James Herbert Interview
The horror maestro discusses conspiracy theories, breaking royal protocol and his new book, Ash
As his latest novel Ash hits bookshops (read our review here), it’s safe to say that few British writers match James Herbert for sheer name recognition. It’s a fame that began with the publication of The Rats in 1974. Unusually graphic for the time in all its rodent-powered violence, it was one of the key books in the 1970s horror boom. To date, Herbert’s novels have sold more than 42 million copies worldwide. Recently, Herbert took time to speak with SFX about both Ash and the forthcoming BBC adaptation of his 2006 haunted house novel, The Secret Of Crickley Hall.
SFX: There’s a strong what-if? element to Ash and a royal theme.
James Herbert: “With every book I speculate, but with this book I speculate more than ever. I got the idea from the Queen herself. She actually said to Paul Burrell, Diana’s trusted valet, ‘There are dark forces at work in this country about which we know little’ – brackets allegedly, because this is Paul Burrell’s word. That really sent me on a whole goldmine of thinking: ‘dark forces’, what did she mean? I didn’t think she meant anything supernatural, but I thought she meant a consortium, an organisation that is quietly working in the background and influencing life as we know it.
“Then a lot of questions came to me that I found very interesting. I both speculate on these, and ask the reader to judge which is fact and which is fiction – the book contains facts that are exaggerated slightly and things that are completely specious on my part. I’ll give you a couple of examples: we go back in history although it’s a modern-day book, but what became of Jack the Ripper and who was Jack the Ripper by the way? What happened to Prince Johnny whose suspected autism embarrassed the royal family at the heights of British imperial power in the early 20th century?”
It’s probably just as well you got your OBE in 2010…
“Ha, ha, ha. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. When I went up to get the OBE, it was Charles who actually pinned the medal onto me. The Queen was upstairs, washing her hair I think. He’s very nice. Funnily enough, I’ve always liked Prince Charles. I think he’s a man with soul. Despite the bad press he gets I think he’s a good man and he’ll make a good king someday. He said to me, ‘Are you working on a new book at the moment?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I forgot all protocol and pointed at him and said, ‘And you’re in it.’ If you’ve ever seen a man blanche, that was Prince Charles. I said to him, ‘But it’s okay, you come out fine, but there are certain things in there that may make you feel uncomfortable.’
“In fact, when I got my OBE, I forgot every protocol because you’re sort of drilled – in a very nice way – in the way you’re supposed to act. You don’t talk to the prince first, he speaks to you, and he’ll ask you a question like, ‘Have you come a long way?’ And you’re supposed to answer the question with, ‘Your Royal Highness’. After that, every other question you say ‘sir’. I didn’t do any of that, none at all. And it wasn’t out of reverse snobbery, it’s just not the way I am. I only call headwaiters sir.”
If you had to give back the Grand Master Of Horror you also received in 2010 or the OBE, which would go?
“I’d give back the Grand Master Of Horror because I know Steve King, who’s an old friend of mine, is the grand master of horror. He knows that I know, y’know? The OBE is something that would have made my mother, had she still been alive, so proud.”
Why did you bring back parapsychologist-investigator David Ash for the new book?
“Because David Ash is such an interesting character. He started off in Haunted where he blamed himself for his older sister’s death. He was a nervous wreck, smoked too much, he drank too much. I had no intention of using him in a sequel, but years later when I wrote The Ghosts Of Sleuth where a whole village was haunted, I realised I still had this character that I really liked and a lot of the readers liked too.
“Then, when I started to do Ash, it very quickly came to me this has to be the third in the trilogy of David Ash stories, so I had my character, I had his background, he was ideal. But the book is different for me. Every so often you do a book that is different from the others, it sort of elevates you as a writer. I don’t want to sound pompous about that, but this is the truth of it.”
Tell us a bit about the new adaptation of haunted house horror Crickley Hall [starring Suranne Jones and Douglas Henshall].
“I’d vowed I’d never work with the BBC again because the movie Haunted [directed by Lewis Gilbert] started off as a serial. The producer loved it, the editors loved it, even the typists loved it – I was told – so it should have been a BBC series. And then a new head of drama came in, Mark Shivas. New brush, new broom, he swept everything away and he didn’t like anything supernatural – as the BBC doesn’t very much. They’re just slowly coming round. After that, I vowed I’d never work for the BBC again.
“But the BBC came to me about Crickley Hall and they were so enthusiastic. It was a young producer, young director and screenwriter called Joe Aherne. I read his first script and it was brilliant because I didn’t see how they could make the series, especially the BBC with their restrictions around budget, but he found the answer brilliantly – you’re going to have to wait until you see it.
[Herbert adds that he had issues with the script for episode two, but these seem to have been greatly mollified by a meeting with Aherne and visiting the set.]
“I did go up for shooting. I was supposed to go up for three days. I stayed half a day on the set and I realised it was so good. I knew I didn’t have to stay any longer.”
Ash is available now. The Secret Of Crickley Hall will be broadcast on BBC1 at Halooween. For Herbert’sofficial website, head to www.james-herbert.co.uk.