The late writer's early novels mined primal fears of scurrying rodents and lethal chemical spillages, inspiring a new wave of dystopian fiction
James Herbert, who has died aged 69, will be remembered as one of the pillars of British horror writing. Herbert managed the rare feat of straddling both genre and mainstream fiction; at the height of his career, he was often spoken of in the same breath as Stephen King, and sales of his books have run to more than 42m.
He shot to fame in 1974 with the publication of The Rats, and there can be few people who grew up in the 70s who didn't furtively pass around a dog-eared copy of this and its follow-up, Lair, revelling in Herbert's gory set-pieces and plentiful graphic sex scenes.
With The Rats, Herbert established himself as a master of the sort of apocalyptic horror that's so popular today – from Justin Cronin's The Passage to any number of zombie novels. There can be few authors working in the field of modern dystopian fiction who don't owe a debt to his work.The Rats mined a primal human fear of scurrying vermin that suddenly decide they've had enough of living in the sewers. As the cover blurb put it: "It was only when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures with their razor sharp teeth and taste for human blood began to be realised by a panic-stricken city. For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now for the first time – suddenly, shockingly, horribly – the balance of power had shifted."
His first non-sequel follow-up to The Rats was 1975's The Fog, in which a chemical spillage generated a mist that turned anyone who came in contact with it into homicidal maniacs. It came a couple of years after George Romero's similarly-themed movie The Crazies, and a couple of years ahead of The Dawn of the Dead.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Herbert was the art director of an advertising agency, and he designed his own book jackets well into his career. In a Guardian column jointly authored with his daughter, Casey, in 2006, he revealed that his first literary loves were the comics his mother bought him to assuage her guilt about working seven days a week on a market stall.. "As a kid I used to read cowboy stories and historical comics about other worlds, unknown places that would take me out of myself and which helped to develop my imagination."
That early reading perhaps goes some way to explaining his style. As Joanna Briscoe wrote, in a review of his 2006 novel The Secret of Crickley Hall: "In James Herbert's world, things go bump in the night with spine-tingling efficacy only to carry on bumping, thumping and violently swaying until the tension is interspersed by laughter."But despite his racing start, he was unable to match the trajectory that took King to such stellar heights, and never seemed a huge self-publicist.
After the successes of The Rats and The Fog, Herbert moved away from the apocalyptic science-based terror of his early work towards more traditional supernatural horror.
Novels such as Survivor, Moon and Sepulchre established him firmly in the canon of British horror writers, especially in the 1980s when he turned out some of his best work, including Haunted and The Magic Cottage.
His were very English horror stories, very contemporary and rooted in time and place. While his output might have tailed off in the 90s, he continued to write, and was in fact just returning to public attention, thanks in no small part to the BBC's adaptation of The Secret of Crickley Hall, broadcast just before Christmas.
Next month he was due to take part in a special horror segment of Liverpool's new literary festival, In Other Words – in what was billed as "a rare appearance".