Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Rats (1974) by James Herbert

I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of this book on a whim last year.  Swarms of rats attacking cities is a trope I’m familiar with from 70s and 80s films shown on TV in my childhood, so I think it was partly nostalgia that made me pick it up.  I had very low expectations as to the quality of writing and wondered if I’d even be able to finish it.  It sat on my shelf until I noticed a brand new copy of it sitting in the bestseller rack of my local supermarket, which alone said much about its longevity as a work of fiction.  But what grabbed my attention even more was that none other than Neil Gaiman had written a new introduction to the novel.  Intrigued, I slotted The Rats up to my next book to read.

          I have never read a novel so quickly.  I’m a slow reader at the best of times, so even this slim page-turner took me a handful of sittings over a couple of days.  But it’s the kind of thing my wife could read in one afternoon.  This is superbly economic and engrossing storytelling.  It’s the way Stephen King usually is for a hundred pages or so, off and on, in his novels.  But Herbert’s debut didn’t really let up, and it’s a short novel anyway.  

          Also like King, Herbert’s backstory characterisations are what make the pace so relentless and make the brutal nasty crescendos so chilling.  The book tells terse but enthralling little tales about a number of quite different sorts of characters only to (SPOILER – but you would only expect this) have them devoured by rats.  What King says about his own fiction applies here:  he makes you care about the characters and then unleashes the monsters on them.  These hordes of vermin are headed up by a swelling population of huge black mutations, which, in addition to being vicious flesheaters, are uncannily intelligent.  Having gotten a taste for human blood early in the story, they now seek out only that delicacy all over London.  

          It’s a shocker.  The killing set pieces are gruesome and unforgiving.  Yet it doesn’t really linger on gory detail.  This balance of shock and restraint makes the sheer animal brutality all the more sinister and effective.  Well played, Mr. Herbert.  

(I should probably note that this little book is very rated R for graphic sexual content as much as violence, done in a similar succinct but evocative manner.  It has the same breezy attitude to sex you find in King and others from the 70s, though perhaps a little less of the 'heart' that King at least tries to put into that subject matter.)

          I suppose you could call Herbert's debut novel a specimen of eco-horror, but I’m not sure how strong that resonance really is.  It’s actually far more sociological than ecological.  It’s frankly kind of disturbing in its seeming classism and racism (even from the narrational point of view) and, making those prejudices redundant, its misanthropy.  That the human population itself is seen by the main protagonist as not unlike a swarm of vermin is pretty obvious.  This is in tension, however, with the book’s clear decrial of urban poverty, both in terms of living conditions and education.  The tension between a humanitarian impulse and unanalysed prejudice really makes the book more successful on the thematic level.  The terror of the rats is the terror of our own inhumanity to each other en masse.  

          But I think this book is first and foremost entertainment and at that it succeeds very well.  Whereas James Herbert wasn’t really on my radar before, popular though he is, I’m now actually looking forward to reading more from him.  I don’t think this will be a one-off.  (Recommendations are welcome, but I’ll probably go for The Fog next.) 

It’s good to be getting a sense of the emerging popular horror writing scene of the 70s.  Born in ’73 myself, I feel some kind of connection to this era in a lot of ways, not least to what was happening in one of my favourite and formative genres.  Up next in that vein:  the 1976 debut novel by Ramsey Campbell, outrageously titled The Doll Who Ate His Mother.