Born: April 8, 1943; Died: March 20, 2013.
James Herbert, who has died aged 69, was a horror writer most famous for The Rats, the garish, ghoulish thriller about man-eating vermin. In the 1970s and 80s, dog-eared copies of the book would be passed around groups of teenagers fascinated by Herbert's visceral, anatomical descriptions of violence. Some critics sneered; others thought he could write well. Readers lapped it up.
The inspiration for The Rats came partly from a description in Bram Stoker's Dracula of a thousand rats with red eyes, partly from Herbert's childhood in the East End of London. He grew up in a Catholic household, the youngest of three boys, and lived in a condemned house near Petticoat Lane in Whitechapel, just round the corner from the Krays. At the back of the house was an area where market traders would dump rotting fruit and vegetables and it was alive with rats. The image stuck in Herbert's mind.
The young Herbert, whose parents ran a market stall, won a scholarship to grammar school and from there went to Hornsey College of Art, where he studied graphic design, print and photography. His first career was in advertising, latterly as a senior figure in the Charles Barker agency. It was while there that he started writing The Rats, in longhand. It was then typed up by his wife. "I hate violence and I didn't plan to write horror," he said. "It just poured out of me." His artistic background meant that he always designed the covers for his books.
Having finished The Rats, Herbert submitted the manuscript to six publishers, three of whom replied. Of those, two rejected the novel and one accepted it. It was published in 1974 and the initial run of 100,000 sold out within three weeks. The book has since sold more than million copies in Britain and was made into a less-than-good film Deadly Eyes in 1982.
The success of The Rats immediately transformed Herbert into one of the leading horror novelists, although he always struggled to be entirely free of its influence and memorability. Readers, he said, would come up to him and tell him that they loved The Rats but had since grown out of it. He had done exactly the same thing, he said, moving on from the full-on horror of The Rats to softer, supernatural territory, although it will always be his most famous book.
In all, he wrote 23 novels, including two sequels to The Rats: Lair in 1979 and Domain in 1984. There was also The Fog, perhaps his most famous novel after The Rats, which featured a mysterious mist that turned anyone who encountered it into homicidal maniacs. Several of the novels were made into films: The Survivor, Fluke and Haunted. Another, The Secret Of Crickley Hall, was adapted for television and broadcasted on BBC One last December.
Although the heyday of Herbert's popularity was in the 1970s and 80s, he continued to sell well throughout his life and, by the 1980s, he was one of the giants of popular fiction alongside Stephen King. Critical acceptance, on the other hand, often eluded him and this occasionally irritated him.
"I've always suffered from being labelled a horror writer," he once said. "Just because I didn't go to university, just because I still talk in my natural voice, just because I'm not as articulate as Martin Amis. We like to kid ourselves that we're in an equal society but we're not."
Herbert also defended his novels against accusations that they were overly violent and said it was always in context. Equally, he was not ashamed of the fact that he went further than other horror writers. "When I started out, horror was suggested by other writers but never fulfilled," he said. "I wanted to do something different. Unfortunately, some writers took it too far and I took the rap."
Herebert was published in 34 languages and sold more than 54 million copies. His most recent novel was Ash. It featured his paranormal detective, David Ash, visiting a doom-laden castle in Scotland to investigate the case of man crucified in a locked room. It was published in paperback just a few weeks ago.
Herbert was awarded the OBE in 2010, and is survived by his wife Eileen, whom he married in 1967, and their three daughters Kerry, Emma and Casey.
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