Simon Wood

SHELF LIFE: James Herbert, My Dark Hero

British horror author James Herbert died the other week, age 69. His death saddened me as he’s one of my writing heroes. I never thought I’d ever write myself when I discovered his books as genre obsessed twelve-year-old, but when I decided to write fifteen years ago, his books were one of a half a dozen authors’ work I studied.
His breakout book was his first—THE RATS.  It was about oversized rats eating their way across London and the Home Counties.  Like a lot of successful writers, he struck upon something that hit the public consciousness.  Giant rats in England were a problem in the mid-70’s when the book came out.  Not as quite as big as those mentioned in the book, I remember as a six-year-old there being all these rats as big as small cats invading our neighborhood from the wood that backed onto our home.  They ate through large sections of our back fence and I wasn’t allowed to play in the garden when they appeared. My mum and I (with mouth agape) one Saturday watched from the back window of the house as these big grey blobs squeezed through the holes they made in the fence and roamed our garden in search of food. No wonder I discovered my love of horror movies shortly after and that Herbert’s book was a bestseller in Britain throughout the 70’s and 80’s.

I didn’t discover his books until I bought one on a Boy Scouts trip.  Something about a lurid cover featuring a blood splattered rat with yellow teeth jumping out at me appealed for some reason.  I tore through this book which made me an instant fan.  A few weeks later, I started high school and my English teacher let us read anything we liked as long as we could comment on its merits.  This was my opportunity to go through his entire back catalogue. God knew what my teacher thought of me at the time, but she always gave me good grades.

Fast forward a couple of decades and he was my go to author when it came to studying style and construction.  The reason I liked James Herbert’s work was his simple yet affective storytelling style. He wrote usually in third person and had a unique way of featuring “red shirt” point of view characters in the form of vignettes to help illustrate the story.  But the thing I liked the most about his writing was his larger than life stories that were pulp heaven (and something I’ve been accused of from time to time…much to my pleasure).  I got lost in his tales of Nazi talismans, toxic fog and vengeful ghosts.  Each one was sheer reading bliss.  If you look hard enough I’ve cribbed a few things from Herbert’s books, usually in the form character names. I’ve yet to write a full length horror novel but when I do, it will be influenced by Herbert’s work.
I just want to say, “Here’s to you, Mr. Herbert. You inspired me and scared me in equal measure. And I’m sorry you’re gone.  Rest in peace, sir.”

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