In 1974, James Herbert (1943 - 2013) was working as an art director at an ad agency. His copywriter colleagues were all frustrated would-be novelists. They were no doubt a little envious when one day, Herbert walked in with a copy of a novel he had quietly written and got published. They must have felt worse still when The Rats went on to become a huge success, selling tens of millions of copies. It was obvious that Herbert wouldn’t be an ad man for long.
Herbert went on to become one of the most important writers of British horror fiction, producing 23 novels before he died in 2013. Almost all of his books are standalones; The Rats is the only book of his to receive sequels, which reflects its popularity and enduring power. Herbert was insecure about his status, memorably stating “I don’t understand why I am so successful.” Looking back at The Rats, it’s not difficult to see why it cut through in 1974 and set the stage for his career.
Set in contemporary London, The Rats is a fast-paced, bleak and nihilistic horror novel focused on a rampage by a swarm of particularly large, hyper-aggressive rats which feast on human beings. Herbert was inspired by two main experiences. One was a viewing of Tod Browning’s 1931 film of Dracula, and particularly the scene in which Renfield describes a nightmare about hordes of rats. The other was Herbert’s memories of growing up in a London still devastated by the Blitz during World War II. In the book, the rats thrive in the decaying spaces of East London, where the abandoned poor are forced to live. In this sense, the book is a condemnation of the malign neglect of urban spaces in the UK during the 1970s.
The rats themselves are a memorable menace, frightening in their numbers and audaciousness. They also have a kind of dark intelligence to them, knowing when to retreat and when to attack as if they have been reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Many of the people in the book sometimes seem little better, however. Even the protagonist, art teacher Harris, is deeply flawed to say the least. In one early scene he sexualises the teenage girls at his school, and treats his girlfriend Judy like a personal skivvy. As time goes on, he does resolve to fight back against the rats, and ultimately does play a crucial positive role.
It’s easy to imagine readers being taken aback by the grisly violence of The Rats and even today the book is not for the faint of heart. One of the first casualties of a rat attack is a young baby, and later there is a harrowing sequence focused on homeless people living in a bombsite. Over time, Herbert would become known for his large-scale setpieces of grim destruction, and his flair for this begins in The Rats. Two of the most memorable parts of the book focus on assaults by vast quantities of rats on recognisable locations - first, the London Underground and later, London Zoo.
Herbert does a good job of describing these apocalyptic events in suitably horrific terms. Eyes are eaten, flesh is torn from bone, and the book creates the sense that if something isn’t done, the rat plague will cause all of society to collapse. The weaker aspect of the book is how Herbert depicts the human response. The tactics deployed by the authorities don’t seem plausible or convincing, and so the story wraps up in a slightly unsatisfying way. Herbert’s inexperience as a writer also shows through at times - he gets his chronology mixed up, and he isn’t able to craft any memorable characters.
The Rats is easy to recommend to readers looking to get into horror fiction, and to the important work of James Herbert in particular. While some may find the unrelenting carnage quite depressing, this is a brisk and efficient read which captures a terrifying scenario well. Herbert may not have understood his success, but readers of The Rats probably will.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.