I was so saddened to hear of the death of James Herbert on the 20th of March. Why? I never knew him. I never even met him. The closest I came to contact with him was an autographed leaflet advertising his new book, obtained by my mother, thirty years ago, who worked with his cousin.
The sadness arises from the passing of another link with my childhood. Perhaps its a turning forty thing. When I drank alcohol I could wallow in my beer. Now I cry into my coffee. Kicking off my slippers in frustration.
What on earth could the link be between childhood and books of gratuitous horror and sex? Perhaps the answer is found within the question. But I began reading Herbert’s books when in my last year of primary school, aged around 11-12. Maybe not ideal fodder for a young mind-others were taking in Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. The author of the Bobby Brewster range even paid us a visit. But I was reading above my age, and my interest was horror. Bloodthirsty kid that I was.
‘To Andrew, glad you like the books so much. Best Wishes James Herbert.’ I’ve still got it. There was no postscript suggesting I seek a counsellor. Or take part in a NSPCC therapy session. Or a recommendation that my folks attend a parenting class. If they had them then.
We were on a coach one day travelling back to school from a trip to Jodrell Bank, our necks still stiff from gazing heavenwards in the darkness of the Planetarium, when I heard my teacher, talking to some girls a few rows behind, mention my name. She saw me turn and explained “I just said ‘even I don’t read the books that Andrew Murray reads!'”
It didn’t bode well for parents evening.
My Mum returned, and among the usual platitudes said “She was a bit concerned about the types of books you read.”
“Why?” I feigned innocence.
She suddenly developed a stammer that had never been evident before: “She wants to know what you do abb..bout the er.er.. when you get to..to the ..erm. ”
“The sex bits!” my Dad interjected helpfully.
Innocent schoolboy lover of just the horror parts,of course, I answered ” I skip those.” My mum latched onto that in an instant, “That’s what I said.”
“You can’t bleedin’ skip them,” my Dad added with more authority than I thought usual.
But James Herbert’s books are what my early diet consisted of. Midway through my last year at that primary school a new girl started who also read James Herbert. A girl too! How cool was she?
Anyway, I got older, I moved on (in schools and books.) From Herbert I moved to King, and then out into the wider world of literature. James Herbert’s books moved on too-from the more traditional horror fayre to a more supernatural style, which I wasn’t as enthusiastic about. But I think back to those early ones-The Rats, The Fog, The Dark, The Survivor, books I loved in a period of my life that I loved. I would lend them to my uncle who took them with him when he worked the night-shift (he is no longer with us.) I lent them to my mum (she has moved onto Catherine Cookson.)
So, for the part he played in my childhood, and into my early teens, I felt that sense of loss when hearing of his death. A sense of losing something from my past. I have experienced that unexpected reaction before.
Bill Bixby. I can recall the Saturday teatimes spent sat eating my ravioli, wearing my Six Million Dollar Man t shirt (please-someone give me some good news about Lee Majors) and watching the Incredible Hulk. I loved that programme, and was gutted when he died.
Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
Peter Cushing-from the Hammer Horror films. Told you I was a blood thirsty kid.
George Harrison-I was a Beatles fan from being twelve, three years after Lennon died. I recall how I discovered about Harrison’s demise. It was my day off from work (I was a postman) and my partner at the time and I went into the local Global video store to get a couple of films. As she took them to the counter, I continued to browse, and one of my colleagues came in with the post for the store. He too was a Beatles fan. He greeted me, then “Hey-what about George?” With some trepidation, I replied “What about him?”
“He’s died.” I shouted across the store “Put those videos back-George Harrison has died!” It was a day of watching MTV instead.
Aww and recently Elizabeth Sladen-my Sarah Jane Smith. (The wife rolls her eyes.)
Each time one of these figures die, along with what to me they represent, it is like a fragment falls away. Another signpost removed.
Perhaps it is a morose, turning-forty-thing. The lot of the moribund.
Perhaps I am being overly sentimental.
But I have heard among the many tributes countless similar tales, of how Herbert’s books was a visual soundtrack to the teenage years of so many. Of course, many remained fans throughout without falling away.
It is a little disingenuous of me to refer to him merely as a stepping stone to Stephen King. I think I may revisit some of those early books from an adult perspective, albeit awash with nostalgia. I think back to my old primary school teacher. I like to think that curiosity got the better of her and she dipped her toe in and became a fan. Perhaps he was a stepping stone for her too.
Perhaps somewhere out there she is turning off her lamp, with the ubiquitous Mr Grey on her bedside table.