Your Daily NEL: New English Library

Cheap and Nasty Seventies Horror Pulp

James Herbert – The Rats

Posted by demonik on May 14, 2009

James Herbert – The Rats (Nel, 1974)

The face that launched a thousand 'When Animals Attack' novels.

The face that launched a thousand 'When Animals Attack' novels.

The Rats is a book that can only be read once, as stripped of its initial ability to shock, it is a rather pedestrian read at best, with the narrative acting as no more than mortar for the bricks of sex and violence

Justin Marriott on The Rats, Pulp Mania #1, 2006.

I thought I’d put it to the test. This is the third or fourth time I’ve read The Rats and, while it certainly loses some of its shock value, I feel it retains its rage and horror. Having recently enjoyed Scorpions, Night Of The Crabs and Devils Coach Horse, I can also boringly confirm what we already know: The Rats is without doubt the blueprint for just about every new wave of ‘When Animals attack’ nasties. It’s all here. The simple plot. The no-nonsense hero fighting the rodents on the one hand, the incompetent, self-serving authorities on the other. The huge body-count. The almost supernaturally unerotic sex interludes. The one that got away.

Civilised London. Swinging London. Dirty Bloody London!”

The plot, such as it is. An old house near the wharf has remained empty since the deaths of the eccentric couple who lived there. He was something of a boffin who spent several years abroad and returned from New Guinea with a few black rats which may or may not have been exposed to radiation. What else would you do but breed them? Once the old boy and his wife are dead, the rats make a few tentative forays into the outside world. Gradually they overcome their fear of man. Soon they develop a taste for human flesh. And they’re multiplying all the time.

Harris (even his lover Judy calls him ‘Harris’) is a working class East Ender who teaches art at St. Michael’s school. He still thinks of himself as a rebel student and gets passionate about the broken promises of the Government (any Government), inner-city poverty, the Ronan Point disaster, communal rubbish chutes, tower blocks in general, Thatcher putting the block on free milk for schoolkids, the incompetence of “authority”. Variations of Harris (an idealised Herbert ?), the everyman hero, resurface in every Herbert novel I’ve read and they get on my nerves to be honest with you. The prototype is probably the most wooden character in The Rats (give or take his girlfriend) but he does what he’s there for and has some terrific scraps with the rats so you can’t grumble. Besides, he doesn’t feature in half of the set-pieces and, as we all know, the set-pieces are what it’s all about!

And, for me, that’s what makes The Rats great. It’s maybe 80% set-piece, a series of pacy, effective, extremely bloody vignettes one after another. There’s the sad story of Mary Kelly (not a name to inspire confidence at the best of times), a decent woman driven to madness and meths by the death of her husband-to-be, who dosses in the decrepit St. Mary’s churchyard near Aldgate East station. Beaten unconscious by fellow alkies when she taunts them with a bottle of scotch, she is easy prey for the rats. But then, so are her comatose colleagues.

Sweet little Karen Blakely, thirteen months. Her mum reckons she’ll be OK for five minutes while she nips around to a neighbours house. Besides, she playful Shane the faithful puppy to look after her …

Then the full scale onslaughts: A late night attack on Shadwell Station – since modernised but you’d not like to get trapped down there – claims just the three lives thanks to the quick-thinking of the driver, but the following morning, “Black Monday”, sees several passengers massacred when a packed commuter train stalls in a tunnel approaching Stepney Green (Henry Sutton, a mild mannered solicitors clerk who you immediately identify as rodent-fodder plays a blinder, leading two frightened women to safety before heading back into the darkness with the rescue party … ). Then St. Michaels school comes under siege, the pupils barricaded in the upstairs classroom cheering on the firemen as they turn their hoses on the vermin – that probably wouldn’t happen today. Harris is miserable that only the East End is copping it, none of the affluent areas, so he’s probably mildly amused when, after a lull of several weeks, the rats resurface in a North London cinema, just as Stephen is copping a feel of Vikki’s tits – his first decent bird after all the fatties and skinnies and it has to end like this! Worse is to follow at London Zoo where keeper George will stop at nothing to protect his beloved pets ….

It’s down to Harris to save the day, and he comes up trumps where the best minds the system can offer have loused up with his amazing Operation Extirpate. “It was the sort of inspiration that could only have come from someone not used to or bogged down by the intricacies of a scientific mind, so bold and uncomplicated was its concept.”

Herbert might be talking about his own novel.

We spawned Rats/ Herbert/ ‘When Animals Attack’ threads like rats on the Vault Mk 1, most of them in the Nel section

Thanks to Killercrab for the cover scan.

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