photo by Michael Lehenbauer
by Kate Murray
In March 2013, I lost a friend. I’d never met him, but he’d made me laugh and cry, feel fear and shock. As a child, I’d hid under the bed-covers while he introduced me to his world of horror. Rats swarmed over us. London was laid waste by a nuclear explosion. A child destroyed everything she appeared to love. Along the way, I fell in love with Herbert’s paranormal investigator and lived through his experiences, understanding his need for drink and forgiving him each time.
James Herbert was a best-selling writer who introduced the world to a vision of horror unlike anything written before. He did for rats what Jaws did for sharks. Born on 8th of April, 1943 to a stall-holder of London’s Brick Lane Market, Herbert studied at Hornsey College of Art, and went on to join the art department of the John Collins advertising agency. But fiction was his life. Between 1974 and 2012 he wrote twenty-three novels. On the 20th of March 2013 he died at home at the age of sixty-nine.
On reading of his death I printed out a list of everything he had ever written. I looked first at the novels list, and found not only did I own all but two, I had also read every one, in some cases, ten times. What surprised me was the short story list. I had never heard of any.
Herbert published just six short stories: ‘Maurice and Mog’, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Halloween’s Child’, ‘They Don’t Like Us’, ‘Extinct’ and ‘Cora’s Needs’. I dug deeper and, contrary to my own initial memory, I discovered that not only did I know two of the stories particularly well, they had actually influenced aspects of my own writing. ‘Maurice and Mog’ and ‘Breakfast’ were originally published in the book Domain, but were cut in later editions. The former subsequently ended up being published in Dark Masques and in By Horror Haunted; the latter was published in Scare Care and also in By Horror Haunted. I have read these two stories over and over.
The first, ‘Maurice and Mog’ is about a man who builds a nuclear bunker in his back garden, in spite of the ridicule expressed by his neighbours. When the four-minute warning sounds, he rushes inside the bunker and slides the bolts. His neighbours bang on the door, but he ignores them and settles down. That night he wakes from a nightmare to find a cat perched on his chest. The rest of the story concerns the fight, between Maurice and Mog, first in a battle of wills and finally in an exchange of physical blows.
They had faced each other from separate ends of the bed, Maurice cringing on the floor, fingers pressed against his deeply gashed forehead and cheek (he hadn’t yet realised part of his ear was missing), the cat perched on the bedclothes, hunch-backed and snarling, eyes gleaming nasty yellow.
The result of the story is not a pretty one, but it is a modern day fairytale with an old-fashioned moral: do as you would be done by. It is one short story I will re-visit many times, simply because the characters and imagery are so vivid. The whole story is about one man inside a room too small for him even to pace. From the second he shuts the door to the moment he catches that ‘mocking smell of dead cat’, the tension is superbly sustained.
Maurice could have let some of them in to share his refuge, perhaps just one or two, but the pleasure of closing the hatch on their panic-stricken faces was too good to resist.
The second story, ‘Breakfast’, is again set during a nuclear holocaust. It describes the everyday movements of a wife making breakfast for her family, except that she is the only one alive; her family are tied to chairs around her. Traumatised, she ignores the terrible truth of her situation and goes about her daily routine as if everything is fine, all the while suffering from radiation sickness. It is a desolate but compelling story.
The cold water trickled to a halt and the woman clucked her tongue. She twisted the tap off and placed the meagrely-filled kettle on the electric stove. She left it to boil on the stone-cold ring.
James Herbert has sold more than fifty-four million books worldwide and has been translated into thirty-four languages. Many people will list their first horror book as James Herbert’s and many more will have read at least one. In 2010, Herbert received the World Horror Convention Grand Master Award and was also awarded an OBE. Perhaps the best understanding of his work comes from his own words:
“I am very insecure about being a writer… I don’t understand why I am so successful. And the longer I stay that way, the better it’s going to be, because that’s what keeps me on the edge, striving if you like.”