James Herbert, Britain’s Stephen King, dies at 69

William Conran/Associated Press - In this Feb. 3, 2000 file photo, British author James Herbert poses for a photograph in London. James Herbert, whose bestselling spine-tinglers included "The Rats" and "The Fog," died Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at the age of 69.

James Herbert, a best-selling author of horror novels whose books about mutant flesh-eating rats, Nazi-inspired plagues and children seized by malevolent forces made him the British counterpart to Stephen King, died March 20 at his home in Sussex, England. He was 69.

His publisher, Pan Macmillan, announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

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Mr. Herbert published more than 20 novels that explored some very shady avenues, where something creepy was always lurking in the dark. His books, sometimes called “nasties” or “chillers” in the British press, were translated into at least 33 languages and sold more than 54 million copies worldwide.

Ghosts came to life in his books, quaint country cottages possessed deadly powers, plagues were unleashed on innocent victims, and the little voice in the back of people’s heads commanded them to commit unspeakable crimes.

“I started them as bedtime stories to my kids,” Mr. Herbert told the Toronto Star in 1988. “Minus the gory parts, of course.”

Mr. Herbert published his first book, “The Rats,” in 1974 — the same year King published his debut novel, “Carrie.”

“He’s naturally brilliant,” Mr. Herbert said in 2001 of King, who was a friend. “I’ve had to work much harder. I’m Buddy Holly to his Elvis Presley.”

In “The Rats” and two sequels, Mr. Herbert described an apocalyptic London overrun by giant rodents that organized themselves into armies and developed a taste for human flesh.

In his second novel, “The Fog” (1975), Mr. Herbert envisioned a dystopia in which a chemical released into the environment caused people to lose their moral compass and commit horrible crimes. In that book, a 747 jumbo jet deliberately crashed into a tower in London.

“I thought that was horrific and over the top then, and that was 20 years ago,” Mr. Herbert said in 2001. “You can’t beat the horror that’s in life itself.”

He was sometimes upset that his books were not taken more seriously for the literary craft, or at least not as seriously as King’s, whose writing has acquired a certain critical cachet in recent years.

Mr. Herbert harbored special resentment toward the novelist Martin Amis, who almost killed his literary career before it began.

Reviewing “The Rats” under a pseudonym for Britain’s Observer newspaper, Amis noted Mr. Herbert’s graphic depiction of rats devouring a child and said such scenes were “enough to make a rodent retch . . . and enough to make any human pitch the book aside.”

Mr. Herbert defended the grim elements of his fiction by citing the bloodless violence of cartoons and Hollywood movies, “where no one is ever really hurt, and Indians are killed without any suggestion that they may be husbands and fathers.”

But he also offered this advice to the squeamish: “Oh, you shouldn’t actually read the books if they scare you.”

James Herbert was born April 8, 1943, in a working-class section of London. His parents were fruitmongers.

He grew up in a Dickensian neighborhood where Jack the Ripper had supposedly roamed in the 19th century. The alley behind Mr. Herbert’s house helped inspire his first novel.

“At the back of our house were some old stables where the market traders dumped rotting fruit and vegetables,” he told London’s Daily Mail newspaper in 1995. “It was alive with rats.”

After attending art school, Mr. Herbert worked in advertising before devoting himself to writing in his 30s. With his background in art, he helped design the covers and typography for his books and was excellent at promotion.

In 1979, a British judge ruled that Mr. Herbert had to pay damages for basing part of his novel “The Spear” — about a British neo-Nazi group in an international conspiracy — on the work of another writer, Trevor Ravens­croft.

Mr. Herbert earned millions of dollars with his books, four of which — “The Rats,” “The Survivors,” “Fluke” and “Haunted” — were made into feature films. A 2006 book, “The Secret of Crickley Hall,” about child abuse and religious fanaticism, was adapted last year into a three-part series by the BBC.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Eileen O’Donnell, and three daughters.

“I worry about the many things that could happen to the people I love,” Mr. Herbert told the Observer in 1993, describing the ideas behind his fiction. “The books are full of that neurosis, and I guess people tune into that.

“Sometimes, though, it is necessary to point it out: I’m not just in it for the gore.”

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