Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Rats by James Herbert (1974): Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

Near the end of The Rats there is a government official who, forced to resign from his position as under-secretary of the Ministry of Health because of this whole, well, rat thing, appears back on the scene, beleaguered and harried, tieless, badly in need of a shave, but with an excited look in his eyes... giving way to a look of bitterness. His name is is the oh-so-British Foskins, and I suddenly realized that were The Rats a movie made when it was published, he would be played by Donald Pleasence.

1974 UK hardcover

Since James Herbert's debut horror novel is propelled by the same energy and pacing as a B-movie from the era, I now felt inspired to cast it. It's set mostly in the tower blocks and slums of London, early '70s. I can see the bad hair and enormous sideburns, the plaid slacks, black-framed glasses, ladies in stockings, miniskirts, and bunned-up hair. Harris, the young teacher in charge of a class of hooligans, who finally faces down the hordes of mutant rats, seemed to me Trevor Bannister, from "Are You Being Served?" His girlfriend Judy would no doubt be played by the loverly Jenny Agutter.

The rest of the book's characters are mostly interchangeable; men and women introduced with a lively little backstory, snapshots of post-war British life at various social levels - mostly lower to highlight the fault and ineptitude of government - and then mercilessly cut down by horrid ravenous vermin the size of dogs.

Herbert plunges into his novel without apology or surcease (or, as Stephen King put it in his 1981 horror memoir Danse Macabre, he "does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror") and the result is a really enjoyable piece of pulp horror fiction, barely 200 pages long. The various set-pieces of carnage - a primary school, the tube, a movie theater - are well-conceived and executed, filled with as much blood and bits of bodies and grue as he could get away with. The climax is a corker. And it all works. 

Introducing a new graphic sensibility in horror fiction (and which Herbert continued in his second novel The Fog, which I will be rereading soon), The Rats is a quick and a satisfying read, a slight guilty pleasure and, I'm happy to learn, the first in a horror-fiction trilogy. Cheers, mate!


Rusty James said...

I'll Amazon it right now.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent assessment of this classic British horror novel from the 1970's heyday of paperback horror. I cant wait for Herbert's new novel ASH when it comes out later this year. It broke the mould, but unfortunately led to a number of cheap (but cheerful) imitators - Guy N. Smith's CRABS series for example.

Brian Busby said...

It's been some years since I've thought of Herbert, though he was my favourite author as an adolescent. If memory serves, there was a certain formula to his work - one chapter focusing on horror, the next on sex, then back to horror, and so on. Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps my memories of adolescence play up the sex.

In any case, I can say with certainty that The Fog was my favourite... and that I reread the lesbian sex scene many, many times.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for stopping by, guys. I read THE FOG just out of high school but recall almost nothing about it; found a copy of it recently so it'll turn up here sooner or later. Still trying to track down some cheap editions of the CRABS series.

Rusty James said...

Read the book. You're too kind to Mr. Herbert Will, it's made-for-TV schlock at best - not B-Movie, nor pulp.

Exciting for the 70's perhaps, but today? Lame.

If one thing, it made me think about how early Horror novels were prolly where readers (men) went looking for sex on the page. Like where else other 'acceptable' fiction could you find a page and a half of sex?
Ironic because these passages are the only ones to have any energy behind them; battling a particular rat takes like half-a-page at most.

Casual Debris said...

I've just read this and posted my review. There actually was a B-movie version titled "Deadly Eyes" (I haven't seen it). There also wasn't much sex in here, I don't think; it certainly wasn't steamy. Sure it's poorly written, but that only helps to make it such a good read.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Couldn't disagree more with White Wolf's comments on THE RATS.

The book is extremely well written pulp, and the rat attacks possess an energy and level of brutality that has rarely been equaled. I have always liked Herbert's style (in these early books) of sketching a character's life before he/she is destroyed.

Herbert also wrote great sex, and reached a peak in LAIR.

I'll miss a lot.

3Fs said...

Judging Herbert just from this novel, I'd say that sometimes his characterizations can be clunky, but what really redeems THE RATS is to what extent he delivers the goods when it comes to the horror. Many of the attacks in the book are quite scary.

As pointed out above, it was made into a low-budget Canadian horror film in 1982, "Deadly Eyes." Herbert supposedly hated it (as did most people who saw it, it appears), but what's kind of interesting is that the makers of DE put dogs (Dachshunds) in rat suits to simulate the overgrown rodents described in Herbert's novel. Sadly, one of the dogs died, possibly from suffocation... Yeah, attitudes about animal cruelty vis-a-vis filmmaking were much more relaxed back in the day.

Will Errickson said...

Yes, one only needs to see CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST to realize your last point!

Marina said...

I loved this trilogy of supersized killer rats. Domain was my favourite.

Mike said...

Actually, this was a quartology (I hope I spelled that word right): THE RATS, LATR. DOMAIN and a graphic novel called THE CITY.

Mike said...

Correction; I meant LAIR.