CriminOlly thinks: Brutally effective killer animal tale that shook up British horror 4/5
Title: The Rats | Author: James Herbert | Series: Rats #1 | Publisher: New English Library | Pages: 175 | Publication date: 1973 | Source: Self-purchased
‘The Rats’ burst onto the UK horror scene in 1974, completely unlike anything that had come before. Many of the critics hated it, but the public loved it and the first printing sold out within weeks. Its success set Herbert on his path to become the most popular British horror writer ever and the book eventually spawned both a movie (‘Deadly Eyes’ in 1985) and a computer game.
The book’s concept is simple: there are mutant rats and they kill people. Lots of people. What makes it effective, is how dramatically unlike previous British horror novels it is. The book immediately feels different from last month’s offering from Dennis Wheatley. Forgoing the historical settings of the Hammer Horror movies or Wheatley’s books, Herbert instead uses contemporary London as his setting. There is no slow build up to the horror either. Right from the off, the book is shockingly, unrelentingly violent, with a baby amongst the rats’ first victims. The violence is graphic and horrifying and I imagine was shocking for its day. Herbert was quite deliberate in his use of such scenes, saying in an interview years later that he “wanted to show what it was really like to have your leg chewed by a mutant creature. I was very much against the Tom and Jerry and John Wayne types of violence where no one is ever really hurt, and Indians are killed without any suggestion that they may be husbands and fathers, and perhaps keep a dog back in the tepee.”
Herbert does indeed display a real talent for writing believable, interesting characters that the reader can empathise with, even while knowing that 9 times out of 10 they will end up as rat food. Sadly the hero, Harris, is less interesting than some of the incidental characters. He’s a tough but socially conscious school teacher in the East End who ends up getting involved in the fight against the rats when one of his pupil’s is bitten. As the book progresses he becomes more and more central, and works with the authorities to defeat the menace. He’s a fairly bland protagonist, determined to do what’s right but more caught up in events than driving them.
Far more effective is Herbert’s depiction of London. He offers a realistic portrayal of a city still recovering from the Blitz some 30 years before, with a bomb site the setting for an early scene. Whilst this is at heart a nasty bit of page turning fun, there is a political edge to it too. Herbert’s London is one of ordinary people rather than Wheatley’s adventuring gentlemen. Characters are working people or the homeless, struggling to get by in a society that doesn’t really care about them. Early on, Harris, rails against social inequality and the way the working classes are crammed into tower blocks. He makes an immediate connection between the plague of rodents and the government’s inability to run the country in a socially just way.
It’s a book that isn’t successful in every way, Harris is uninteresting and the plot is really just an excuse to stitch the various horrific set pieces together. What makes it great is how good those set pieces are (attacks on a rube train and a school in particular) and the fact that the world the action takes place in is so recognisable. It’s unquestionably a milestone in horror fiction and well worth a read.
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 and the rats began to prey on the human population.
Content warning: Rape, infant death, alcoholism
What else happened in 1974?
(Note that this article was originally published in 2018)
The impoverished London of ‘The Rats’ seems to reflect the UK in general at that point in the 70s. The UK entered its first post-war recession at the start of the year and the Conservative government Harris despises against was indeed voted out in a general election in March, with Labour’s Harold Wilson replacing Edward Heath as prime minister. The strikes and IRA bombings from 1973 continued with the government declaring a state of emergency in Northern Ireland.
Whilst ‘The Rats’ is undoubtedly the British horror novel of note from 1974, it’s worth noting that Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ and Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ were also published that year.
In cinemas, horror classic ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was released, albeit not in the UK. Like ‘The Exorcist’, which I discussed last month, it has a chequered history over here and was effectively banned until 1999 when it was finally released on video and DVD. British horror films were getting nastier too, with Pete Walker’s ‘Frightmare’ and ‘House of Whipcord’ making it into cinemas. The famous Hammer studio, once central to the UK film industry, was starting to look desperate, and released the martial arts/Dracula crossover ‘The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires’.