Wednesday, 1 January 2014

James Herbert, Colin Wilson, Dennis Farina and Richard Matheson: starting 2014 with a few fond farewells…

Dennis Farina
Perhaps it’s due to a growing awareness of one’s own mortality, but from the moment I turned 60 writers, politicians, actors, musicians, composers and film directors who had meant something to me seemed to start dying. I’m written about some of them on this blog – notably my old English teacher, Frank Miles, Margaret Thatcher, country star George Jones and the actor James Gandolfini – but there were many more who died in 2013 who I unaccountably failed to mention at the time:

James Herbert (69) bestselling British horror novelist. When I joined New English Library’s publicity department in 1975, the publisher had just enjoyed phenomenal success with a young advertising agency art director’s first novel, The Rats. Herbert, a Roman Catholic boy from the East End (his Brick Lane stallholder dad, Herbert Herbert, was so poor he could only afford one name) was by nature prickly and suspicious and very driven - writers do tend to be odd coves - but we got on fine, even after I mercilessly ripped him off by writing a novel called The Cats. His second book, The Fog, was astonishingly violent, suggesting toxic levels of rage. Most of his subsequent novels were ghost stories which went straight to the top of the bestseller lists, but I preferred his early non-supernatural stuff. He produced a terrific quote for the cover of my last published novel, which was extremely generous of him.

Colin Wilson (82), auto-didactic writer and thinker, spurned by the intellectual elite after they’d hysterically overpraised his first book, The Outsider. He later placed himself permanently beyond the pale by writing extensively about the Occult and flying saucers and the like. He displayed near-comic levels of self-regard, but I always found his writings enormously stimulating – especially 1984’s A Criminal History of Mankind.

Tom Sharpe (85), one of the few comic novelists whose books make me laugh out loud. After a decade of extraordinary success he encountered a writer’s block which lasted several decades. Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure and Porterhouse Blue are probably my favourites.

Richard Matheson (87), hugely talented and supremely professional writer of horror and science fiction novels, screenplays and short stories. Novels included I Am Legend, Hell House, The Shrinking Man, Bid Time Return, A Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come – all of which were turned into films. His short stories included “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (made famous by The Twilight Zone TV series and then the film) and “Duel”, which Matheson himself  adapted as a screenplay for Stephen Spielberg (the one which featured Dennis Weaver being pursued by a killer truck). He also created and wrote the scripts for the excellent TV vampire drama, Kolchak: The Night-Stalker, and wrote the screenplay for the film of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out. One of my true heroes.

Carmine Infantino (88), comic book artist who gave DC Comics’ The Flash a groovy new costume in 1956, creating a startlingly clean, colourful style for what became the Sliver Age of comic books. I thought Flash was the coolest super-hero of them all (and still do).

Sir John Tavener (69), composer of almost unbearably beautiful religious music, including God Is With Us – A Christmas Proclamation and the sublimely poignant Funeral Ikos.

Frederik Pohl (93),  prolific science fiction author and magazine editor. I particularly love his short story, “The Tunnel Under the World”, the obvious inspiration for several subseqeuent films about people living in artificially-constructed environments without knowing it, and his collaboration with the great Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. But the real reason he’s here is because of his autobiography, The Way the Future Was, which provides a fascinating glimpse of how much fun it was to be part of the circle of young, poor and largely Jewish writers who created the next wave of science fiction in New York in the late 30s and early ‘40s – and how it used to be possible to lead a rich cultural and social life without money in a big city back in the old days. (I was particularly fascinated by an experiment of Pohl’s which involved writing for 24 hours at a stretch, then sleeping for twelve – I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Kenneth Minogue (82), tough Kiwi conservative political philosopher who was Professor of Political Science at the LSE from 1984 to 1995. A fierce anti-ideologue, he was very astute and funny on the subject of liberals and their attachment to “a sentimental kind of egalitarianism”.  He (rightly) accused governments of “turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up”. Sound chap, Minogue.

Bryan Forbes (86), strangely under-rated film actor, scriptwriter and director. He wrote the script for the chilling exposé of the infiltration of trade unions by communist agitators, The Angry Silence, as well as for the crime caper, The League of Gentlemen (in which he acted as well), and the very funny adaptation of a Kingsley Amis novel, Only Two Can Play. His best film as a director was the lovely Whistle Down the Wind, closely followed by King Rat: today, he’s probably best known for directing The Stepford Wives. Perhaps his achievements would have been more widely celebrated if he hadn’t laboured under the disadvantage of being a conservative.

“Cowboy” Jack Clements (82), Memphian country and rockabilly songwriter and producer. At Sun Records, he discovered and recorded Jerry Lee Lewis while Sam Phillips was on a trip to Florida, and was responsible for the session which produced “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”. He also produced  sessions by (among dozens of others) Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, and wrote “Miller’s Cave”, “It’ll Be Me”, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Let’s All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues)”. Thanks, Jack.

Dennis Farina (69), an actor who served as a Chicago policeman for 18 years. Farina was a truly menacing screen presence - his TV portrayal of Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono Jnr in1989 may be the most convincing serial killer depiction I’ve ever seen – but  his true forte was playing derangedly violent gangsters to comic effect: he’ll forever be remembered for Get Shorty and Midnight Run, in  which he uttered the immortal line: “You and that other dummy better start getting more personally involved in your work, or I'm gonna stab you through the heart with a fuckin' pencil. Do you understand me?”

There are a few others whose passing I’d like to mention in passing: razor-sharp film critic Roger Ebert; great bluesman Bobby “Blue” Bland; the inventor of the Nashville Shuffle, country star Ray Price; the master of stop-motion film animation, Ray Harryhausen; “Uncle Monty” actor Richard Griffiths; The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek; R&B maestro, Magic Slim; Dale Robertson, who played Jim Hardie in the TV western series, Tales of Wells Fargo; thriller-writer Elmore Leonard; Iain Banks, who wrote The Wasp Factory; Patty Andrews, last of the Andrews Sisters; and not forgetting Lou Reed, Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Davenport, David Jacobs, Marvin Rainwater, Karen Black, Tompall Glaser, Cliff Morgan, Alvis Wayne, Lou Reed, and record producer Phil Ramone.

Hell of a year.


  1. If its any consolation,the majority of these talented individuals were in their eighties.
    One name sticks out for me.Carmine Infantino was the grown up face of comics.Before him the impossibly square jawed look of the DC stable of super heroes looked faintly absurd.When the first 'Flash' hit the newstands on the Eastern seaboard and Mid-West,for thousands of kids it must have been a voyage of discovery.I once heard these comics first reached the UK as ballast in ships plying the Atlantic.Is that true one wonders or did this just apply to the more salacious men's magazines satisfying the demands of the US Armed Forces?

  2. Agree with you about Dennis Farina. I remember vividly when Gene Hackman told him "to look at me when I'm talking to you" in Get Shorty and Farina worked him over with a telephone. He reminded me of another Hollywood "heavy", Richard Boone, who never put a foot wrong [even in bad films]. You skip rather lightly over Elmore Leonard, one of the great American writers of popular fiction. A big output of crime thrillers was preceeded by many Western stories [for example, "Hombre" and "3:10 to Yuma"]. Hollywood loved him and kept turning his stories into film - they made two versions of "Yuma" providing Glenn Ford and Russell Crowe with meaty roles. Ditto Boone in "Hombre". Talented people.