The Survivor by James Herbert


During the 70’, 80’s and 90’s there was one name that regularly topped the charts in relation to horror book sales and that was James Herbert.

When we talk about gateways into horror, you will hear many people talk about how they read a Stephen King novel and that this led them into the genre. However, that seemed to be more on the other side of the Atlantic, whilst in the UK, most horror addicts in the 70’s and 80’s it was James Herbert.

Many readers from the era will quote James Herbert as not only their gateway into horror, but also into adult reading overall. You see, at that time there wasn’t the young adult mid stop that stepped between the world of children’s fiction to adult fiction (well I wasn’t aware of it!) and it was simply a case of moving from children’s literature to the adult world with no stop gap.

Now when you ask people of my particular age, you can almost guarantee that the first James Herbert book they read was The Rats. It was a visceral novel that told the story of a plague of giant rats that invade London and get a taste for human flesh. When it was originally released in 1974, by the then 28-year-old Herbert, the book was a runaway success and sold out of its first print run of a 100, 000 in three weeks (source: Mark Brown, The Guardian, 2013).

James Herbert’s books were like nothing I had ever read before. They never held back in relation to violence, gore and sex. However, not only that, Herbert’s writing style was something that was never seen before either. His writing was easily accessible to everyone. He could write excellently descriptive prose but using language that people was instantly accessible to everyone.

In his article for Pan Macmillan in 2012, the writer Adam Nevill explains the allure of James Herbert, explaining that ‘like Stephen King in America, no one was writing horror quite like this before. The characters were ordinary people in ordinary circumstances pitted against unnatural forces, that could be natural or unnatural depending on the story

In fact, much like Stephen King (who incidentally hit the market at roughly the same time in 1974, and who Herbert shared a publishing house with: New English Library) Herbert changed the face of horror from the cultivated short story formula to the mass market event and expanded the horror novel to be a whole book that had complex characters throughout the whole of the book, and not only that, giving the stories a more complex, well researched plot that could hold for three to four hundred pages rather than the accustomed 20 page short.

Throughout his publishing career, James Herbert wrote 23 books, many of them best sellers and sold more than 54 million copies worldwide. His books have been made into films (and again like Stephen King, didn’t feel that many of them represented his work that well) and BBC television dramas, and in fact Lenny Henry once owned the films rights to Creed (Source: Pulp Interview with James Herbert. Andrew Nette, Pub: 2021)


It had been one of the worst crashes in airline history, killing over 300 people, and leaving only one survivor. Now the dead were buried and the town of Eton tried to forget. . . . Until the young girl was found, screaming hysterically about malevolently grinning dolls and creatures of darkness. Until the fisherman's body was brought ashore, his face set in a grimace of utter terror. Until the priest was discovered cringing beneath the altar. Then the town was forced to face the shocking, dreadful truth about what was buried in the old graveyard. . . . 

Now going back to any book that you read when you were much younger gives that feeling of trepidation. How exactly is something that you once enjoyed going to stand up almost fifty years after it was written? I mean let’s face it, there is the fear that there will be attitudes and values that were once held within that particular time may not be the same as they are now, and let’s face it, Britain in that particular time period did have a lot of problems.

The Survivor is James Herbert’s third book and was originally wrote in 1976. Now, I came to this book many years after it was originally written, probably about the early eighties.

The story revolves around a plane crash over Windsor and Eton. One eventful night, a 747 on its way to Washington crashes not long after take-off in a field in Windsor, killing all the passengers except one and is the worst of its kind in history, killing 300 people, except one, David Keller. Inexplicably, surviving the crash with no apparent harm except for the loss of his memory surrounding the events of the crash.

Having been forced to take an extended leave of absence, Keller feels a compulsion to investigate why the event occurred and what was the cause. In the midst of this he has an overarching sense that he needs to find what happened in order to get justice for the dead passengers and approaches a friend in the AIB, who are investigating the crash for any information, Keller sets out to try to solve the mystery of the plane crash.

Meanwhile, around Windsor, unexplained and seemingly unrelated incidents are happening which are leading to the deaths in the surrounding town. It soon becomes apparent that something evil is happening and an unspeakable malevolence is haunting those who live near the crash site.

With the aid of Hobbs, a clairvoyant who approaches Keller, it soon becomes apparent that not only are there earthly forces at work in relation to the crash, but that the disaster has somehow loosed unearthly forces that are wreaking havoc in the town of Windsor.

Now surprisingly, The Survivor holds up really well, especially when you consider that it was written almost fifty years ago and is surprisingly quite modern in its structure. Yes, there are obviously bits in it that are of its time, particularly the fact that everyone sees nothing wrong with having a quick pint or a stiff whiskey and then jumping in a car and driving to wherever they are off to.

Throughout the story, Herbert shows how well he builds tension and terror as the seemingly inexplicable events that happen in the book unfold. There are effectively two stories in the book. One which outlines the malevolence that has piggybacked its way into existence on the distress of the victims of the crash and the other the mundanities of an everyday reason as to why the plane crashed in the first place. The two become inexorably linked towards the final act of the book as we learn why things are happening and what was the actual cause of the crash.

In all honesty looking back at The Survivor, you can see that the book is quite an important one in the career of James Herbert and kind of is a precursor to some of the other books that he wrote when he became more accomplished at his craft. He expertly builds the tension and the terror throughout the story. And when it comes to the supernatural events, he manages to put a wholly believable spin on the reason why things are happening and the cause of the horror that is playing Windsor.

If you are interested in horror and particularly British horror, James Herbert is one of its main proponents and this is a really good example of the genre. The plot is extremely tight and never falls into unbelievable pastiche, and as it races to the conclusion, Herbert again manages to link to natural with the supernatural to give a satisfying ending to the story.

I actually listened to this on audio with the fantastic narration by Robert Powell, the great British actor who actually played David Keller in the Australian adaptation of the book, and I recall watching this as a teenager. So it was a double whammy of nostalgia for me. 



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