R.I.P. James Herbert, Who Warped Me for Life


Sometimes I don’t realize how long I’ve been on this planet until I look back on something I did in childhood and understand it would never, ever happen that way today.

Before the Internet and before people of modest means could even afford a VCR, me and my schoolmates would pass around horror novels. These shocking items terrified our mothers and grandmothers, and now seem so quaint: “Oh noes! Our kids are READING BOOKS! Whatever shall we do about that?” Remember I lived in a fairly isolated country (Ireland) that had only two TV channels, neither of which even aired any shows until late afternoon.

The first horror novel I was lucky enough to borrow was the one pictured above, about killer rats. Of course I loved it – it was full of the gruesome stuff that ten year-old kids want to see, all monstrous mutilations and killings. Had that been all there was, I might have gotten away with it.

But author James Herbert was pretty frank with the sex talk, too. At one point the hero climbs up a telephone pole with his girlfriend and they do it there – at least, that’s how I remember it. And then another character is a nun, who mentions in passing that she prayed to God she’d never have an orgasm.

My error was in asking my mother what the word “orgasm” meant. She took the book from me and hid it, later claiming she had lost it. In any subsequent conversations about it, she defined the book in her mind as being “all about” that nun.

She did till me what the word meant, though. And I never brought home another horror book until a couple years later, when my dad decided I was old enough and would buy them for me.

I read Herbert’s The Fog thinking that it was the basis for the John Carpenter movie. It was not. The plot involved accidentally unleashed chemical weapons that turned people insane, and that nun from the last book had nothing on the scene in which a crazed teacher gets de-boner-fied with a pair of hedge clippers. I was smart enough not to describe that scene to any grown-ups nearby, and I think it’s fair to say that Herbert paved the way in horror fiction for Clive Barker.

He got an Order of the British Empire Award from the Queen, too. Somehow I think she was not an avid reader of his.

But it wasn’t all sex and gross-outs with Herbert; as an adult, I read his Fluke, about a dog who remembers a prior incarnation as a man, and found it brilliant – it really read like he had entered the head of a puppy and described the experience to a tee. There was a movie made, but I doubt it captured any of that spirit.

Today, I read that James Herbert died, at the perhaps-appropriate age of (huh-huh) 69. I feel like a tiny piece of my childhood goes with him. Along with Prince, who helpfully included R-rated lyric sheets in most albums, he is the entertainer most responsible for my unauthorized sex-ed.

Thank you, James, for warping my fragile little mind. I needed that.