February 20, 2014
40th anniversary – spring 2014
The nation’s bookshops have been infested with literary rodents for four decades. The Rats was a horrible hit for James Herbert (read our tribute to the master of modern British horror here) in 1974 and beyond. The book has remained in print and publisher Pan Macmillian will issue a 40th anniversary edition in the spring.
When Herbert’s story about giant, murderous rodents with razor-sharp teeth first appeared, its detractors included a young Martin Amis, who reviewed it for The Observer. Admittedly, The Rats is a fundamentally silly and under-developed novel, but when you read it today its anger at complacent authority feels genuine. Herbert was an East End boy made good (he became the art director of an advertising agency), so he knew the appalling post-war conditions that had never really been addressed: poor housing, dystopian tower blocks, casual violence – and vermin.
Herbert’s horror was a gory rejection of the ghost story and the snobbish novels of satanic terror by Dennis Wheatley, as well as being admirably unsentimental: his rodents nibbled at everyone regardless of class, gender, age or colour. (Stephen King also shook up the genre with his debut, Carrie, in 1974). The popularity of The Rats dovetailed with the rise of punk and they both provided a small shock to the establishment. There’s a strong sense of discontent, industrial unrest and government incompetence in Herbert’s depiction of the Seventies. He went on to write better books (Fluke, The Magic Cottage, Sepulchre), but The Rats still packs a punch. Once you’ve read the horrific scene in the Underground, you won’t be able to descend into London Bridge again without looking out for a dirty rat.
November 3, 2013
Given the trend for profitable literary sequels – the oddest of which has to be a follow-up to The Woman in Black that isn’t written by Susan Hill – the watchful reader approaches Doctor Sleep with caution. At least Stephen King’s penned his own sequel to The Shining, his 1977 novel about a booze-soaked family nightmare among the ghostly guests in the Overlook Hotel that is perhaps his most terrifying and affecting book.
Still smarting from the movie version 33 years on, King reclaims the characters for his sequel. Quite right, too, because Stanley Kubrick’s butchery (in every sense) of Dick Hallorann, a key character in the book, was unforgivable. So it was heartening to encounter the Overlook chef, who shared the young Danny Torrance’s psychic abilities, in the first few pages of Doctor Sleep. The familiar King tropes are also present and correct: an astute portrayal of small town America, an old-fashioned notion of good and evil, and the terrors of childhood playing out in grown-ups. For Torrance, that fear is accentuated by the gift of the Shining – he sees ghosts, as well as flies on the faces of those stalked by death – and it’s led him into alcoholism just like his father.
King draws on his own experience of Alcoholics Anonymous and he’s good on the psychological baggage sons inherit from fathers. Most of all, he’s a master of terror – both subtle chills and all-consuming horror – as he pits Dan and a psychic schoolgirl protégé against a community of peripatetic vampires who feed off the essence of dying children touched by the Shining. There are pleasing allusions to another King classic and even his son Joe Hill’s latest novel, NOS4R2; plenty of revelations for fans of the original; and there’s a cat that may have a touch of the Shining too. Every good horror novel needs a cat. And Doctor Sleep is a very good horror novel indeed – perhaps King’s finest work in the genre since Misery.
October 17, 2013
Penguin Classics paperback out now – £8.99
We’ve had a lot of big titles out this month including Stephen King, William Boyd’s Bond and the new Bridget Jones. But Steven Patrick Morrissey is shaping up to be the biggest of the bunch. Even before it was out, the media was awash with commentators opining on the fact his autobiography was being published as a Penguin Classic alongside Homer, Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde. “I don’t see why not,” said the former Smiths singer, when asked in 2011 if Penguin would meet his demand for the book to be issued as a distinctive black classic.
It’s too early to anoint it as a classic, but dipping into this much-anticipated volume on publication day has been an utter joy: a terse encounter with a lady at the Stretford Jobcentre who wants him to clean canal banks; the 50 pence purchase of a New York Dolls single in Rumbelows; the history teacher who “sniffs out burgeoning transexuality” as the teenage Morrissey dyes his hair and declares his allegiance to Roxy Music (at least until he discovers that Bryan Ferry dines on veal). Media reports have already picked up on his hilarious mocking of Judge John Weeks as “the pride of the pipsqueakery” (the judge described Moz as “devious” during the 1996 Smiths royalties case). Yes, there’s going to be some score settling but the first part is a droll, beautifully written memoir of his Seventies childhood. If his account of The Smiths is as good as his early years, this may surpass Bob Dylan’s Chronicles as the finest musician’s autobiography of recent years.
June 16, 2013
This first book in an edgy new US crime series introduces us to burnt-out punk photographer Cass Neary. Cass is a mess but at least she hasn’t sold out: she’s hooking up with younger men (and sometimes women) in gnarly New York clubs, still listening to Patti Smith and refusing to ditch her ancient Konica for digital. We’re soon rooting for Cass – though we’re also a bit scared of this hard-drinking, tattooed kleptomaniac and her steel-tipped cowboy boots.
Granted a rare journalistic assignment to interview an influential, reclusive photographer, Cass takes a drug-fuelled drive to Maine where she finds a desolate coastal town dotted with posters of missing teenagers. After reaching the photographer’s isolated island (‘what you’d imagine a fairytale would look like if you fell into one’), the interview doesn’t go to plan; now she’s stuck there. So she drinks, hangs out with the more arty locals and picks up on dark hints about an abandoned commune. Cass can’t help stirring up old secrets, though as one character says it’s more that she makes things weird not worse.
This is a story where the crime is revealed, like death-fixated Cass’s creepy photos in the darkroom, slowly and with a sense of dread. Hand also follows Stephen King’s dictum that readers love the intricacies of work by rubbing our noses in the chemical smells and processes of pre-digital photography. Generation Loss is an eerily atmospheric crime novel with an unrepentant bad girl snarling acerbic one-liners between swigs of Jack Daniel’s. Yet Hand’s prose, preoccupied with creative power and its decline, gleams with a luminous beauty even as it’s pulling the reader to an explosive finale. A Sequel, Available Dark, is out on August and Hand’s next book will take Cass on a trip to London – a terrifying but thrilling prospect.
May 25, 2013
Lauren Beukes has sprung herself from the South African science fiction ghetto into more lucrative high-concept thriller territory, following her sardonic cyberpunk debut Moxyland and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Zoo City. The Shining Girls is a serial killer story set not in Cape Town but Chicago, and it’s based firmly in the 20th century. True, Harper Curtis – a limping drifter who guts his victims, usually moments after a burst of folksy charm – can track his targets (his ‘shining girls’) at various points in time via a portal in a creepy, abandoned house. But, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the constrained time travel is a fantastical conceit that you accept within a few pages.
Beukes’s restless narrative certainly jumps across the decades: Harper will be shuffling around Depression-era Chicago then committing a grisly murder in 1943 a few pages later, while in 1993 his pattern of killings is confounding the novel’s protagonist, journalism intern Kirby Mazrachi, the shining girl who got away four years earlier. The writing is economical and affecting and the use of research is almost as formidable as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels: Beukes weaves in toxic period detail – racial inequality during World War II, underground abortion clinics in the Sixties – while her authorial voice has an all-American register even if it was honed 8,500 miles away in Cape Town.
The violence is shocking and graphic and Harper is not a murderer we ever really understand. The real strength of the novel is the voice Beukes gives to Harper’s victims, whose lives are documented with humanity and a keen historical perspective. If Studs Terkel had written Silence of the Lambs it might have turned out something like The Shining Girls.
March 21, 2013
It was just six months ago that I was watching James Herbert talking animatedly with his readers at a bookshop event, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s close at hand and his family enjoying the outing as much as the author, so it’s sad news to hear of his sudden death at home in Sussex at the age of 69. Apart from a curvature of the spine that meant he needed to walk with a stick (he blamed it on decades of writing novels with a pen), he seemed in reasonable health and was relishing the discussion of his latest novel Ash – out in paperback this week – which is as wild and shocking as any of his books from a 40-year career. The audience had to keep shushing Herbert as he excitedly revealed the diabolical plot details involving the royal family (an OBE in 2010 hadn’t made him entirely respectable).
James Herbert – or ‘Jim’ as this working class, East End boy was known – was an unliterary figure; he could hardly be anything else given the subject matter of his gruesome novels. But while the horror genre has faded Herbert’s work endures, in large part because he was a great storyteller rooted in the contemporary who kept you coming back for more with overwhelmingly terrifying visions and truly evil monsters, rather than cheap scares. The grisly scenes from The Rats, The Fog and The Magic Cottage were discussed feverishly by schoolboys; Sepulchre’s outlandish tale of sacrifices to a serpent god was so intoxicating and horrifying, I remember not bothering going to school that day.
From his 1974 debut The Rats, Herbert seemed to have a horrible gift for tapping into our deepest fears with visceral prose, and his advertising background undoubtedly helped him become Britain’s premier horror author. He designed his own book covers and forced his publisher to pulp a print run of one title because he hated the font. Pan Macmillan said his 23 books have been translated into 33 languages and sold 54 million copies; in sales terms, only Stephen King can rival this grand master of horror. Perhaps my favourite Herbert is Fluke: the story of a dog who thinks he’s a man, or a man who thinks he’s a dog. It isn’t horror but it’s as gripping as any of his chillers – and it’s a book with which Herbert will live on as one of our most popular authors.