Your Daily NEL: New English Library

Cheap and Nasty Seventies Horror Pulp

James Herbert – Lair

Posted by demonik on October 6, 2007

James Herbert – Lair (NEL 1979)

James Herbert Lair


James Herbert! The Rats! The Fog! Where did it all go wrong?

Nowhere really. He just honed his craft and continued as a best-selling author without the need for that good ol’ mid 70s sex ‘n’ violence delirium in such an extreme form. Pity, really. But his writing is so good and, if needs be, he can still send shivers down the spine and get the gorge rising so his later novels are always worth a look.

Before returning to Lair I had the feeling it may have come after Fluke. Following the two trail-blazers JH had come up with The Survivor – mucho toned down from his previous excesses but with a tense supernatural flavour and enough nastiness to pique interest. ‘Twas then he went wildly experimental with Fluke. Anyone who has read this after reading the previous novels must have had a shock – but not in a good way. All power to Mr H for trying something different but – what a disappointment! I was wrong – the partial return to form The Spear followed. Taking into account the gap between hardback and paperback – and the fact that Fluke may not have been quite a best-seller as the original Herbert tomes – was a sequel to The Rats a necessity? Without sales figures I’m speculating wildly but I can’t help wondering if a real return to form meant an attempt to recapture former glories. But James didn’t just want to replicate. He wandered from the straight and narrow and had little fun along the way. No way could The Rats be duplicated.

The Rats had a little epilogue, hinting that there was more to come. This is reproduced as The Prologue of Lair. We are then faced with Signs, Onslaught and…er…Lair.

After a couple of lines from The Teddy Bears’ Picnic the book proper begins with “Bloody vermin!”. We’re on Ken Woollard’s farm and his two top mousers are missing. He’s seen Rat signs but is loathe to report them (even though it’s now the Law.) Even when he discovers the tatty remains of one of his cats, he doesn’t want to involve the authorities. Ken lives near Epping Forest. That’s the big change. Having been Urban Guerrillas in the first outing, the deadly rodents have seemingly repaired to the countryside – although Herbert frequently points out just how close to London this rural idyll actually is. A couple of wicked wind ups – The forest headkeeper’s horse takes flight in panic from….a white deer – some kind of warning symbol. A sunbathing girl is stalked by….. her husband and children. Nice topicality – the family are having some fun days out because the husband is on strike at the local car factory. Lots of hints of something lurking in the forest. What can it be?

Luke Pender is on the case! Ratkill troubleshooter. Returning from the North he’s almost instantly despatched to the forest Conservation Centre. They’ve had a few odd incidents. Luke knows Ratkill supremo Stephen Howard from University. He’s got a good career, making good money, but there’s something else….

He’s discovered brown rats around the country are becoming resistant to warfarin. That’s the problem with Rats – adaptive little buggers. He’s been given a bit of background on William Bartlett Schiller – the nutter who picked up a rat or rats from a New Guinea atomic testing range and bred them with good ol’ British black rats – forming the horrendous mutants of the first Outbreak. But he feels Howard’s holding something back.

A few Herbert vignettes – a Reverend who worries about losing his faith, a well dodgy flasher and Cor! Jenny Hanmer – who runs classes for children at the Conservation Centre. She’s busy teaching the kids about wildlife and avoiding the advances of fellow tutor and beardie-weirdie Vic Whittaker – who’s married – the bounder! Her latest class get a rude shock when fishing for water skaters in a handy pond. Three large and unfriendly rodents are swimming across it. Luke turns up and investigates. An eerie sequence as the couple investigate the unwelcoming forest t’other side of the pond – and find a family of stoats ripped to pieces.

Despite their best efforts to get forest authorities to take this seriously (remember last time?) the inevitable red tape, dithering, internal politics and ineffectual authority figures conspire to frustrate them. Indeed, when Luke contacts Howard, he’s keen to down play their discoveries – the forest superintendent having used a contact at the Ministry Of Agriculture. A big meeting of all concerned is called. And so ends Signs.

Many commentators cited part of the popularity of the film version of Jaws striking a chord with American audiences as down to the Mayor’s efforts to keep the beaches open and hush up shark attacks as being a parallel to the Watergate affair. Always annoying in this type of book. The heroes just can’t get their message through and you know there will be deaths.

Onslaught begins with an explanation of the Rats’ migration and the hideously deformed mutant leader. Then some classic Herbert Rat attacks. An adulterous couple – they’ve got to go! This is a morality tale. Not necessarily – surely a Barnado’s boy made good and his fellow campers will not succumb? Even the Reverend is not safe. A throwaway refence to the abandoned and ruined Seymour Hall Estate. The return of the flasher. The meeting – gas ’em! Then we go into overdrive as the Rats decide to hit the Conservation centre, a Police training camp, a mobile home park.

OK,  it’s not The Rats but Herbert does a great job throughout the book of maintaining suspense – and the rat attacks are truly harrowing in places. Even minor characters have a bit of background and substance. There’s just enough pulp roots showing to make it a fast, enjoyable read. And the second half of the book is very very good. Rats vs The Army. Ratkill protective suits proving less than adequate. A truly chilling denouement. When Luke and Vic are faced by a marauding army of Rats you do wonder – what would it be like to be in that situation – I’m gonna die!

And there’s an epilogue…..

Review by Franklin Marsh 

(Republished by PanMacmillan 1999 – thanks to Alastair Brannen and the Barbican library – if you thought the ’79 cover was sh*te…..)

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