Folks often say you should never meet your heroes. Maybe that’s true, but not in my experience. In fact, the brief time I spent in the presence of one of my writing heroes had almost as profound effect on me as his books did in my formative years.
I’m talking about James Herbert.
Many, many years ago, when I was a grumpy teen with no idea what I wanted to do after school (other than very little), I spent a summer reading horror novels. One title in particular struck a real chord. Domain is the third book in Herbert’s Rats trilogy. It’s set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, and it redefined how I thought about horror. It’s no exaggeration to say it was Domain which set me on the path to writing horror fiction myself. I’d never before encountered such a nightmarish world, perfectly realised. From the first page to the very last, the novel is relentless in its brutality and is filled with more gore than I thought possible. (I read it again recently, and though somewhat dated in places, it still packs a hell of a punch).
Fast-forward some twenty-odd years, and I found myself sitting in front of an audience of several hundred people, interviewing Herbert about his work and his approach to writing. It was a real education. The moment we started talking, all the nerves disappeared and it felt like there was just the two of us in the room. It was an honour and a privilege to have the opportunity to quiz my horror hero at length. In fact, with trembling, outstretched hands, I presented my original yellow-paged paperback copy of Domain to him for signing and told him what an impact it had had. His response was characteristically cool and dismissive: “Yep. Good book, that one,” he said.
As I’m sure you know, Jim passed away last year. Following his death, I binge-read a number of his novels which I hadn’t read before. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed them all, but I couldn’t help but admire his unique approach to the genre; the blood-soaked relish and the real immediacy with which he wrote.
Towards the end of 2013 I started work on a new novel, and I knew it would be very different from my earlier books. Whilst in no way intended as a tribute or pastiche, Strangers is very definitely ‘Herbertesque’ in its execution. It’s a straight-up horror story: bloody and gruesome, and filled with the kind of characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Herbert novel. I’ve described the book as a “dark and dirty horror novel”, and I think that’s pretty apt. It’s as close to a vampire story as I think I’ll ever get (though it’s definitely not about vampires), and I like to think it’ll appeal to people like me who love a bit of rough, gore-splattered horror.
Literally a couple of weeks before he died, Jim sent me a letter. I’d left him with a few of my books, and in his note he promised that he would get round to reading them. But first, he explained, he had his own work to do. He said he was “starting the new book tomorrow.” Of course, we’ll never now read another new James Herbert novel, and that’s a real shame. More than anything, I wish I could have sent him a copy of Strangers… I think he would have given me hell and told me all the things I should have done differently but, regardless, I’d have loved to hear what he thought of it! – David Moody
FORTY-EIGHT MILES NORTH OF THUSSOCK
‘You all right?’
He just looked at her, struggled to focus, took his time to reply. ‘Sorry. Tired.’
‘It’s getting awful late. What are you doing out here at this hour?’
‘Not sure. Lost, I think.’
‘I’ll say. Where you heading?’
‘Can’t remember,’ he said, embarrassed, and he laughed like a child.
They blocked each other’s way along the narrow pavement. The silence was awkward. Joan’s dog Oscar tugged at his lead, keen to get home and out of the rain. She tugged back. He’d have to wait.
‘I’m cold,’ the man said, wrapping his arms around himself.
‘I’m hardly surprised. Just look at you. You’re not really dressed for it, are you?’ Joan continued to stare at him. What was he… mid-thirties, perhaps? He looked about half her age. His nipples showed through his wet T-shirt and she couldn’t help but stare. He was shivering, but that was only to be expected. She was cold herself, and she’d a vest, a blouse and a cardigan under her anorak. In the dull glow from the streetlamp between them, she thought he looked beautiful. ‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ she asked.
‘You can tell?’
‘It’s the accent,’ she giggled. What the hell are you doing, Joanie? She felt foolish… silly, even, like she was back in school, flirting. There was just something about him… she knew she should get home, but she didn’t want to go anywhere. Oscar whined and pulled at his lead again and she cursed him. ‘I should really be getting back,’ she said.
The man nodded, chewed his lip. ‘Okay.’
‘What about you?’
‘Don’t know,’ he answered. ‘Not sure.’
For a second she thought she detected an unexpected vulnerability in his face and she liked it. It made her pulse quicken, reminding her of times long-gone, times all but forgotten. Memories of youth clubs and dance halls… tongue-tied boys, all cocksure and confident with their mates, suddenly stammering with nerves when it came to asking her out. She remembered the makeup, the skirts, the dancing and the alcohol… knowing they were watching her, wanting her, knowing she had the power to make or break them with a single word, with just a look.
Stop. You’re sixty-eight. You’re a grandmother. Get a hold of yourself.
Normally she’d be wary of men like this, intimidated even. But not him. Not tonight. He was no threat, he was just… lovely.
‘You’re very pale. Are you sure you’re okay? They said it’s going to rain tonight, and you’ll not want to be caught out here in just your shirt.’ He didn’t react, just stared. Oscar pulled again and this time she yanked his lead hard, making him yelp. ‘Is there anyone I can call for you? Maybe get someone to come and pick you up?’
Joan half-turned away, then stopped. You really shouldn’t be doing this, Joanie. She looked at him again. ‘You’re very handsome.’
He didn’t say anything. Didn’t react at all, just waited under the streetlamp, watching her watching him. She moved closer, then stopped again. She looped the dog’s lead around the bottom of the lamppost then smoothed the creases from her skirt and moved closer still, tucking rogue strands of grey hair behind her ear. What the hell was she thinking? She didn’t know anything about this stranger, hadn’t ever seen him before. Her head was telling her to do the right thing, to just keep walking and get home. Douglas had said he didn’t like her taking the dog out late at night like this, but he’d left her with no choice because the lazy old sod hadn’t been prepared to get off his own backside and do it himself, had he? He didn’t care anymore, not like he used to. To be honest, neither did she. They were bored of each other and had been for a long time. She pictured him now, back at home in front of the TV. He probably hadn’t even noticed she’d gone out.
She decided she’d rather stay here than go home. There was something the way this man looked at her, the way his tall, muscular body made her feel inside, and those eyes… full of life, full of promise. She felt a warm glow inside become a burning need; a re-awakening of forgotten feelings she hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.
Stop this, Joanie. Get a grip. You’re missing Downton.
‘I should really be going,’ she said.
His unexpected protest surprised her. Delighted her. He took a single step nearer and they came together under the streetlamp glow, almost touching. He unzipped her fawn-coloured anorak then slipped his trembling hands inside and ran them all over her flabby body. And she reciprocated; holding him, stroking him… kissing him with lips that hadn’t kissed like this in an eternity. He fumbled with his jeans while she struggled with her knickers. He gently lowered her down onto the wet pavement then ripped the gusset of her tights open as Oscar barked in protest and strained at his leash.
And who he was didn’t matter. And who she was didn’t matter. And the temperature and the time and the weather and the openness of where they were and what they were doing… none of it mattered. Because at that exact moment, there was only them.
In the morning they found the dog, still tied up, barking then whimpering. And close to Oscar, under the streetlamp, head in the hedgerow, legs sprawled across the blood-soaked pavement, mutilated, violated… they found his body.
Strangers is published on 1st December 2014 by Infected Books.