The Master Of British Horror: James Herbert Interviewed

He's the main man for spine chillers and has got a new book out. Check out my exclusive interview with the Grand Master Of Horror...
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He's the main man for spine chillers and has got a new book out. Check out my exclusive interview with the Grand Master Of Horror...

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With the long-awaited ‘Ash’ released next week in hardback and eBook, plus a three-part adaptation of The Secret of Crickley Hall coming to BBC One at Hallowe’en, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up with legendary horror author James Herbert OBE. Despite his reputation for scaring the life out of his army of loyal readers, Herbert was a chatty, friendly and incredibly modest interview subject, often apologising for talking too much and what he considered to be “blowing his own trumpet.” In the end, we spoke for ninety minutes, covering everything from Tony Blair and the Royal Family, to class warfare and the advertising industry.

 Before we kick things off, I’d like to start by apologizing for something that happened 23 years ago. You were doing signings for the paperback of Haunted, and you signed my Mum’s copy, then asked me if I enjoyed your books. As a gauche and tactless 14 year-old, I replied, “No, actually I prefer Stephen King.”

(Laughing) You know what, so do I. So do I. Stephen’s an old friend of mine - I think he’s a genius. A couple of years ago the World Horror Convention made me a Grand Master of Horror, but I know that Steve really deserves that title. So don’t worry that wasn’t an insult at all.

 You’ve always been very self-deprecating about your writing, but you must feel that you’ve improved over time.

It’s funny, because The Rats caused such a stir when it first came out. The media hated me, totally hated me. Then a couple of years ago, I was being interviewed by the literary editor of the Evening Standard – who I’d been told was quite a hard man to please. I happened to mention The Rats and The Fog, and what I consider to be their rough edges. And he said “No, I found them very well written.”  Without sounding pompous, all art is progression. In the early days, Steve King dubbed me the Godfather of Punk. Now, the reason punk itself died out, is because all these guys began to learn how to play their instruments, and lost a lot of their anger. Now I’d like to think that I’ve also improved an enormous amount. I’ve learned my skills, even though there’s still a lot more to learn. The good thing is, I’m still as angry!

The media hated me, totally hated me.

I wanted to ask about that anger. The press release for your new book ‘Ash’ references the fact that “James Herbert takes on the establishment.” But haven’t you always had a healthy disdain for the establishment?

Oh yeah! You have to remember, I’m from the East End of London, and I saw how it was neglected after the war. I grew up in a condemned house for about 14 years. Half of our street was bombed out houses, that went untouched for yours. And then finally, they just knocked them down and left the debris. Plus, we were just around the corner from Petticoat Lane, so you can imagine the rats that used to run around there after each Sunday market. For me, it just represented the complete neglect of the East End. Then of course, during the height of the Cold War, I was angry about how the establishment had its own network of underground bunkers and tunnels – so society’s elite had their own plan to get out of London if the bombs ever dropped. I incorporated much of that into Domain.

 Has that class-consciousness stayed with you?

I passed the eleven-plus and got a scholarship to go to Grammar school, which was great because it changed my outlook on life. I got a lot less bitter. I became less of an inverted snob, you know? It’s where I met a different range of people. I got to accept the middle classes and the upper classes. I’ve always considered myself working class, despite the money I’ve earned writing books. But now I’m neither proud of it, nor ashamed of it. It just is. But I’m very proud that my daughters and my wife are very middle class.

Did you always plan to be a writer, or were you more interested in the visual arts?

I went to an art college, where I trained as an artist and a graphic designer. It took me a year to get my first job – and even then it was only because I went along as somebody else. A friend of mine got the interview but got a job in the meantime, so I went along for his interview and got the job. It was only a small agency, but I really learned a lot. I was an art-director, but I used to write a lot of headlines and come up with the big campaign ideas. In those days we worked for a couple of the big banks, and I came along at just the right time. I got made a creative director and I was able to pitch for all sorts of accounts: deodorants, canned fruit, all really commercial stuff. But that changed the whole agency’s image and I began to get bored. The challenge had gone out of it, and I came to realise that I was spending most of my time going to meetings rather than being creative.  So I was looking round for something else that was creative and books just happened to be the thing. So I started with The Rats.

I was looking round for something else that was creative and books just happened to be the thing.

 Even after the initial success of The Rats, you stayed in advertising while you wrote the next few books, didn’t you?

Yes, for a while. But back in the seventies I found that I was paying 83% in the pound. My first good year came a couple of years into doing the books. I’d made £100,000, which was great in those days, and I had to write out a check to the Inland Revenue for £83,000. So even though I loved both jobs, that was one of the factors that made me decide to just focus on writing books.  Where I was God and I didn’t have clients, Chairmen or account execs there to put their oar in and spoil things.  I only had to answer to myself.

 Surely the publishers still had a say in what you were writing?

I always did what I wanted, but my fourth book, Fluke, was when things really changed. It was the gentlest book I’d ever done, and in my mind I was keen to show that I could do other things. It’s not all blood and gore and horror. Well, my publishers didn’t know what to do with it. I went to lunch with the editor, and when he excused himself to go to the loo, I looked through the manuscript. There were markings all over it. They tried to give the dog fangs, they even suggested giving it rabies. And this was long before Steve’s Cujo. I walked out the restaurant and just left the editor sitting there. That afternoon, I got the call from the publisher himself: “Jim, what do you want?” I said “I want it to stay exactly as it is.” He said “OK, that’s what we’ll do.” Now, they made one mistake – when they printed the book, their usual typeface was Times Roman, which is a good face, but it’s a bit sharp. I told them, “Look, this is a much softer book, I want you to set it in Palantin.” When I saw they’d gone and printed it in Times Roman I hit the roof. They ended up pulling the whole lot, and had to print it all again. And that was only four years into the business.

 That’s a little like film directors who insist on getting final cut…

Eeeeh, don’t talk to me about movies.

 That sounds like a sore point. Do you wish that films had expressed more interest in your work?

Yeah, I do. The trouble is, over here it used to be all Hammer Horror films, and the first couple were terrific. They changed the face of British cinema. But over the years the films got worse and helped kill the British film industry. Now with me, to avoid trashy films being made, I always asked for a lot of money up front, because I know then they’ll work hard to get their investment back.

Eeeeh, don’t talk to me about movies.

 It hasn’t always worked out that way though, has it? The Rats was filmed in the early ‘80s as Deadly Eyes, and left everyone pretty disappointed, not least the fans…

Ugh, it was horrible, horrible, horrible. They actually made it in Canada, and they used dogs, muppets, all sorts of things for the rats. One of the ones that I was quite pleased with was Fluke. It was a good film, but like the publishers, the film company didn’t know what to do with it – they felt it was too dark for kids, and too light for grown-ups.

My burning ambition is to get The Fog made. Not John Carpenter’s version, because that’s not mine. He happened to be in England on holiday and even visited Salisbury Plain, where my book started out. He liked the title, but went back with a completely different story about pirates – he could have called it Pirates of The Mist or something.

Where adaptations are concerned, it’s just a shame that film-makers here don’t have the money to invest in big films. Most of my books are pretty grand, and they have big climaxes that would be tough to achieve on a low budget.

 What about Haunted, which first introduced the character of David Ash, who features in the new book?

Lewis Gilbert made the film of it. Now, Lewis is a tremendous director, but my argument with him was always that the film simply doesn’t scare. It’s a ghost story, but it doesn’t scare. Lewis said to me, “Well, you wait Jim. I know you’re disappointed, but it’ll be on television all the time.” I think it’s been broadcast about eight times now, and was on not too long ago. So in that way it was good, and I had a good time and it all seemed very glamorous. But it was still disappointing.

 So are you optimistic about the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of The Secret of Crickley Hall? 

You know, I swore I’d never work with the BBC again, after I wrote an original script for them years ago, and the project got shelved. The producer loved it, his assistant loved it, even the typist loved it. But they brought in a new Head of Drama called Mark Shivas, and he just cancelled it.

 So what’s different this time?

The BBC came along, they liked Crickley Hall, and I liked that their approach was to do it as a three–hour adaptation over three nights around Hallowe’en.  And that’s good for any writer to have that kind of face value. They’ve got some great actors in it, and I’ve seen the first hour, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. When I read the script for the second episode, I could see they’d started to change things. But the view of film-makers is that nothing’s ever set in stone. Having said that, I trust the director, and I think we’re in for a good viewing.

As we mentioned earlier, the character of David Ash returns in the new book, having already featured in Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath. The last time you wrote a trilogy, you focused on different characters in each book. So what is it about Ash that keeps you coming back?

Ah, he has such great psychological baggage that he carries around with him. He’s a parapsychologist, and his whole mission in life was to disprove the existence of ghosts. Because when he was a child, he and his older sister fell in the water, and his sister drowned but he survived. All his life, he felt that she was haunting him. At the end of Haunted, there she was, encouraging the ghosts that were already there to play games with him.

 But this time around, he’s tackling some much bigger mysteries, isn’t he?

That’s right. There are a number of conspiracies that I wanted to write about in Ash. What became of Jack the Ripper? Whatever happened to Prince Johnny? Why did Rudolf Hess parachute into Scotland in 1941 when Britain was at the height of war in Germany? How did Lord Lucan vanish? Did Robert Maxwell really fall from his yacht?  Why did Harold Wilson unexpectedly resign in 1976? Who was the real power behind Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister? Even Gadaffi’s in there.

 It sounds as though readers can expect a lot more to think about than they might find in a run-of-the-mill supernatural tale. And what about the paranormal, do you believe in ghosts?

I do. I’m a Roman Catholic and I was brought up with the supernatural. Now, as a Catholic I question absolutely everything. And the older you get, the more you question. That’s the one thing I look forward to in death – if it’s all true, then I’ll find some answers. That’s why I like to speculate, and that’s why the new book is so full of speculation.

 You’ve been writing best-sellers for almost forty years now. Is aging something you’ve had to come to terms with?

I can only accept it by reminding myself that I’m the same age as Mick Jagger and I’m a year younger than Paul McCartney. That’s the only way I can handle aging, because I hate getting old. But on the whole, mine’s not a bad vintage.

 When your career first started, you were described as the king of ‘British Horror.’ Now, 50 million book sales later, you’re the king of the ‘British Chiller’. What’s the difference?

There isn’t any difference. That’s not me, that’s the book trade. They get frightened by the word ‘horror’. I don’t force horror on myself, it just comes out. But I’m not ashamed to be labeled horror, not at all. When I started out, I was always attacked for the gore and graphic violence that used to be in the books. I think I was the first person to kill off a baby and that hurt me, but it was right for that chapter in The Rats. You know, in a way, it tells the reader that they can’t assume where I’m going to take them. If you like it, carry on. If you don’t, put it down and walk away. Luckily, most carried on.

You’ve made a career out of terrifying your readers, but what scares you?

Ah, the age-old question. Not a lot if I’m honest. As a kid I was scared of the dark, but then you get older and you start to see nothing wrong in it.

I don’t have any phobias, although I do hate spiders. I kill them instantly, but then, having three daughters and a wife, I’d say that’s as natural as remembering to put the seat down.

If you’d like to hear more from the undisputed master of horror, he’ll be reading from Ash and answering questions at the following two events in September:

Monday 3rd September at 7pm - Event at Waterstone's 128 New Street, Birmingham B2 4DB

Tuesday 18th September at 7.30pm - Event at Foyles Bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H OEB  

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