THE OTHER SIDE
HERBERT’S HORRORS REVEALED
I’m standing in an upstairs foyer in James Herbert’s home waiting for the man himself to appear. The door behind me clicks open and there he is, beaming widely. It’s hard not to like Jim, as he likes to be called. His good humour is infectious, and his love of writing is unmistakable. As we go through to his large study, which also doubles as a business meeting room, I note the familiar cover paintings to some of his earlier novels hanging on the walls, and also a bookcase containing two shelves of black ring binders, each neatly labelled with the titles of his books, every one of them a best-seller. These contain the original manuscripts for the novels, still hand-written by Jim before being typed by his wife Eileen. Soon these binders will be joined by another, this time bearing the title of his latest novel Others.
Jim leans forward, a conspiratorial glint in his eye. “You know, I didn’t enjoy writing Others, and maybe it’s all the better for it. It’s so dark and because of the subject matter it was so unappealing. I rarely drink during the week, especially when I’m working, but I had to go and pour myself a couple of stiff vodkas while working on the book because it was really getting to me.”
Others is the story of a group of severely deformed children who are being kept out of public sight in a private institution, and the book follows the investigations of the physically deformed private eye Nick Dismas as he is led towards an epiphany of his own, apparently through supernatural means. Jim is dead serious when he discusses the background to this latest work. “These children are based on real case histories – I could show you pictures but they’d turn your stomach – but I did let my imagination run wild at the end. There is a serious aspect to all this that I wanted to bring out into the open. What happens to kids who are born really malformed. Where are they?
Maybe the scepticism on my face is showing: “I’m being totally serious. I have no proof, no firm evidence of the existence of these institutions, but I know they’re out there. The basis for Others came about ages ago when an elderly lady told me that thirty years previously, she had been working overnight in a children’s hospital. She worked there during the daytime and she also had a night job with them. It was her first night in the hospital and she decided to explore a little. She found herself on the top floor, outside a ward that had a sign saying ‘Keep Out – Positively No Admittance’ on the door. This lady, being the curious type, pushed open the door and saw all these cots lining the room, and all these beds had deformed children in. Babies with heads so large they couldn’t even lift them off the pillows. Kids with no arms that were totally malformed. She was shocked. Very shocked. But she was also a nurse and she loved kids, so she went back the following night with some sweets and treats and she kept going back and eventually when she walked in, these poor little abandoned babies were reaching and calling out to her.
“These were children either who had been abandoned at birth or who had been taken away from their mothers because they had been rejected by them. In some cases they were so deformed and grotesque that the doctors didn’t even show the mother, they just took them away and left them to die. Now the point is that they don’t all die. I’ve got evidence that even 100 years ago, these disfigured people could survive into their middle ages – the travelling freak shows are just one example of that. Now today, with all our medical technology, we’re bound to be able to save these kids. So where are they? Why don’t we see them? Where are they locked away?”
Jim shakes his head sadly. “Think of what else is going on,” he whispers. “Think of the science of genetics, there’s such a great interest in that, and these kids would provide a great source to experiment on, to see where the genes have gone wrong. I’m convinced they’re out there somewhere but they’re being kept under cover, under wraps, and I don’t think that’s right. They should be treated as people, with respect.”
Jim sighs and it is apparent that the background and writing of Others is still very much on his mind. ‘I upset myself writing it because I was getting into the minds of these people. As a writer you live the lives of your characters. You are the characters. Now I’ve got stooped shoulders anyway, but while I was writing Dismas, I was hunching over my pad of paper more and more as I really empathised with his character. I realised that the reader has to relate to a hero who is a crippled, one eyed hunchback so how do you do it? I thought the best way was to go from the first person. So you’re inside the mind of the guy and you’re looking out – you’re not looking at – you feel his emotions, what it is actually like to be treated as an outcast, as an Other.”
Jim’s great strength is a very clear and believable view of events, allowing his characters and settings to come alive for the readers. His forthright style was one of the things that set his first novel, The Rats, apart back in 1974, and this came about simply because Jim had no expectations that his novel was going to be published.
“There was nothing holding me back,” he explained, “and I wasn’t self-conscious about what I was writing. Obviously I’ve got a very vivid imagination so what was in my mind went down on the page. It was simply a natural way for me to write.”
The Rats was followed by The Fog, a novel of murder and mayhem as a deadly cloud of gas causes people to go insane with horrific results. These early novels gained Jim the reputation as a writer of brutal horror, and the publishers created a whole new genre of books flagged as ‘nasty’.
“That label really bugs me. It came from the publishers who wanted to find some way of marketing The Rats. After they had read it, they invented this new category and then promoted the book as that. As soon as I found out I made them stop, but unfortunately it’s a label that has stuck over the years. Yes, there have been some very nasty elements in my stories, there are to this day, but they’re never quite as bad as people imagine.
“I never consciously place my books in any genre,” he explains. “They’re just what I do. I just write them. I think the public knows that they’ll get something a little different from me each time.”
Jim does, however, admit that every one of his books has contained some commentary on real life. “I’ve always dropped little messages into my books. Ever since I started, really. I guess they’re just more overt now. Particularly with books like Portent, which featured a not-so-subtle warning of global ecological disaster if we don’t start treating our planet with respect. I think I’ve picked up a reputation for mayhem and chaos from some of my earlier books, so imagine the whole world going at once. It’s quite amazing. The thing that gets me to this day about the environment, it’s become a very boring subject. We’re all fed up with being preached at, it’s like a diatribe, and yet we’ve all really got to do something about it. I’m not heavily into ecology or anything like that, but what I do is plant trees - I’ve planted about fifty in my garden. So I’m not a great fanatic about it but it’s something we should all be concerned with. So I thought if I could do something in my small way as a popular writer, maybe people will pay some attention to what’s going on around them. Not to preach, but to make them think about it.
“What surprised me was that rather than picking up on the whole global destruction issue, some reviewers and pundits chose instead to label me as being a racist, and to describe the book as being racist.
“In Portent, I was writing about a voodoo sect based in New Orleans and a mugger in London and the psychic connection between the two. Voodoo sects tend to be comprised of black people, and the police claim that 85 per cent of muggers in London are blacks – officially that is. Friends in the Police tell me that it’s actually closer to 95 per cent, but that they’d be accused of all sorts if they released the correct figure. So for me to therefore make the villains of ethnic origin was totally in keeping with the themes I was working with. One chap even claimed that I had said I wasn’t racist because I employed a black maid … I’ve never employed a maid in my life! I don’t know where he got that from, but some journalists will make up stuff just to get a better story out of it – they should be novelists if they want to deal in fiction!
“I hate all this political correctness anyway. ‘Hate’ is too mild a term, actually. I detest it. You’ll probably notice in Others that I’m very much against this aspect of our society. I think it’s so patronising. If someone’s disabled, then they’re disabled, there’s no way of twisting the words to say they’re anything other than they are. And I think it’s disrespectful to try and say it in softer terms. These folk just face up to the hand that life has dealt them, and get on with their lives. I wanted to get that message across, that they’re people. It’s no big deal, they’re just people. And people can be good or evil: that’s the overall theme. Good versus evil. Always has been.”
Of all Jim’s novels, Others is perhaps the one which will incite the strongest backlash from moral campaigners and Jim has resigned himself to this. “There’s not been anything as yet, but there will be. Most of the people who have interviewed me about Others bring up Glen Hoddle and his recent highly publicised comments about re-incarnation. What ever happened to free speech in this country?
“Now I don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation - I believe in redemption because I’m a Catholic. In Others Dismas is a special case. He got what the Catholics call a plenary indulgence where all your sins are swept away if you perform certain acts. So I’m not saying that everyone is reincarnated, and that if they’ve been bad in a previous life, they come back as a cripple, or disabled. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that in this individual and special case, it happens to be so, and Dismas returns as a disabled person, not as a punishment, but because as a result there is this special connection with the Others.
“I’ve been researching the paranormal and the supernatural for over 20 years. I’ve really gone into it, and what I’ve discovered, and what I know so, so well is that nobody knows anything. No matter what they say, nobody knows. Not on this Earth. So all you can do is speculate. Which is what I’ve done in every book I’ve written.”
Being able to speculate is what has kept Jim at the top of his profession for over twenty five years. Others is his nineteenth novel, and yet he claims with a smile that writing has not become any easier.
“I get writer’s block every morning. I get it after lunch … It goes with the territory. I just keep on doing what I’m doing. Each book a little bit different and hopefully better. Making the book jackets look good and making sure the readers get a good product. I’ve never had any aims about the direction I’m heading in. I just do it as I go along.”
Jim picks up a hardback copy of Others that is resting on his desk – it’s the first copy off the presses – and flicks through it.
“I know I can be better and every book I’ve done I’ve been disappointed with in some respects. But that’s me. I say in this book that there’s no such thing as perfection, but you can try and get it as right as possible. I guess that’s what I’m aiming for, to try and get one book just totally right. And that’s good for me, it keeps me going.
“As for the future, as I was starting work on Others, I had a kind of creative brainstorm. In the space of two weeks all these ideas just kept springing into my head and I’ve now got work for the next ten years! I’d like to start tomorrow on all of them, but I’ve chosen one that’s going to let me have some fun. As I say, Others was hard work for me, but the next one … I think it’s going to be quite erotic, and lots of fun. I’m really looking forward to working on it. Can’t wait.”
The first of James Herbert’s books to be adapted as films were The Survivor in 1980 with Robert Powell and Jenny Agutter and The Rats in 1982/3 (called Deadly Eyes in America), starring Sam Groom and Scatman Crothers and directed by Robert Clouse. “I had nothing to do with those two films,” states Jim. “I heard after the event that The Rats had been sold to Golden Harvest who did all those Bruce Lee Kung-Fu films. I sent a note to David Hemmings when I heard he was directing The Survivor to offer my assistance if he wanted it – I didn’t get a reply. I’ve seen them. They’re terrible … absolute rubbish. I can only say don’t blame me.”
Following this was a film of Fluke in 1995 and also a higher profile film of Haunted in the same year. The latter actually started life as a BBC television production. “Typical BBC,” sighs Jim. “Everyone said they loved it, even the typists, and then Jonathan Powell, who had been in charge of drama, was promoted. A new guy, Mark Shivas, came in and apparently he didn’t like ghost stories and so nothing further happened. Nothing. Not a telephone call or a letter and in the end my agent had to phone them up and ask if they were going to do it or not. And they said not. This actually did me a great favour because I then sold it to Lewis Gilbert. Lewis is a lovely man – in fact that was part of the problem. He’s so nice it’s very hard to argue with him. I actually stood in my office here, and said, ‘Lewis, I’m telling you from my heart, what you’re doing is wrong. I’m telling you. Twenty years experience writing horror … what you’re doing is wrong.’ His response: ‘Oh darling, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is not set in concrete, we can change it.’ Of course they didn’t change it because they were doing exactly what he wanted to do.
“Despite my reservations it turned out to be a good quality film – it just wasn’t my story any more. It starred Aiden Quinn, Kate Beckinsale and Anna Massey with Anthony Andrews and Sir John Gielgud – a great cast. It was at the premiere that I got to meet Princess Diana. I remember she said to me, ‘So you’re responsible for all this, are you?’ and I said, ‘Well yes. I hope you don’t mind some horror.’ ‘I’m used to it…’ she replied …
“The film of Fluke on the other hand I’m quite pleased with. Years ago, an Italian film student called Carlo Carlei came to see me in London and said that he wanted to be a director and that my book Fluke had changed his life, and that it was the film he wanted to make. He explained that it might take a long time as he’d have to do others before until he had the budget. So he paid me year after year after year for the rights to the novel and finally he made a film in Italy that Hollywood liked and so they gave him the money to do Fluke. The script was OK and it turned out to be a great little film. That starred Eric Stoltz just before he did Pulp Fiction.”
Other film options have been taken out on Jim’s books, but none have yet to see fruition. There was interest in Shrine from a film producer but this ran into financial problems, there was interest in The Magic Cottage from America but this currently in limbo, The Fog was optioned in the early eighties, but that has now expired, John Hough was interested in The Dark but this too fell apart. Creed also had many admirers, amongst them British comedian Lenny Henry. “Lenny rang me up out of the blue and arranged to do a big sales pitch to me to get the rights to do the movie. Now Lenny is very funny but he’s also very, very intelligent and he’s extremely nice, you just couldn’t wish to meet a nicer guy. I’d made up my mind within five minutes that I was going to let him have it, because I liked the idea of Lenny playing Joe Creed. It was a twist to it, it was unexpected.”
As of writing, however, the film has not yet materialised. “I’d love to have a decent film,” Jim muses. “That would be one ambition, to have a really good movie made of one of my books.”