The Rats (UK: NEL, 1974)
Tagline: "The rats have emerged from the darkness."
It's amazing to me that it's already been a year here at Guilty
Pleasures that we've been sorting through the blood, guts,
and creepy crawlers. So what better way to celebrate than
taking a look at that granddaddy of 1970's pulp horror
nasties--The Rats by James Herbert. Yes, this was the first.
This was the one that became an instant bestseller and
launched the "nasty" boom in the UK. If you read this kind of
stuff, then James Herbert probably needs no introduction.
Back in '70's, he knocked out one great pulp masterpiece after another from The Fog
to The Spear and to this day, unlike his host of imitators, he is still at it. Still selling
lots of books and doing what he does best, though these days his work is much
lighter on the pulp and gore and probably could best categorized in the "thriller" or
"chiller" (horror combined with action or espionage) genres. One thing that definitely
separates The Rats from everything that came afterword is that Herbert wrote about
rats from a perspective of true fear. Growing up in the East London slums in a
neighborhood of old tall houses and bombed-out rubble from the Blitz, Herbert had
firsthand experience dealing with large sewer rats that haunted old stables and
ruined buildings. And from those fearsome childhood experiences sprang The Rats.
For some crazy reason that I've never been able to understand, James Herbert is not
a name you hear mentioned a lot by horror fans. A bestselling author. A guy who
Stephen King once called "the best writer of pulp horror to come along since the
death of Robert E. Howard." Sadly, I think Herbert often gets lumped in with the
Nasty subgenre that he unintentionally began. And that's a shame because this guy
can really write.
The Rats, like all good things, is very simple in its set-up: a new mutant strain of
giant black rats has spread over London. The typical black sewer rat has been
crossbred with a large tropical variety and enhanced by forced mutation (thanks to a
weird old man in a rotting house). Not only are they taking to the streets and chewing
up anyone they can find, but their bite is deadly and, gasp, they've developed
something of a rudimentary militaristic intelligence. And they are oh-so hungry:
"...the rats drained her body of blood and gnawed her flesh until not much more than
bones and pieces of skin remained. It didn't take long, for there were many of them.
Their hunger for human flesh had been merely inflamed--they wanted more..."
And the thing is, after digging into the stark depths of this book, so do we:
"The bearded man had risen to his feet, pulling a wriggling body from his face and
tearing mostly hair from his cheek in the process. But as he stood, one of the larger
rats leapt at his groin, pulling away his genitals with one mighty twist of its body. The
tramp screamed and fell to his knees, thrusting his hands between his legs as if to
stop the flow of blood, but he was immediately engulfed and toppled over by a wave of
black, bristling bodies..."
Good stuff. Through 175 lean pages, Herbert rubs our noses in one violent, bloody
set piece after the other. Voracious rats swarm a train. They invade a school. They
devour a baby, a vermin exterminator sent to hunt them, and flood a darkened
cinema. Each scene is well-rendered, visceral, and...well...nasty. Herbert is the
master of horror set pieces and he has a special flair for creating them, something
that many of his imitators lacked. In so many ways The Rats is the template for
everything that came afterward. From an ordinary man or woman (schoolteacher in
this case) who fights the menace and then finds himself heading up a governmental
committee to destroy it, to the set pieces, steamy sex scenes, and the unpleasant
ending where puppies infected with rat-killing virus are set out at key points in
London to destroy the vermin. Many, many of the nasties used this exact formula.
Did the puppies wipe out the rats? you may well ask. Well, all I'm going to say is that
this book spawned two sequels, Lair and Domain, the former being one of my favorite
novels by the great James Herbert.
Pros: It's all good here. When you read this one, it's important to remember that this
was the first! That the clichés in this book only became such later by the repetition of
others, not Mr. Herbert. This book rocks from beginning to end and is highly
recommended. They made a movie of it, too, called Deadly Eyes, but I've never seen
Cons: None. Get out of here.
Overall: Ghastly, Gruesome, and Gor-ifying! What can I say? The original is still the
best. 175 pages of pure hot-blooded, fast-paced entertainment. Herbert knows how
to tell a horror story and reading one of his books is like sitting around a campfire
listening to a good creepy, skin-crawly ghost story. And, honestly, who doesn't find
the idea of swarming rats just a little unnerving?
Five bloody skulls out of five! At last!
Our next Guilty Pleasure:
"Something horrible is crawling out of your worst nightmares..."