I, like a few others, met James Herbert at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, 2010. I first saw him when he had walked into what I call the middle bar (I can’t remember its name but it’s the one behind the dining area; with the DJ stand where Sarah Pinborough opened the 2011 Fantasycon). He had with him a small entourage and when they entered, James Herbert broke from his party to make a beeline to the woman sitting at a long table, signing books and asking her fans to name her favourite director: Ingrid Pitt (the director was Clint Eastwood). It was apparent the two of them were old friends. There were smiles, laughter and Ingrid shouting at the top of her voice how wonderful it was to see her “Jimmy” again. At the time I was sitting at a neighbouring table, flicking through the books I had just bought off Ingrid and staring in awe at the man whose work had had such an influence on my life.
Seeing “Jimmy” standing only a few feet away from me did something I have rarely experienced before: it rendered me speechless. I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as a genuine hero. This man was a celebrity. Not your vacuous, bland, mentally-challenged dross draped over ITV2 and Channels 4 and 5 in an ocean of fake tan and plastic jewellery. This man had earned respect. Millions of words written. Millions of books sold. How does a ‘TOWIE’ stand up to that?
After chatting to Ingrid Pitt, Mister Herbert asked everyone what they wanted to drink and took himself to the bar where he placed his order. That’s when I underwent an out-of-body-type experience. Somehow, with courage flushing my veins and nerves devouring my guts, I walked over to this hero of mine and introduced myself. And instead of telling me to “piss off”, he let me talk – or, to put it more accurately, gibber. I told him how I felt regarding his work. Thanked him for scaring me shitless. Asked him about his latest project (which turned out to be Ash, his last published work perhaps?). Then he asked me about me! About my work! About my plans. And he advised me. For a few minutes, stood at that bar, he offered me his advice. Encouraged me with his experience. Told me I could do it with hard work and dedication. He took down my name and said he looked forward to reading my first book! Imagine the effect of being told that by one of your heroes.
Sadly now, that will never happen.
I bought the drinks. I said it was the least I could do for such a brilliant, humble man – and for a woman whose body had seen me through a number of my teenage years (I still miss you, Ingrid). After a small argument he gracefully accepted, shook my hand and we parted.
I saw him again over the next few hours and each time I did he nodded at me in recognition. Not much but it meant a huge amount to me – it still does. I mean, they say “you should never meet your heroes [whoever they are!] as you’ll only be disappointed.” How wrong can you get?
A lot of horror writers talk about Stephen King being their biggest influence. That his genius in works such as The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand and Pet Sematary had been so powerful it had convinced them to pick up the pen or to tap the keyboard. And they’re right. King is rightly named because he is exactly that: King of modern day horror. Others talk about Ramsey Campbell or Clive Barker or Raymond Bradbury. All brilliant writers and all worthy of being at the top of anyone’s list. But not mine. For example, as much as I love Stephen King – and I do, I really, really do – he was always second place to James Herbert. Whereas King had me staring at the shadows, Herbert made me question the noise in the floorboards. King: the strange girl at school who seemed to refuse friendships; Herbert: the rat droppings in my shed. King wrote of vampires and Armageddon-inducing plagues; Herbert talked of chemical spillages and mutations. Herbert’s extreme writing – with all the blood and gore, the sex and unashamed eroticism – had a huge effect on me. It’s the root of my own twisted imagination. When I wrote about a serial kidnapper in Commode, Herbert’s willingness to push things to the edge accompanied me. When Santa Clause buggered Blitzen in Rudolph’s Diet, I called upon Herbert’s nastiness for making everything believable yet maintaining a coat of black humour. And there’s more. Mister Herbert taught me a lot. Some would say “too much”. Others would say “not enough”. That’s by-the-by. He did what he did with his words and his imagination and I’ll always be grateful.
Sadly, it’s been a while since I read a James Herbert book. I read everything up to and including Portent but that turned out to be such a disappointment that I didn’t pick up any of his others. And that’s a big regret. A huge one if I’m honest. I’d heard that he’d gone off the boil with books such as The Others and Once but at the back of mind I knew a poor James Herbert was still better than a lot on the market. One reason for my lapse – in fact, the biggest reason – was during that period of trangression, a huge number of other influences joined Mister Herbert’s place on the sofa I keep reserved for heroes and influences. Time is short; novels are long – and plentiful. So my time was taken up with the stories people wanted to tell. But few of them will ever have me writing a personal perspective. Axl Rose? Yes, without a doubt. Adam Nevill? Gary McMahon? Of course. In one way or another, these people have helped to shape me. But Harry Reems has also just died. A few years ago, so did Ballard. And Stanley Long only a few months ago. These were influences but I remained quiet. With Mister Herbert, that seemed an impossible feat to perform.
My next read will be a James Herbert. His passing has pushed his name to the top of my TBR pile. Maybe I’ll re-read an old classic. The Rats trilogy and The Fog are obvious faves but I have a soft spot for The Dark, The Jonah and Shrine. However maybe I’ll leave these be and try something more modern. I have a copy of Ash. In fact, I own all of his titles, even those I at one time thought I might never read. So perhaps I’ll find out for myself what Once is like. Or Nobody True. It doesn’t really matter. Why? Because whatever my choice, I know this:
James Herbert has died. My thoughts and sympathies are with his family. And I mourn his passing like I would a friend. So seeing his photograph on the inside cover will make things all the harder to understand how he could have left us at only 69.