The Horror Show: Good faces off against evil in James Herbert’s The Dark

In 1975, British horror writer James Herbert published his second novel, The Fog. Following on the heels of his debut, The Rats, one year earlier, the book solidified Herbert’s reputation as a writer perfectly content to fill his novels to bursting with scenes of gruesome, over-the-top violence and mass death. As Stephen King writes in his survey of the genre, Danse Macabre, “James Herbert comes at us with both hands, not willing to simply engage our attention; he seizes us by the lapels and begins to scream in our faces.”

Writing about Herbert in his compendium, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, Grady Hendrix sums up the plot of The Fog this way:

The man of action … is John Holman, who’s investigating a military chemical weapons site for the Department of the Environment when a fissure opens in the earth, sending a toxic gas spraying from its maw. It forms a cloud and drifts across England like a deadly fart, turning cows psychotic, making schoolboys castrate their gym teachers (Herbert hates gym teachers), causing pigeons to peck people to death, and making a pilot fly a loaded plane into the GPO Tower. In one of the book’s most famous scenes, 148,820 people commit suicide by walking into the sea.

In what could be considered an example of the author mellowing, the football riot in The Dark that spills out into the streets of London with a group of possessed fans killing themselves and others en masse claims a scant 600 lives. For Herbert, this counts as restraint.

The Dark, which recombines and reconfigures numerous elements from The Fog (less sympathetic readers might suggest the author is repeating himself), is a more thoughtful and ambitious book in several ways, while also retaining themes and approaches from the earlier work, including the gleeful depiction of violence. In the place of castrated gym teachers, The Dark gives us an elderly woman force fed a phial of acid, an entire family set alight in their car when they stop for gas while on a road trip, a football hooligan who electrocutes himself and a posse of fans with the cables from the stadium’s floodlights, and, in the novel’s most baroquely grotesque scene, a nurse who kills her elderly charge by strangling him with her hair while fucking him.

All of which is to say, those who prefer their horror in the quieter vein of Michael McDowell’s The Elementals should probably give this book – or pretty much any of Herbert’s horror novels (but most especially the early ones) – a wide berth. Everyone else: strap in.

Herbert, who is Britain’s bestselling horror writer – the U.K.’s version of Stephen King – and who died in 2013, was largely derided by critics who found his work variously repugnant, derivative, and badly written. But while the author was no great prose stylist – no one would mistake him for Martin Amis, who panned The Rats in a particularly savage review for The Observer – but he wrote efficient, robust novels that take up large questions: The Dark addresses, among others, the conflict between faith and science and the nature of evil. Herbert came from a working-class background, and there seems to be a kind of elite snobbery at work in the most resolute dismissals of his writing, which is underpinned by an anger at establishment institutions – governments, banks, corporations – responsible for environmental degradation and the struggles of the working poor.

The Dark tells the story of Chris Bishop, a paranormal investigator who trusts that there is a scientific explanation for most apparently inexplicable events. Bishop (note the name) is still reeling from his investigation of Beechwood, a London property that was the site of a mass suicide one year previously, when he is called upon to assist the noted parapsychologist Jacob Kulek and his daughter, Jessica, in investigating a series of new murders on the same street. The killings happen at night and are connected to a strange darkness that seems to envelop people and feed on their inner impulses toward anger, mayhem, or revenge. After Beechwood is demolished, the darkness is set loose and the entire city of London starts to descend into a state of Boschian anarchy. Bishop, Jacob, and Jessica, along with a detective named Peck and a medium named Edith Metlock, must race against time to discover the source of the madness while also evading the ravenous hordes of murderous Londoners intent on killing them.

Of course the bare bones of the plot sound absurd, and Herbert does give into certain hoary clichés in his approach. Jacob, who suffers from chronic glaucoma that has destroyed his optic nerve, is one in a long line of literary blind seers going back at least as far as Tiresias. And, it being the 1980s, the novel does contain a good deal of noxious sexism (larger women are described with adjectives such as “gross” and Jessica is repeatedly referred to as “the girl”). Both Jessica and Edith Metlock are given agency, however, and unlike some other Herbert novels, there is not a gratuitous sex scene between the two main male and female protagonists. (Granted, Herbert can’t resist one paragraph attesting to their mutual attraction or an epilogue that finds them married, but this is still an improvement over other books in his canon.)

Bishop is less of an unreconstructed he-man than the macho heroes of The Rats and The Fog, instead appearing as a grieving father who has lost his child to death and his wife to mental illness (she is incarcerated in a facility before the novel opens). He spends most of the novel questioning his own preconceptions about the supernatural, wondering whether his firm belief that spectral occurrences can always be explained by electrical impulses or other physical phenomena may actually be flawed. Bishop is a hero almost by default, because circumstances make him one, rather than a macho alpha male, most of whom, if they appear at all in the book, are cast as victims of the Dark’s evil intentions.

In other places, Herbert seems well ahead of his time. One victim of the Dark, an aggrieved twenty-eight-year-old man angry at his parents and the women he believes have spurned him, is the profile of a modern-day incel. Scenes depicting the racist ideology of the National Front appear horribly of the moment, as does this exchange between a barman and his wife that seems to channel present day conspiracy theorizing:

“The Law says it’s dangerous to go out at night.”

“That’s all bollocks. They’ve got somethin’ goin’ on, that’s all, somethin’ they don’t want anybody to see.”

“Don’t be bloody daft. You’ve seen what’s going on on the telly. Riots, fires – all those murders.”

“Yeh, because somebody’s used a nerve gas on us, that’s why. Bastard Lefties, that’s who’s done it, brought it in for their friends abroad.”

Sheila stood up from the sink and took the cigarette from her mouth with damp fingers. ”What are you talking about now?” she said, looking at her husband with disdain.

“Everyone knows the Commies are behind it. They won’t tell you on the news, but just you ask anyone. It’ll be New York next, maybe Washington. You wait and see. Then Paris, then Rome. All over. Won’t ’appen in Russia, though.”

Herbert underscores the way paranoia proliferates in response to a large-scale crisis and how it works to absolve the paranoiac from personal responsibility. Indeed, Herbert’s story about a battle between the forces of good and evil is as much an examination of how these elements are commingled in each one of us, how anyone could be susceptible to the darkness inside if we were just to allow it free rein. The fact that the battle is framed in the archetypal imagery of dark versus light also lends the story a resonance on the level of mythology and the subconscious (Herbert even references Jung at one point in the narrative).

Longer, more ambitious, and more thoughtful than The Fog, The Dark manages to maintain its interest and propulsion for most of its length. Only in a deus ex machina conclusion does the momentum flag, but for the most part, Herbert’s book – which combines elements of a haunted house story, a zombie narrative, and a meditation on the nature of evil – provides shivery excitement for readers who are up for it.

The Horror Show: Good faces off against evil in James Herbert’s The Dark
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