With the untimely death of its author, the British master of horror James Herbert, I thought it seemly to unearth his first novel The Rats. It is a book that, in 1974, revitalized British horror literature, selling 100,000 copies in its first two weeks and becoming an instant classic of the genre.
Back in 1974 I was a typical schoolboy, already an avid reader and always on the lookout for the latest literary thrill. From nowhere there was a buzz around the classrooms and schoolyard, there was a novel that promised forbidden delights and gruesome bloody terror the likes of which had never been experienced. Reading this book was a right of passage and copies of it were quickly going around school like wildfire. The book itself wasn’t easy to get hold of as the leading British bookstore at the time refused to stock it and it was only through a friend who had borrowed his brother’s copy that I finally got this illicit treasure in my hands.
Before I even began to read the novel I was entranced by its lurid cover which features a leering giant rodent with mesmerizing blood red eyes that seemingly dared the reader to crack open the already well thumbed paperback. I read it furtively and twice in one weekend, at first feverishly and then again to savour the pure unbridled horror, sex and violence it contained. The book opened up a world of terror and spoke so directly about subjects that were taboo in 70s Britain that I became an addict, forever more hooked on Herbert and horror fiction.
The Rats tells a deceptively simple story, a new strain of giant black rats the size of dogs which possess high intelligence and a voracious appetite for human flesh are at large in the city of London, unbeknownst to her teeming population and complacent government. To make matters worse their bite alone is lethal and kills in 24 hours assuming you have survived the attack. Initially cautious and attacking London’s homeless and weakest citizens the rats go largely unnoticed by the authorities until the frequency and scale of the attacks escalates. One scene in particular, an assault on a packed underground train, is such a vivid description of pure, visceral and claustrophobic terror that it haunts me still and made me dread using the transport system when I later became a resident of the metropolis in which the novel is set. The story barrels along hardly giving you pause to catch your breath and reflect before assaulting your senses with more scenes of brutal horror. Even after reaching its spine tingling end you will find yourself seeing movement in the corner of your eye as you recall this wonderful and gleefully grisly story.
Herbert drew on his childhood experiences of London during and after the war and a personal terror of the rodents that teem in the city. It is this grounding in gritty reality that is part of the novels success, it deals unflinching with social deprivation and violent horror in a way that had not been done before. His lead protagonist, Harris, a young art teacher is a believable everyman unwittingly thrown into the centre of the floundering attempts to control and exterminate the plague of slavering creatures. The novel was like nothing an unsuspecting British public had read before and it quite simply blew me away as a young reader. I’ve read The Rats several times since first discovering it nearly forty years ago, it still holds up as a raw and tersely told tale. It is a nonstop rollercoaster ride that delivers thrilling bloody terror by the bucket load.
Since then James Herbert has been much imitated but to my mind never bettered. He went on to write a further 22 novels, two of which Lair and Domain were worthy sequels to this one and influenced a generation of horror writers and readers. With The Rats and his second novel The Fog he created the splatterpunk genre and his early works were antiestablishment and filled with biting social commentary as well as being masterpieces of modern horror and true classics of the genre.
It was with great sadness that I learned of James Herbert’s passing this week. He was as his editor said “one of the giants of popular fiction in the 20th Century”. I would like to offer my deepest sympathy to his family, friends and the legion of grateful fans of which I am but one. If you haven’t read him yet you owe it to yourself to do so. You may not be able to recreate the experience of a small schoolboy reading terrified under the covers into the wee hours, but you do owe it to yourself to savour this seminal work of one of the all time finest and most influential writers of the horror genre.
James Herbert (1943-2013)