Interview: James Herbert

Regular readers of this site will be familiar with my fascination with New English Library paperbacks of the 1970s, as well as my confoundment that no one has yet written a comprehensive history of the incredibly influential mass market publisher. The first of the pulp and popular fiction histories that I co-edited for PM Press, Girl Gangs Biker Boys and Real Cook Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980, focused in some depth on NEL’s youthsploitation books (bikers and the skinhead and other paperbacks written by James Moffat aka Richard Allen), including re-published important material written by British critic Stewart Home. NEL was also included in my second PM Press book, Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950-1980. I’ve read bits and pieces on NEL, how they worked, their authors and their books around the place, mainly on-line, but there is nothing comprehensive I am aware of that has really pulled all this disparate information together and properly analysed the significant of NEL to 1970s British print culture.

Anyway, when award winning writer, author and horror historian Johnny Mains mentioned to me during an online discussion that he had an interview with one of NEL’s best known authors, James Herbert, that didn’t have a home, I was keen to provide one. Along with the recently departed Guy N. Smith, Herbert, who died in 2013 at the age of 69, was one of the key players in English horror fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. Herbert’s first book The Rats (1974) was gateway horror reading for so many people, myself included. He published 23 books over his career, which for various reasons he details below soon moved away from NEL. But it is the books he did with NEL, The Rats, The Fog (1975), The Survivor (1976), that remain among his best known and popular. Whatever the case, enjoy the interview, conducted by Mains in 2012, and the insights it provides into Herbert’s early years and the working of NEL.

Johnny Mains: To take you back to the beginning with your first book, The Rats – it’s one of the rare horror novels that seem to have transcended the genre and is a book that everyone knows about, no matter the walk of life they come from.

James Herbert: I was half watching a quiz show the other day and it was called Celebrity Chase and on this particular episode one of the questions was, what was James Herbert’s first book – and he got it right the guy – and I thought, my god, over thirty years ago it’s still being spoken about! But that’s the secret between myself and Steve King – we started off virtually together, he was just a few months behind me with Carrie, with the same publisher, New English Library. But they made a terrible mistake as far as I am concerned, a marketing mistake – they labelled the books in their lists (the catalogues they sent out) as ‘the nasties’ and amongst the crabs and every other bloody animal, they had James Herbert and Stephen King. Not only did I go mad for myself, I went mad for Steve – he’s always been a quality writer. But it was too late, the damage was done and the trade knew us for years as the ‘nasties’.

JM: I believe that term was coined by Bob Tanner?

JH: It was in fact coined by Ray Helen, under the auspices of Bob Tanner, who was the publisher at the time. They used to have meetings every Monday morning where they decided what books they would publish next. The main list were Westerns by a nice guy called Terry Harknett, who wrote the Edge series – but they also published novels about bovver boys, mods, skins, rockers and bikers. They used to bring out one every two weeks and they used to commission many writers to do it, authors like James Moffat – but I certainly didn’t work like that and I just blatantly refused, but that’s what they thought they had in me. They thought they had a genre they could push because in those days the main books that were being published were the spy novels of James Bond, westerns etc – and then I come along, in England, with a new kind of horror story, a very graphic horror story, and Stephen King in America had come along with the same thing, although his weren’t so graphic – and they thought they could abuse that.

JM: What made you think you could get away with that kind of horror and the explicit sex and violence, which for the time was really unheard of. What made you think it would work?

JH: I didn’t think it would work, I had a very good job in advertising, I didn’t need the money – I just sat down and did a horror story which the like no-one had ever done before. Traditionally, a chapter of a book would end with the sex and the horror in ellipses, you know – dot, dot, dot – but I carried on from there with whatever was going to happen. I firmly believed that if you get hurt, if you get hit with an axe, it bloody well hurt and there would be a lot of blood. Unlike the cartoons, or the John Wayne films of the time, but I thought there’s much more to this. I think you could call all of my books morality plays, even the early ones, but of course nobody realised that because they all focused on the horror and violence. And for me it was the same as sex – if I could write about violence in that detail, why couldn’t I write about sex in detail? Sex to me – was and is, a wonderful thing. And between my hero and heroine – their sex was always a beautiful, tender, loving thing. Now subsidiary characters – I could have fun with their sex scenes. And so I got the reputation for sex and violence, which I’m not complaining about – it’s got me where I am today, it’s made me my money.  I mainly write different kinds [of horror] – there are still some very graphic scenes of horror when it’s necessary. But I think my books are different, they’ve just moved on.

JM: I think one of the most horrific scenes that you have ever committed to paper was the castration scene in The Fog

JH: It’s so weird Johnny, all those years ago that scene is still remembered. With The Rats and The Fog – which have never been out of print, there are still set-pieces that people just don’t forget. It was based on a gym instructor that we had – he was a sadist, and it was my own little way of getting back at him. It was a grammar school, we were only eleven years old and he used to terrify us. He made no exceptions for me, because I never had the kit, we were so poor, the football gear – in fact my first pair of football boots were bought by my mother, years later in Brick Lane.

JM: What were you doing before you started writing?

JH: I was working in advertising  as an art director for five years in the West End of London. I realised as soon as I was writing books full time (before I was writing them in the weekends and during any other spare time), I had to decide if it was one or the other, that was in the 1970s – that was in the day that over a certain amount of salary, you had to pay 83 pence to the pound. Anything you managed to save you had to pay 98% to the Inland Revenue. I remember it so vividly; I was living at Woodford at the time and I had to sit down and write a cheque for £83k when I had earned 100k for my first two books. Now 100k is a lot of money today, but back then it was even more. Leaving me with £17k after it was deducted. And if I put that into a building society, any interest I got on it I had to pay 98%. So I had to make the decision to either stay in the job I loved or start this new job that I had being doing for five years which I loved even more, because I was king, I played God, characters did what I wanted them to do; whilst in advertising everything is brought down to a certain level. So that’s how the career began, and because I no longer had to work in London we moved down to Sussex.

JM: Who was your editor at New English Library during that time?

JH: The chief editor at NEL then was Walter Briggs. My editor was a young guy called Martin Noble. They asked me for all of my other manuscripts that I had which had been turned down years before and I said to them that I didn’t have any, that The Rats was my first novel. And they said ‘Oh, come on’ and I was like, ‘no, I promise you,’ and so on. So they asked if they could sign me up to write the next three books and I said no way. I was in advertising; I had a good job and didn’t even know if I had another book in me, that The Rats could have just been a flash in the pan or that I could even do another book. But I did, I wrote the book.

The strange thing is Bob (Tanner) was on holiday at the time and he sent a telegram, no email in those days, to Briggs – another one of my editors at that time was Dot (Lumley) and she’s the one who really discovered me – anyway I said no, if I can do it, I’ll come back to you, but I’m going to get an agent. And Bob said, ‘But Jim, I can be your agent,’ and I said no, you’re my publisher! There was something very, very wrong there.

JM: The signing session for you at the World Horror Convention was quite a long one. What’s been your longest?

JH: My biggest signing session was 800 people – that was in Smiths in St. Albans Circus, that was a good few years back when Haunted came out – and another great one in New Street just off Liverpool St, where they went round the block, but they all went like that and in the end I stopped doing them because they were just so exhausting. I like to if I can, to talk to each customer, to see if it was worth their time in queuing , to make them feel good – it took a long time. I played this trick I did at every one, signing sessions were always good, but when it got down to the last person, someone who had probably waited three hours, I’d put down my pen and say “No, that’s it, no more today” just to watch their face. Then I’d say “No, only joking,” and then give them a good signature.

JM: I believe that Lenny Henry once owned the film rights to Creed at one point?

JH: Well, he just rang up my agent – and because it’s a comedic book, it’s my satire if you like, or I’d prefer to say pisstake on the whole horror genre as it had become (and still is) very precious and amongst certain writers, which is why, perhaps foolishly of me, I’ve never went to many conventions or anything like that. It’s my take on the worst hero; the guy Creed, he is in the worst profession in the world. A paparazzo, he’s a coward, but for me he’s very funny. I just enjoyed doing the book so much – in fact, three of the top broadsheets, all on the same Sunday all had a go at me thinking this was a serious horror story and saying ‘if this is why Herbert is widely imitated, there’s something wrong.’  They just didn’t get the joke.  The media, up until now has always been very anti- James Herbert. But that was because of The Rats and The Fog and I imagine they thought I was doing the same thing. But you don’t, you progress.

Stephen King dubbed me (at the time of The Fog) ‘The Godfather of Punk’ and that’s because the books were so raw and angry that they kind of summed up punk music. But punk died out because all the musicians began to learn their craft. Same as me, I learned to write a little bit better with each book and those three books, The Rats, The Fog, The Survivor,they’re not badly written.

To get back to your question with Lenny Henry, he like the humour in Creed and he rang up my agent who rang me and asked for my permission to give Lenny my number. So Lenny rang me and we arranged for him to come down here for lunch. Now Lenny is one of my favourite guys, he’s very, very smart – I haven’t seen him since because the film didn’t get made, but he’s very intelligent and funny as well. He gave me the big speil about how much he loved the book and why he wanted to do it and why the part of Creed was perfect for him and in a way he was right, but at the time I had in my mind the younger Mickey Rourke. So I let him carry on and at the end of the lunch he said, ‘You know, I don’t have much money to pay for the option, but I would like to do it. And I said, okay, you’ll have to pay me, but it’ll cost you five pence. So of course Lenny was delighted, but unfortunately in this country it’s very hard to get horror films off the ground and Creed, ultimately, was never made. You know Hammer Horror were great for its time – and in my view, they kind of killed off the whole British movie scene. But Hammer have come back and they are actually very good. They’ve asked me to do something, but the new book has taken a lot out of me, and I had to refuse. In fact, if I was going to do a book for Hammer, I would do one about witches.

JM: Tell me a bit about Hodder who took over NEL?

JH: When the takeover was announced, I was looking for a new publisher because I didn’t really get over the ‘nasty’ business, the reputation stuck and I had to fight most of my career against the idea that everything was nasty. And I said in leaving, Hodder taking NEL over was like getting divorced without leaving your wife.

JM: How many agents have you had?

JH: I’ve had quite a lot of agents, both English and American ones, most of whom lot I sacked – I eventually interviewed several agents, I hired a suite in a hotel – I even interviewed Saatchi and Saatchi who had done the publicity campaign for The Magic Cottage, and they came along to show me their work and I actually turned it down and they came back and did something much more brilliant. But I told these other agents that I’m not paying them 15% for the work I do, most agents want 15 or 20 percent, I will pay 10% that’s it. Any foreign earnings and that’s also 10%. Now they can share that with any subsidiary agents, but they didn’t get more than 10%. And the guy I chose, Bruce Hunter, who has just retired and believe it or not he was with David Hyams. I just had complete trust in him, a very upright guy – so I’ve ended going back to David Hyams. They agreed to all my conditions, as he said to me “I’ve got no choice!”

JM: I believe that you were often at loggerheads with the art department over the finished covers to your books?

JH: I gave poor Cecil (Cecil Smith, then art director of NEL) a hard time – he designed covers that were good for their time, but I was an art director and I had done marketing and I understood the market, posters, media and poor Cecil had to put up with all that. The first cover he designed (artwork by Bill Phillipps) for the paperback of The Rats though, was stunning, a pure knock-out. But that was the beginning.

JM: Were you ever gifted, or did you ever get to keep any of the original cover art to your works?

JH: Some of the later ones I did and some of the American ones – and someone sent me the cover of The Dark. But none of the early ones.

JM: Do you still take a proactive role in designing your covers?

JH: I do and the worst thing I did recently was to grab a week’s holiday. And the book, Ash, after all these years was published in a rush. And the reason for that was in September, J.K Rowling is bringing out her first adult book. And that is going to sell out beyond all bounds and I don’t want to be in competition with that. We were thinking of bringing it out in October when The Secret of Crickley Hall is coming out as a t.v. series. Which is great, as it was being advertised all through the Olympics.

So it was done in a rush, and I went away and when I got back the book had arrived; I’d seen most of the designs, I’d turn them down. Nowadays it’s easy for Art Directors because they have computers and software to design the book, and they can bring up any illustration they want and half the work is done for them. But they do look good. I’ve always worked on the basis that if anyone does anything better than me, we use theirs. Now I did my own version of Ash and when I saw the art director’s and they did a great job and it was far better than mine because I don’t have the equipment. The only thing I have; the last publisher gave it to me as a gift, is a projector – a machine that you can do a bit of lettering or design and you can blow it up to full size and then draw it again. Trace any type from any book and blow it up and then copy it again. All manual labour and nowadays it’s so easy for them. But it’s a magnificent cover I’m really pleased with it. And if you take the flyleaf off the book it has my monogram on the board, which I had to remind them to put in. I’m very pleased with the design. But the blurbs they use, I opened the book, they’d just arrived, and read down them to the last line. It says ‘very funny, very scary, and a great deal of fun’ from The Good Book Guide. And I said what? This is one of the most serious books I’ve written, yes, there is humour in it, but it’s scary and revelatory, but then I looked at the top of the blurb and it says ‘Praise for James Herbert’s novels’. So what they’ve done is get some dozy secretary to pick out comments from other books, not Ash but other books that I’ve written. I remember years ago I was so disgusted by some of the ones they chose which were ‘very funny, very scary etc’ – but this is a bloody horror story. I’d already written them a list which were like a bit more literary, because I began getting some very good reviews, some of the angst against me had been taken away and I think even more so now, or maybe it’ll be even worse now I’ve got the O.B.E. and the Grand Master of World Horror Fiction – maybe their attitudes will change even more. I then went to the back of the book, it gave the summary of the book itself – now I’d written my own. What they did was a piece of copy that could have been written for any other horror story.

JM: Where did the inspiration for Ash come from?

JH: The inspiration for Ash actually comes from The Queen herself. I’ll just give you the quote that I use from the beginning of the book. It was when the butler, Paul Burrell,  was in court for allegedly stealing Princess Diana’s gifts that she had been given and some were very, very expensive. And he was in court and at  the end of the first or second week, when he was due to give his testimony, the Queen got in touch and said that she remembered Burrell had told her that he had kept some of Diana’s goods. Now the whole thing was quashed. Now I don’t think that’s the reason. I think when Burrell was going to go into the dock he was going to reveal too much, much too much; he had inside information. And also at one of these press interviews, he said that the Queen had said to him: ‘that there are dark forces at work in this country about which we know little.’

Now I’ve got [the quote attributed to] Queen Elizabeth II and in brackets the word allegedly. And I’ve had put that to cover myself. But I believe she said that, and when I heard it I thought that is great.

But I didn’t think of a supernatural power, I thought of a group or a consortium of individuals that ruled this country in another way. The Queen herself has a special consortium, Queen of the Garter or some fancy title.  But it’s people, people like Tom Stoppard – people from industry, but even people like Nelson Mandela.  Her special advisory group. Again, not too many people know about it, but it’s there if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. And that’s what gave me the idea for the book. It tackles subjects that have not been mentioned before.  Some I investigated, some I speculated, some I guessed and others were factual and my challenge to the reader was to decide for themselves what’s fact and what’s fiction. I had scenes like why did Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy leader parachute into Scotland. How did Lord Lucan vanish. And other things; like why did Harold Wilson, Britain’s Prime Minister (second term 74-76) suddenly resign and why was the country making plans for a military coup at around the same time. Now that is fact and I give reasons for it.

JM: Was it always going to be a David Ash book?

JH: I had the idea and I had this haunted place, which I won’t say too much about. Of course David Ash was in Haunted and the Ghosts of Sleath. And I thought that this guy was interesting, he was a parapsychologist and he has such psychological baggage because he believed that when he and his older sister were kids, he thought he killed her. They both fell in the river, his father jumped in and only had time to pull David out, while the sister was swept away and drowned and she had been haunting him ever since. But he wasn’t sure if that was in his own mind or of there really were ghosts. But with every case he went into, and he became a well known parapsychologist by that time, he tried to prove the non-existence of ghosts. Usually he did – 8 out of 10 times he did. Until he went to the mansion called Edbrook. When I got the next idea about The Ghosts of Sleath which came years later and again it was about ghosts and investigators – I had this guy who everyone seemed to like, and who I liked – I thought he’d be ideal for that book so I used him again. And for Ash, which is the final in the trilogy, I didn’t have to look any further.

JM: I believe that the book was going to be split up into two parts at one point?

JH: Yeah, because it was so long. It had taken me three years and it was after a year’s illness. The day I handed in the novel before that, which was Crickley Hall, I came home and was ill. Nothing sinister, but you know it knocked me out and took months to get over. I then got struck down again by a tummy complaint that I’ve had for years, because when I write I get so intense, and I put everything into it. And you know; where Steve (King) is so good, that it almost comes straight out of his mind. I’m a natural writer, but I have to work at it, every sentence, every paragraph, I want it to be as good as it can get. In other words I’m after perfection even though I know there’s no such thing as perfection.

I was dreading it because the book was very thick and the book was the biggest thing I’ve ever done. And I always edit myself to begin with. But this is the promise I make to my readers, every book is straight from me, nobody has interfered with it, not in a big way. I’m very proud of what I do, no ego – just knowing I’m doing the correct thing. You realise you’re learning all the time, like any painter or any musician.

JM: It’s a bit of a busy time for you then, what with The Secret of Crickley Hall coming to the small screen.

JH: They’re playing it over three nights over Halloween, an hour each episode. I’ve not seen the finished product yet but I did go up to see some of the filming. I went up for half a day and met the director and it’s all fine. Now I didn’t think it was filmable, but he’s found a way to make it filmable and I came away, let them get on with it. I read his first script for episode one and thought it was brilliant. Then I read the script for the second and that was when things began to change and I decided I wasn’t going to read any more, it was up to the director, it now has to be his vision. Always disappointing for a writer, but it happens every time. Steve King couldn’t give a toss, well he gets upset, but he said ‘Jim, they pay you the money, you take the money and if it’s great you get the credit and if it’s rotten, then it’s the filmmakers.’

JM: What is your legacy, or what would you like it to be? Would you ever set up a James Herbert scholarship to help new authors?

JH: My legacy is secure, and no, every new author is on their own. I didn’t have any help, I didn’t know anyone in publishing, I did it all on my own.

JM: What’s next for you?

JH: I have a lovely idea for the next book, while I was on holiday I laid down the foundations, writing in the shade for an hour a day, making up all of the character names etc. A new, original idea, but I won’t tell you the title. I never tell anyone the title!

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