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HerbertRats-1

We could hang out… a DVD, a coupla beers, maybe a takeaway…

Seeing as we’re flinging everything out, here’s something I wrote when James Herbert clocked off a couple of years ago. Don’t have nightmares…

Could you call James Herbert a hero? I guess there was a point when I wanted to be him.

It all started at the age of nine, when I crept into the forbidden sepulchre of my elder brother’s bedroom. Below his bible and a large crucifix was a book with a creepy looking grey rat on the front.

The cover to that mid-eighties edition of The Rats could be called subtle, for the time; just a suggestion of blood on the whiskers and claws, a twinkle of malevolence in the eyes.

Bible and crucifix were swept aside. Who could resist taking a wee look at The Rats?

My eldest brother was never much of a reader. I’m not sure he got to the end of The Rats, far less his Bible. Who can say what drove him to buy brand spanking new copies of James Herbert’s shockers? I imagine it was a recommendation from his mates at the shipyard. Ye’ll like this… Gory as fuck!

I even saw my dad having a flick through The Rats, too. “This is not a book for you,” he grimly intoned.

Guaranteeing that, of course, it was very much a book for me.

This was the way most people first experienced James Herbert. Scenes spoken of with a certain relish, copies accessed as furtively as porn. It’s a surprisingly common experience among bookish Britons of a certain age, entranced both by the violence and also the dirty bits he liberally salted his prose with. I thought I was the only creep, but it turns out lots of writers and readers felt the same.

I read most of his output up until 1990’s Creed… then nothing more from his pen until I recently re-examined The Rats, for the purposes of a review. I noticed the sub-texts and allegories I missed the first time around; its condemnation of parts of London being left to rot by the authorities, as much as its examination of grim lives coming to an end in a sordid, but spectacular, fashion.

James Herbert’s books occupy the same sort of shelfspace as the works of Sven Hassel. I’m not sure of his literary cache – Martin Amis famously eviscerated The Rats under a pseudonym in The Observer, a review which apparently drove the 28-year-old debut novelist to tears – but regardless of how sniffy you’re willing to be about your fiction, you know who Herbert is, and what he wrote about.

When The Rats came out in 1974, Hammer Horror films were still on the go, featuring castles, villains in black hats and capes, naughty girlie vampires in nighties and thundering carriages pulled by black-plumed steeds. In the US, Nixon was about to become the first American president to resign, Vietnam was drawing to an ignominious close and environmental concerns were beginning to force their way into the headlines. In Britain, labour problems periodically brought the country to a standstill. A number of strikes left rubbish piled up in major British cities, the dead went unburied, and plagues of rats were feared as unemployment levels climbed.

Taking these fears and nightmares to an extreme, Herbert eschewed the Hammer Horror/Gothic traditions of horror in Britain, and instead provided the kind of nastiness that struck in suburban houses, dingy flats and bedsits. Herbert drowned horror’s tropes and conventions in the kitchen sink, and shone a steady light on the grubby underbellies of ordinary lives.

That his books were prurient is almost as much a part of the Herbert make-up as rats or violence. I’m repeating myself from the other blog, but I wonder if Herbert would have been horrified or amused to know how many boys first encountered sex in prose through his books.

But he was a moral writer, the sort of author for whom illicit, seedy sex is punishable by death; I’m thinking of the two cheats in Lair, in particular, whose remains are stumbled upon by a pathetic parkland flasher in one of the many sections of Herbert’s novels overlaid with ghoulish laughter.

He was raised a catholic, and I think it shows. From the Irish woman in The Rats seeking to reconcile her love of sex with her love for Christ, through to the climax of Shrine, where the power of prayer vanquishes the witch, Herbert’s work betrayed a spiritual bent in among the demons, malice, madness and death. Indeed, some of the rats’ victims experience moments of peace and even bliss as they slip into the next life.

And get et.

As well as writing scenes of horror befalling ordinary people – some deserving, some merely luckless – Herbert could also write a good set-piece. The siege at the school in The Rats, or the tank chase in The Spear, or the moment when the  bunker floods in Domain, were all first-rate scenes of suspense, action and adventure. Perhaps there was a Sven Hassel novel in him, waiting to get out? We may never know.

It’s important to remember just how many books James Herbert sold in his career, how popular he was. I think he stands equally tall as Stephen King on these shores, whose career in the same genre took off at the same time under the same economic conditions. These two working class boys both got very rich in countries controlled by conservative governments who helped deregulate the financial industry, sowing the seeds for today’s ghastly messes – although you could call neither man a conservative.

Things were rough, industrially and economically, for many people in those days. Herbert’s horrors reflected that, and The Fog and The Rats should certainly be counted as fine allegories of social decay and inequality.

We sometimes forget how omnipresent the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed to be in the 1970s and 80s; surely a contributor to the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty reflected in Herbert’s novels. His final story in the Rats trilogy, Domain, might be one of the best novels ever written about a post-nuclear wasteland. Although its giant killer rats are quick to get their teeth into global supremacy with humankind on its back, the horror doesn’t concern them so much as the devastation wreaked by the bomb and people’s struggles to survive it – and each other.

It’s a tragedy that James Herbert didn’t get to write a fourth Rats novel. Perhaps it could have been a prequel to Domain, looking at today’s London in its supposed post-Olympics glow. I cannot think of a time and a place more befitting of a plague of giant killer rats than the modern day capital, with its insane property market presided over by a near-sociopathic “austerity” government stuffed with indifferent toffs and impossibly rich oligarchs. London Mayor Boris Johnson could easily be a leading character in one of Herbert’s novels – one you could safely bet wouldn’t make it to the final pages.

So much for all that. We have to say farewell to James Herbert. It’s a blow when these figures of your youth begin to die off, at what Arundhati Roy termed “a viable, dieable age”. It’s a reminder of your own passing times, and thusly your own mortality – the root of all horror.

But it was also heartwarming to see the tributes to him appearing on Twitter, in newspapers, on websites and elsewhere. James Herbert made his mark, his work was loved, and his passing was peaceful. That’s a great final score.

So long, and thanks for the scares, Jim. And the dirty bits.

But mostly the scares.

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