphrey Bogart and tried to live the legend. Always into fights. We hadnt talked for about 10 years when he died.

Herbert did, in fact, make peace with his father, though only after his death, when he drank a toast of whisky to him before pouring another tumbler in a hole in the garden, where he had laid his ashes. I planted a plum tree on the spot because fruit was his game. In a way it was a tribute because Id forgiven him everything. Every year he tree bears beautiful English plums.

Perhaps because of his troubled background, Herbert cherishes his own family all the more. When he met Eileen he knew immediately she was the one. They moved to Sussex 25 years ago and have three daughters and two grandchildren.

When I ask what he likes about the county, he says: I like the people, the countryside, the sea, the clean air, the ducks on my pond, the deer in my fields, the bluebells in my woods and that I can drive to Brighton in12 minutes. I even love the village butcher who sells the best meat anywhere.

It seems the man who trades in the hell of horror has found his own little piece of heaven.


You sense that James Herbert, a former art director, knows all about playing up to his image. For photo shoots, the king of horror often sports black leather jackets and poses in one of two sinister-looking chairs that belonged to Aleister Crowley, the Satanist and self-styled wickedest man in the world. And then theres his personalised car number plate, RAT 767, a tribute to his first gut-churning novel, The Rats.

But in person, Herbert is open, friendly and takes trouble to please his interviewers, peppering his conversation with jaw-dropping anecdotes and indiscretions. His house is against type, too. He may write about creepy mansions, but he loves light, so some years ago he remodelled his 15-room home near Henfield to accommodate a bright, spacious study, and painted every room white.

He lives in some style. He has a weakness for handmade shirts and is the proud owner of a limited edition Fender Stratocaster, one of only 40 such guitars made Eric Clapton bought number three and George Harrison owned number seven. He also has an indoor swimming pool and 29 acres of prime West Sussex real estate, encompassing a bluebell wood and lake where ducks and coots nest, and deer drop in for a cooling drink.

But bluebell woods dont come cheap and Herbert has worked like a demon to acquire them. The figures speak for themselves. He has been Britains Number One horror writer for more than three decades and his books have sold no fewer than 52 million copies worldwide. Its no wonder he commands multi-million book deals; this man has clout.

And yet he has been denied the one thing he has wanted most acknowledgement. The literati have always been sniffy about his books, dismissing horror as a genre best left to adolescents. As for the broadsheets, they rarely review his books at all. And when they do... well, it prompts him to tell a story.

When his first novel was published in 1974, he naively assumed every paper would review it, but only one did, The Observer.
The reviewer said it was rubbish that should be thrown in the bin, even though the general rule is that critics go easy on the first novel because youre learning, he says. But this guy, Henry Tilney, was just evil about the book, and I thought: Ill never write again.

Then the next week The Sunday Times wrote a review which said The Rats was brilliant, so I learnt an important lesson art is subjective. Im not saying my books are high literature, but they are literate. The really interesting thing, however, is that a few years ago I discovered that Henry Tilney was a pseudonym for Martin Amis.

But this year Herberts luck changed. Earlier this summer, as he was sitting down to breakfast with his wife Eileen, he heard the familiar sound of the post clattering through the letterbox. Among the customary utility bills was a brown envelope marked Cabinet Office, and Herbert froze. I thought: Hello, what have I done now?, then I opened it, read it and read it again, before turning, poker-faced, to Eileen. Youd better read this, I said. You might like it. It was a letter informing him that he had been awarded an OBE for services to literature in the Queens Birthday Honours List.

Herbert, who will receive his award at Buckingham Palace later this month, is chuffed to bits. Its a great feeling; a vindication. And I had no inkling whatsoever. I just didnt think the Establishment liked what I do.But 2010 has been a good year in more ways than one. Back in March, he was also voted Grand Master of Horror at the World Horror Convention held in Brighton, a distinction given every four years to an author who has contributed greatly to the field of horror literature. He joins the ranks of Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz.

It was the culmination of a journey that began nearly 30 years before with the publication of The Rats, which depicted a London overrun by monstrous, flesh-eating rodents. Herbert, then just 28, had five rejection slips before he found a publisher, but the first 100,000 print run sold out within weeks and the book has never been out of print since.

The inspiration came from a line in Bram Stokers Dracula, in which a lunatic says he has seen a thousand rats with red eyes staring up from the lawns.It was also drawn from his childhood experiences in the East End of London.

In the decades that followed he built up a comprehensive catalogue of best-selling titles that includes The Fog, Fluke, The Magic Cottage, Others and The Secret of Crickley Hall. Herbert writes in longhand on A4 paper because he likes the feel of the pen on the page; Eileen types out the chapters in the next room.

One of his greatest skills is his ability to make you turn the page. Each chapter ends with a little taster of the next, a technique influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan novels. Though his books centre on the nature of evil, Herbert views his novels as morality plays where good invariably triumphs. But lets not forget the sex. He boasts he has a reputation for writing the best sex in horror fiction. Ive had people come up to me and say that when they were at college they used to study my books for love-making techniques. But the sex, he stresses, has to be an integral part of the story. If not, it doesnt go in.

He is currently half-way through his latest novel, Ash, the third in a trilogy featuring psychic investigator David Ash, which began with Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. His pubisher, Macmillan, was expecting it last Christmas. He partly blames ill health which prevented him from writing for a year (Im over it now), and the size and complexity of his latest novel. Its already 400 odd pages long with another 400 to write. He has so many ideas fizzing round his head that he keeps two notebooks about the house, so he can jot down thoughts at will.

The novel, which will have a political theme, is a radical departure for Herbert and will touch on the former UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, the elusive peer Lord Lucan and the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Its the most interesting and controversial book Ive ever written and will have to be carefully vetted by the lawyers, he says darkly. Some of the subjects are quite near the edge.

He grew up in a Catholic household, governed by a strong mother and a hard, but respected father. The family lived in a condemned house at the back of Petticoat Lane in Whitechapel, just around the corner from the Kray twins. A friend of his father called Mick the Axeman used to take him to the cinema. He was put away for life for chopping up a man.

His father, who ran a fruit stall, was a hard-drinking gambler and Herbert bore the brunt of his temperament. I was the runt of the litter. I had two older brothers who were bigger and stronger than me. His eldest brother became a market trader like his father. But Herbert and his older brother John, who went on to become a Lloyds broker, both won scholarships to a Catholic grammar school in Highgate.

His parents had a troubled marriage and his mother, who worked on a market stall by day, was forced to take a night job because his father drank and gambled away his earnings. He looked a bit like Humphrey Bogart and tried to live the legend. Always into fights. We hadnt talked for about 10 years when he died.

Herbert did, in fact, make peace with his father, though only after his death, when he drank a toast of whisky to him before pouring another tumbler in a hole in the garden, where he had laid his ashes. I planted a plum tree on the spot because fruit was his game. In a way it was a tribute because Id forgiven him everything. Every year he tree bears beautiful English plums.

Perhaps because of his troubled background, Herbert cherishes his own family all the more. When he met Eileen he knew immediately she was the one. They moved to Sussex 25 years ago and have three daughters and two grandchildren.

When I ask what he likes about the county, he says: I like the people, the countryside, the sea, the clean air, the ducks on my pond, the deer in my fields, the bluebells in my woods and that I can drive to Brighton in 12 minutes. I even love the village butcher who sells the best meat anywhere.

It seems the man who trades in the hell of horror has found his own little piece of heaven.

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