Stephen McGinty: Stalked by the hand of terror

British author James Herbert has died at the age of 69. Picture: AP
British author James Herbert has died at the age of 69. Picture: AP
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The death of the horror writer – not the vet – James Herbert, is an apt time to question our fascination with being scared witless, as well as revisit some of the classics of the genre.

‘THERE’s James Herbert.”

“The vet?”

“No, the horror author. He wrote The Rats, The Dark and The Fog.”

“The movie with Jamie Lee Curtis and the dead pirates?”

“No, the book with the poisonous gas that turns ordinary people into homicidal maniacs.”

“I have no idea what and of whom you’re talking. And… I don’t care.”

My wife then went back to looking at the menu and I continued staring at the man in the dark shirt dining with friends in a quayside restaurant in sunny St Tropez.

As I had failed to sell 54 million copies of my books, or secure a minimum £1 million advance, we were on a day trip to the billionaire’s playground, while Mr Herbert, I presumed, had strolled from his nearby villa.

When I spotted him a decade ago, I was tempted to pop over and thank him for terrorising me as a child, a courtesy I would not extend to the school bullies, but I never did, deciding instead that he would not wish to be disturbed on his holiday. I made a mistake, apparently James Herbert delighted in meeting fans and, as he could be insecure about the quality of his writing liked nothing more than a warm bath of praise. (Martin Amis’s pseudonymous review of The Rats in The Observer made him cry, and not tears of joy.) I thought about the missed opportunity when news of his death was announced on Wednesday, triggering the following conversation with my wife.

“James Herbert’s dead.”

“The vet?”

“No, the horror author. He wrote The Rats, The Dark and The Fog.

“The movie with Jamie Lee Curtis and the dead pirates?”

“No, the book with the poisonous gas that turns… oh forget it.”

There are those who “got” James Herbert and those who didn’t. For a boy growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s James Herbert meant gore-drenched scenes that made you want to look away from the page, while simultaneously thumbing through the chapters even faster to find out what happens next and gruesomely to whom. He was Britain’s answer to Stephen King, with both men publishing their first horror novels in 1974 and going on to produce roughly a novel a year ever since, though Herbert himself conceded that King, a friend, was the better writer.

Although I’ve stuck with King down through the decades, my love affair with Herbert faded before I left my teenage years but it was rekindled briefly after I enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation of The Secrets of Crickley Hall, his mysterious ghost story. But his death got me thinking about why we like to feel afraid? I think it is about exerting control on a dangerous, frightening world. There are many things that make us fearful: job insecurity, ill-health, losing one’s parents, losing one’s children but none of the things to which our mind turns at 3am are supernatural. At least not now, in our secular landscape, but even a generation or two ago, the fear of hell and the torments of the damned were as genuine to Scots as the sparks leaping from their coal fires.

For centuries, fear of an eternity of pain and torment accompanied the daily lives of nearly the entire population, it was what kept them on a narrow path with any immoral deviation liable to incur a debt which would require eons to pay off. As a young teenager I once peered through that particular window after a disturbing encounter with a priest whose confessional practice could best be described as fire and brimstone.

After one verbal trouncing I emerged in a state of genuine fear. When I next had a meeting with the priest, he was accompanied by two lay women, one a nurse who spoke of how common the practice of devil worship had become. Earlier in the week, in the changing room of a hospital in Glasgow she overheard a fellow nurse talking of going to mass, but by listening closer she learned that it was a black mass to “herald the return of Satan”. People in the room nodded, but instead of heightening my terror, her tale instantly dissipated the foreboding. My intellect had taken a sharp pin to the conjuring of my self-conscious. It was nonsense. To me, it was a fantasy tale told by a needy, insecure person for want of attention. I never went back and the experience taught me to think for myself and that the Church can be dangerous place.

I’ve often wondered if non-Catholics could ever be as scared by The Exorcist as those raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Teenagers today blessed by the ubiquity of films on demand can’t appreciate the disturbing aura of mystery that surrounded certain inaccessible films. I can remember at the age of ten staring at the cover of the video in Dock’s Taxis (for some reason a taxi company had the best video selection in Whitecrook, the controller checked them out between dispatching cabs) with such longing - what happened when the priest bathed in that etherial light entered the house? It would be another five years before I managed to sneak into a late night screening and found out. Walking home I kept thinking: could the devil exist? By that age, however, I was becoming more aware of the evil that men do, with or without the nudging influence of old nick.

If I was to describe one of the most genuinely frightening reading experiences of my life, it would be in 1986, when I was 14 and deep into my relationship with horror, and my best friend Dave passed on a copy of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. The loan coincided with a weekend when I was home alone during the day. The precision of Harris’s prose made the book feel like non-fiction and the idea of the Tooth Fairy creeping into homes at night to butcher families invoked a feeling of genuine dread at the setting of the sun.

Harris’s villains were not giant rats, killer clowns or vampires but ordinary men twisted into monsters by a combination of the brains with which they were born and a disturbed upbringing. It is hard to imagine today when the sins of serial killers have saturated popular culture, but back then they were a genuinely disturbing novelty. We later learned that the reality was not the malevolent genius of Dr Hannibal Lecter in the movie Silence of the Lambs but the evil banality of real-life serial killer Fred West.

The other question is how far should horror be allowed to go and when does it become too horrific to bear? Two of the most disturbing and sickening novels I’ve read were by the American novelist, Jack Ketchum – Off-Season, which is about a group of tourists trapped in the woods of Maine and preyed upon by hill-billy cannibals and The Girl Next Door, which chronicles the fate of an orphaned girl taken in by sadistic relatives, based on a true story with the author toning down what actually happened. I thought of Jack Ketchum when I read Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room, which was inspired by the case of Josef Fritz who kept his daughter in a secret basement for 24 years, raped her hundreds of times and fathered seven children, born and raised in a concrete dungeon.

When the news broke everyone pondered the horrors she had endured, but Donoghue’s book, which made a child the narrator not the daughter, softened the blows and hinted at the horrors incomprehensible to a child who knows no other world. Did the case deserve the Jack Ketchum treatment? Could we have coped? I doubt I could, but then shouldn’t horror sometimes do its job instead of just being entertaining?

I think there is a security in self-induced fear, a delicious frisson that can be enjoyable and addictive. So if you are looking to be scared this weekend, but are short on time, then I’d recommend reading one of three short stories. For old-fashioned ghost train scares it’s hard to see past Ramsay Campbell’s The Companion. For a darker, more violently disturbing read, then pick up Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and specifically the short story, Dread, in which an insane student exploits his friends’ worst fears in a laboratory experiment. Last, and perhaps best is Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. When published on 26 June, 1948, the ten-page story about a macabre ritual designed to produce a good harvest (“lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”) for a small mid-western town resulted in more complaints to The New Yorker than any other published work.

Or alternatively, indulge in a touch of nostalgia for a time when jeans were flared, kids rode choppers and the rattling of the bin triggered a sickly fear that the rodents were on the rise.