Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Rats - James Herbert

Stephen pulled a rat from Vikki's hair and hurled it away from him, his hands torn by the creature's gnashing teeth. He grabbed her arm and pulled her along the row, pushing at the people ahead of him. Inexplicably, the house-lights dimmed and finally faded leaving the confused scene lit only the light reflected from the huge screen. Something was biting into the boy's leg and he tried to kick it against the back of a seat, but because of lack of space the rat was able to hang on. He bent down to pull it away and his hands were nipped at by another rat. In desperation, he sat on top of a seat and painfully raised his leg onto the back of the seat in front, lifting the great black rat with it. Vikki ran from him and stumbled over a man in his last death struggles with three rats. She fell heavily, and was immediately engulfed in bristling bodies, her screams unheard amongst the screams of others. 

Signet, First Printing May 1975
So...not really a date you want to share with your favorite sweetheart. The scene above, from James Herbert's classic horror novel The Rats, takes place in a crowded movie theater, and pandemonium has busted loose all up in there. Does Stephen and his girl Vikki get out alive? Well, you'll have to take a guess. But considering James Herbert's early novels from this period were known for their gore and take-no-prisoners attitude you can probably figure there ain't no goodnight kiss gonna happen with our lovebirds.

Being in the middle of the throes of Year-End reporting at work, I was in the mood for a fast and nasty horror novel. This one fit the bill perfectly. Getting it all said and done in just under 200 pages is just about the perfect example of what a horror novel should be. Nothing bloated and heavy, no long passages of internal angst, no wasted dialog about extraneous bullshit, Just giant rats eating people. That's it. Giant rats eating people. Giant, intelligent, blood-thirsty rats invading homes, churches, subway trains, theaters and schools to eat people. It's like a perfect late-night horror film. You have a large cast of characters, a few of which are given a backstory before they meet their demise under the fang. You have a hero, school teacher Harris, who is pulled into various battles with the Rats throughout the novel, You also have ineffective government types scrambling to quell rising panic while covering their asses. But mostly you have the Rats bringing it to the citizens in seemingly concentrated attacks.

When this novel was first published it wasn't received kindly by critics. But a few discerning horror fans out there took note and realized that something cool was coming back to horror fiction out of Herbert's typewriter, and that was full on glorious unapologetic pulp. The kind of pulp one didn't see at least since the horror comics of the early fifties.

Coming from postwar Liverpool, I would imagine that James Herbert didn't get much exposure to the gentler side of things, and it's reflected in the politics of the novel with the Labour Party and Conservatives blaming each other for the wasted conditions affecting the underclass of society. Things haven't really changed much since the novel's printing when it comes to political parties pointing fingers while solving nothing. I think that attitude is what appeals to horror fans, or heavy metal fans, or punk rock fans, whatever. You know you're ultimately on your own, and no one in "power" gives fuck-all about you. You sink or swim with the rats.

But all that philosophizing aside, ultimately The Rats is just a kick-ass horror novel for those old-school fans out there who enjoy a little grue now and then.


  1. Love, love this book. Takes me back. Was called DEADLY EYES, on account of the 1982 film adaptation. Read it and never been the same since. Cool review.

    1. Oh yeah, that's right! I had completely forgotten about that title DEADLY EYES. I'm sure I saw the movie but I can't remember it at all. I've liked all of James Herbert's novels that I've read. I'm going to (re)read THE SPEAR again some time this year. Thanks for commenting. I should look around for that movie.

  2. Right on! An essential vintage horror read, lean & mean.