I am all about horror at the moment!
After finishing Nobody True, my mum recommended I read The Rats, James Herbert’s debut novel. I had a faint memory of my dad saying he’d read it and it had “scared the crap” out of him. And my dad’s a big man who doesn’t scare easily.
I bought The Rats. As you might imagine, it’s about rats. The original cover just screams ’70s, don’t you think?
*Note: this review contains minor spoilers.
“It was only when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures with their razor sharp teeth and the taste for human blood began to be realized by a panic-stricken city.
For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now for the first time – suddenly, shockingly, horribly – the balance of power had shifted . . .”
Imagine any horror film. Most likely the opening scene is some unlucky sod getting mauled/attacked/sliced apart as a spooky introduction to the antagonist. The Rats starts out in much the same way, except, unlike a movie, we learned a bit about the character before they met their unfortunate fate.
I actually really liked this. We were given tidbits, a run-through of the person’s life, even if that was the last time we would ever “see” them alive. Some might argue this is pointless – why would you care about their lives, hopes, and past mistakes that led them to their untimely death?
I realized that it’s because of their past lives that they ended up getting killed in such a horrible way. Take Henry, the vagrant at the very beginning of the story. Perhaps if it wasn’t for his office affair that led to defamation, resignation, and eventually crippling loneliness that took him from successful businessman to alcoholic vagabond, he wouldn’t have slept in the abandoned house where the first of the killer rats attacked.
Take Dave, the teenager who was on his way home to catch the last train after messing around with his girlfriend. Maybe if he’d gotten an earlier train, stayed over at her house, or not met up with her that night at all (not necessarily a mistake, but an unfortunate coincidence), he wouldn’t have ventured into the station from which came the inevitable attack.
The mother who left her one-year-old alone to nip next door to borrow some tea (yes, it’s a British book) may not have perished along with her baby if only she’d taken her daughter with her. George the zookeeper ended up getting mauled by one of his beloved animals after he foolishly let it out of its cage instead of saving himself.
Harris is the main character of this story, and I liked him a lot. He’s brave, though he doesn’t try to play the hero; he’s a school teacher, a normal bloke with common sense but who wants to help out the area where he grew up, first in his career and then with the infestation. The rats themselves are really scary; they’re well-described, absolutely vicious, and Herbert did a great job of portraying the situations where you knew that as soon as one rat showed up, you knew the victim would be overwhelmed within moments.
Harris and the police struggle to beat back the terrifying rat infestation. These fearless creatures are getting bolder by the day, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole city is taken down. The amount of action and sense of urgency kept the pages turning.
The Rats was published in 1974, whereas Nobody True was released in 2003. The Rats is not badly written by any means, but I could see how Herbert’s writing style developed from his debut to the later novel, which ran much more smoothly. Writers never cease to improve if they constantly work on their craft, and part of me wishes I’d read The Rats first as, compared to Nobody True, some of the prose was quite clunky. There were also several typos in the Kindle edition, which surprised me.
These didn’t ruin my experience, though, and it shouldn’t deter you from reading it, either. The Rats is a classic novel every horror fan should pick up and I give it four stars out of five. I’ll definitely be buying the next one, Lair.