R.I.P. James Herbert, author of The Rats

Horror writer James Herbert tapped into our greatest fears with The Rats, the massive bestseller about a London overrun by horrifying creatures.Sadly, the man whom Stephen King called the Godfather of Punk died today of undisclosed causes.

The Rats spawned three sequels about mutant rats overrunning the human race. Plus a movie, that's right here:

And Herbert went on to write a number of other classics, including the alternate history '48 and the supernatural thriller The Secret of Crickley Hall, which was made into a BBC miniseries directed and written by Doctor Who's Joe Ahearne and starring Suranne Jones.

But even after he joined the establishment and was named a Grand Master of Horror, Herbert never stopped being a rebel. In an interview last October, he recounted what happened when he received the coveted O.B.E. from Prince Charles:

“He said to me: ‘Are you working on a new book?” I pointed at him and said, ‘Yep, and you’re in it!’ If you have ever seen anyone blanch, that’s what Charles did. He went red and then white. I told him, ‘It’s okay, you come out of it fairly well.’ And that was it; conversation over.”

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Herbert's power to shock and dismay people comes from the introduction to this profile of him from 1999:

In the front hall of his West Sussex home, in the shadow of the Devil's Dyke, James Herbert has two chairs that once belonged to this century's most notorious satanist, Aleister Crowley. He likes playfully to challenge guests to perch in them to see if they get any unpleasant vibes. Further down the corridor to his office, Herbert points out a framed photograph of a sinister-looking, fleshy-faced man with Fifties-style slicked back hair and a wicked leer. It is Dennis Wheatley, in his day the most celebrated writer of horror stories in the world, and a man with an insatiable and unpleasant interest in the occult.

Such trappings fit neatly with 56-year-old Herbert's own reputation as British publishing's current prince of darkness, our answer to Stephen King and the bestselling author of a string of 18 horror novels. But the proximity of Crowley, Wheatley and the Devil had managed to make me decidedly uneasy about Herbert himself. I was beginning to regret not leaving his address with a close friend who could phone the police if I unaccountably went missing.

My jitters had first surfaced as I read his new novel Others (Macmillan, pounds 16.99). It was so disturbing that I had to sit in my small son's bedroom, with his Tigger under my elbow and his Noddy cushion propping up my head, as if to shield myself with innocent goodness as I ploughed through a hell of abused bodies and a one-eyed limbless creature with a giant penis who copulates with the eye sockets of people he has dismembered. I couldn't help but feel soiled.

Herbert's final novel, Ash, was just published last week. [CBC]