Ginger Nuts of Horror
I had only recently read my first novel without pictures in it (The River of Adventure by Enid Blyton), so I thought I was a proper grown-up and could read anything. I’d worked my way through several Pan Books of Horror, Fontana Ghost Books and some similar things that were in the house before I tackled this. I was probably about nine.
The content was entirely unsuitable for a boy my age – there is extreme violence and some quite graphic sex. The violence is described with the kind of leering relish that would make Lucio Fulci proud, and The Rats, along with other Herbert novels, were my first sex education – he describes sexual activities I still haven’t tried forty years on.
The prose, however, is perfect for children. It’s simple, accessible, and highly visual. There were better writers working in the genre at the time who could effectively convey every emotional and sensual detail in nicer and more concise prose, but I wouldn’t have got all that. I saw everything that happened in that book. I knew exactly what a man’s innards looked like as they were pulled from under his exposed ribcage by giant rats’ teeth because it happened in full colour in my imagination.
At that age, boys love icky stuff, and Herbert delivers ick by the bucketload. It’s as if he had a preteen audience in mind, like a creepy old man at a funfair beckoning with a gnarled finger, “Hey son, want to see something squishy and really horrible?” What normal boy could resist?
Importantly, it was a horror story set in the present day. Most of the scary stuff I’d read was either old and good or modern and trashy (I could spot exploitative trash before I could spell it). Modern and good was a novelty.
I already wanted to be a writer, specifically a horror writer, but I thought that was the preserve of Victorian gentlemen drinking brandy by a roaring fire in someone’s country mansion, not something a working class boy from Govan could ever aspire to.
James Herbert was not posh, and he wrote in simple modern English. He made me realise it could be done.
I still have most of his novels on my bookcase, even though I realised as I got older that he wasn’t actually that good. I retain an affection for his brand of horror, and have struggled through some dross out of loyalty. If he has a successor today, it’s none of the current horror authors, except perhaps the blood-thirstiest end of the zombie genre. It’s the YA authors who most closely recreate his style - Darren Shan especially reads like a tribute band sometimes.
And I’ve realised, now that I think about it, that I’ve never handed a James Herbert book to any of my children, or recommended them to anybody.
The Rats was a part of my childhood, and helped make me the man I am today.
Stewart Horn is a professional musician based on the Ayrshire Coast in Scotland. His fiction has appeared in various online and print magazines and anthologies, and he reviews books and movies and anything else he fancies for British Fantasy Society.
He blogs intermittently at stewartguitar.wordpress.com