212 pages, Kindle Edition
Review by Pat Black
Our recent crabfest featuring Guy N Smith’s sideways-walking nightmares has whetted my appetite for creature feature goodness. But where to turn to? Who could I trust to slake my thirst for pulp thrills?
The answer came from Kindle. I noticed one night that Amazon was selling James Herbert’s newest novel, Ash, on a special promotion. 20p was the asking price. Twenty whole pennies, for hundreds of spanking brand new pages from the man who is still just about Britain’s most famous living horror writer. It seemed a bit of a scandal to me, even if it was only a fleeting offer. I felt like I’d robbed the man.
So, I went back to Amazon and - for a whole 79p more than I paid for Ash - bought the book James Herbert’s fame was founded upon: The Rats.
I’ve read it twice before as a child, and I went back to gnaw at its carcass several times over the years. Herbert’s 1975 debut looks at humans coming into contact with giant, terrier-sized rats and, as you may suppose, it examines the gory consequences in some detail. These rodents have a taste for human flesh and are fairly handy when it comes to ferreting it out of unwilling donors. If you’re lucky enough to survive the super-sized critters’ initial attack, their bite carries a virus which kills you within 24 hours. Best not bother with the TCP and plasters, then.
Herbert has a “one-in, one-out” approach to structure, with chapters alternating between the rats’ victims and his hero, the high school art teacher, Harris. The standalone “you’re doomed!” chapters were actually the high point of the book, and were a format Herbert would return to many times in his career. Harris is forthright, brave, cheeky with the ladies… and wholly dull. But in the victim chapters, the author shows a deft touch with character. The victims might be unlucky, they might be immoral, or they might be innocent, but they all have a journey which takes them to their invariably sticky ends. Herbert creates a fascinating study of people and place in these sections.
The first chapter looks at a man who goes from a decent managerial job to being a down-and-out after having a gay affair with a much younger man. His predicament is handled quite sensitively, all things considered, especially when it comes to addressing the easy-to-imagine mid-70s level bullying he suffers from his workmates. A memorable chapter further in examines the unfortunate history of Mary Kelly, a devout Irish Catholic and nymphomaniac who seeks to unite these two separate strands of her life...before being eaten alive.
She also does something nasty with a bottle of whisky.
It’s a grubby book, rat fans. The violence is still shocking today, but there is a smutty, yellowed paperback atmosphere throughout which I doubt you’d find in even the cheapest modern thrills. There’s sexism – unconscious, curiously British, institutionalised stuff, perfectly understandable given that Carry On movies, Benny Hill and On The Buses were some of the most popular entertainment of the time. It’s a rather unfortunate coincidence to be discussing this with attitudes to women and girls among celebrities of the 1970s in such sharp focus in the British media, but sex dominates the proceedings as much as pest control. I would argue Harris’ throwaway line about the “crumpet being good” as he ogles a pair of 14-year-old girls at his school carries much more sinister overtones nowadays than it did in the less enlightened mid-70s.
James Herbert provided something of an introduction to sex in prose for many young boys; quite a frightening prospect, given that girls could get their education from the likes of Judy Blume under their mothers’ noses, while I made do with giant killer rats. I used to joke that you could crack open a book by James Herbert at random and find a sex scene more often than not. But it’s not sex per se, really, as much as a kind of Robin Asquith movie, Donald McGill postcard level smuttiness. Later books would linger on and torment pornographers, sleazy officials, public park flashers and furtive, outdoor adulterers. There’s something seedy about Herbert’s naughty content, but that was undoubtedly a selling point. On the plus side, he’s actually quite non-judgemental about bonking; whereas the rules of the US horror movie genre usually mean those having sex end up dead, there’s no such moralising going on in Herbert’s books. It’s just something mammals do. Though to be fair, most people in his books do end up dead, regardless.
As an aside, I remember reading Herbert’s The Fog (no relation to the John Carpenter movie), and being quite confused at the bedtime adventures of a couple called, say, Joe and Susan. A few pages went by before I realised that Joe was a girl, too.
The Rats has unwittingly become a relic with the passage of time. For it is surely a London book, focusing in particular on the impoverished east end – Herbert’s manor. The same area you probably saw on your television screens during the coverage of the Olympics, skydiving monarchs and all.
The east end Herbert paints is far removed from the place it is now (though deprivation still thrives, of course). Back in the mid-70s, there were still derelict areas of the capital following the war, when the Luftwaffe turned much of it into rubble. A lot of those ruins stayed up, waiting for a wrecking ball, even as much as 30 years after the Blitz. Graham Greene set his unforgettable short story, “The Destructors”, in one such place.
The Rats tells a tale of decay and neglect, and also looks at the dirt poor people who lived there and their luckless histories. Herbert shows affection for the streets, while detailing their squalor and meanness unflinchingly. If there’s satire in this tale of giant rats descending on the run-down areas of one of the world’s great cities, it’s quite well hidden. I could think of a few targets for some well-aimed literary barbs, if I was going to write about bloodthirsty rodents running amok among poor people. Tempting as it is to draw parallels, Herbert missed Mrs Thatcher taking residence in Number 10 by a few years. A better source of inspiration is probably the industrial crises of the 1970s in Britain, with binmen’s strikes leaving piles of rubbish to fester on the streets for weeks on end, prompting public health fears and warnings over plagues of rats. This period and its odd atmosphere of tension, decay and lassitude also provided the inspiration for Scots director Lynne Ramsay’s movie Ratcatcher.
But that’s probably not why you’d come to a book like The Rats. I enjoyed it one more time for what it is – a horrible, bloody romp. Its wider historical and cultural significance is something of an accident, not an intention of the author at time of writing.
And, not to spoil anything, but brace yourself for the snappy lines the hero utters at the climax. I bet if there’s one thing James Herbert truly wants to redraft, it’s Harris’ tearful lament as he faces off with King Rat.
Now, The Spear – that’s something I wouldn’t mind re-reading. That book was 100% Big Chief Wah Wah mental. Watch this space.