Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Rats - James Herbert


When first published in 1974, James Herbert's debut novel The Rats was like a firecracker being set off in a church. His writing was in a direct, no-holds-barred, straight-for-the-jugular style that left all other writers working in the same genre standing at the touch-line. Critics were apparently dismayed at the explicit horror he portrayed and were subsequently dismissive of him but for the thousands of readers who never read book reviews and never considered the opinions of Martin Amis and such like, James Herbert and his book The Rats was exactly what they wanted.

The Rats is a straightforward horror story about a new breed of vicious super rats the size of dogs, erupting from the slum houses and bomb-sites of London's East End and bringing terror to the people there. It's a relatively simple idea for a story, of course, but it's the manner in which Herbert wrote it that makes it so outstanding.
Each character is given a potted history, explaining who they are and how they've ended up in the job or life position they're now in. They're all then horribly slaughtered by the rats. Scenarios are set up whereupon the arrival of the rats cause maximum carnage and mayhem. So for example, Herbert has them attack a tube train stuck in a tunnel, a cinema audience, all the animals at a zoo, and a school full of children.
Herbert exploits to the hilt the inherent dislike if not fear of rats in most people and imagines all the places where an attack by hordes of them would be most dreaded; so it's in darkened places such as down in a tube station or in a cinema, or when in the daylight it's against the most vulnerable such as children and animals.

Herbert paints a vivid picture of a neglected London where tramps gather on wastelands at night, where children are tough but their environment tougher, and where the working class eke out their lives under the governance of incompetent authorities. As a depiction of early 1970s Britain it's a very accurate one, a depiction that at the time was hardly ever represented in the media. Re-reading The Rats today, it's apparent that Herbert was pre-empting the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by almost three years. His London is one of no future and his rats are Year Zero made flesh. His was the modern world. The Rats was Punk Rock in book form, acting like a brick through a window.

Pre-Punk Rock the music industry was dominated by lumbering dinosaurs such as Genesis, Pink Floyd, ELP and so on until the Sex Pistols and their bastard children scared and chased them all away with a dollop of urban realism on the end of a broken stick. In a similar fashion, James Herbert and his Rats book did exactly the same but to the likes of Dennis Wheatley and H P Lovecraft - the supposed establishment figures of horror writing. Spread by word of mouth, The Rats was picked up by a whole new generation of readers, propelling itself away from the typical type of books aimed at teenagers and out to the council estates and inner cities where copies would be passed around.

Punk Rock corrupted and ruined many a teenager's life for the better and so too did The Rats. James Herbert captured both the dreams and the nightmares of children and thrust them screaming into the present. The dreams and nightmares of those children were never the same again.
John Serpico

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