When you bring up the pioneers of hardcore, extreme horror fiction, you’re most likely to hear names like Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. As well you should, because these guys were important—important to the fans who were raised on George Romero, Tobe Hooper, etc., and wished to read more than traditional supernatural horror. We wanted, or perhaps we needed, to see the genre tackle more explicit subject matter.
But as great as Ketchum and Laymon are, James Herbert was there first. It’s almost hard to believe now, but Herbert’s first book, a gruesome novel called The Rats, came out in the same year as Stephen King’s Carrie.
The year in question was nineteen seventy-four. It was the year of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, It’s Alive!, Black Christmas. Jaws was published in ’74. Sharp Practice, by John Farris. Robert Bloch’s American Gothic. Great, important books, but the horror fiction genre as we know it hadn’t really started yet.
Stephen King’s Carrie and James Herbert’s The Rats were both fundamental catalysts for horror becoming a real and genuine force in publishing. King may have become more famous, but as the publicists liked to say, James Herbert outsold the Maine Man in his native England, and Herbert continued to be a huge influence in the field for decades to come. Even to those who have never read him.
I read the early James Herbert books when I was a young horror fan: the “Rats” trilogy, The Fog, The Survivor, The Spear. I loved them, even while I was well aware that Herbert wasn’t in the league of Charles Grant or Ramsey Campbell, much less Peter Straub. However, he crafted a tight novel, with energy and exuberant enthusiasm. And James Herbert reveled in grotesque violence and horror in lurid ways that hadn’t quite been done before.
Some critics reviled Herbert’s work, but others praised it. Stephen King devoted a chapter of Danse Macabre to him. And, to his credit, James Herbert didn’t continue to rewrite the same plots over and over again. He flexed his literary muscles with dark fantasy, as with Fluke and The Magic Cottage. He gave his readers supernatural-tinged thrillers with The Spear and Moon. Herbert wrote his own versions of the English ghost story in Sepulchre and Haunted.
I hate to say it, but I kind of lost my way with James Herbert after Portent and ’48. I did read, and greatly enjoy, The Ghosts of Sleath and Ash, but I still had holes to fill in his later career.
I usually devote these pages to books from the seventies and eighties, and to books that I had previously read. I’m doing something a little bit different this time and featuring a slightly more recent book that I just read for the first time: Others, by James Herbert.
First published in 1999, Others begins with a premise that would seem to belong to Clive Barker more than James Herbert. An actor from Old Hollywood is in Hell and has been suffering for some time. He is visited by an angel, who makes the thespian an offer: An opportunity to redeem himself with another chance. A rebirth, but in another body and a mind that has no knowledge of the previous existence and damnation of the actor. Did he take the offer? Well, wouldn’t you?
We are then introduced to Nicholas Dismas, hunchbacked detective who has led a life of persecution, pain, and ridicule. The deformed dick takes a case in which a clairvoyant is positive that a baby who was pronounced dead on arrival is indeed still alive. And the mother badly wishes to find the baby. Thus begins a journey of visions, violence, and a horrifying medical conspiracy.
It’s immediately obvious that Dismas is the reincarnation of the damned actor. Herbert takes his time getting his readers to know this complicated individual. He isn’t the most likable character you’ve ever encountered, but Dismas is a decent man who, despite his unhappy existence, cares about the people in his life and those he encounters in his work.
Others is a long book, and much time is spent on atmosphere, mood, and setup. But not all horror readers enjoy excessive exposition. James Herbert is known for grisly situations in his books, and patient readers will be rewarded with some of the most disturbing, frightening, and outright nasty scenes he has ever written in Others. It’s a terrifying, doom-laden journey, but Herbert isn’t merely interested in making people cringe. Others is a tale of hope, redemption, and even romance.
If you are a fan of early James Herbert books and have not yet experienced Others, I urge you to look for a copy. There is a Kindle version available, and used copies are plentiful and inexpensive. If you are among the uninitiated in regard to his work, Others might not be the best place to start. I’d recommend The Rats, or perhaps his most notorious novel, The Fog. Which, by the way, has no relation to the John Carpenter movie.
Either way, James Herbert is and always will be one of the most important writers of the horror genre, and I’d like to see more readers realize it.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.