Saturday, October 31, 2015

"The Rats" by James Herbert

Early on in DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King tells this anecdote about the writing of his vampire novel SALEM’S LOT where, in the first draft, one of the characters meets a fairly unpleasant end at the teeth of a swarm of rats loosed on them by king vampire Barlow. In his words, King had wanted to riff on a similar moment in Stoker’s DRACULA but add a gruesome E.C. Comics touch to the proceedings, and was gleefully happy with the result. However, King’s editor, Bill Thompson, found the scene to be so revolting he asked for it to be changed in subsequent rewrites, with the character instead biting it when he sets off a booby-trap on a stairway. A nasty way to go, but not as spectacular as his earlier demise - a “middle-of-the-roader” as King puts it - and the change had the effect of leaving the build up to that, repeated mentions of the number of rats infesting the town, with no real pay-off.

I wonder what ole Bill would have made of James Herbert’s debut novel, THE RATS?

There’s not as much of a leap between the two books as you’d think. Stoker’s DRACULA was the key inspiration for both and in fact, it was that very scene King was putting his own disgusting spin on that sparked Herbert’s novel. But whereas King’s novel is a good, hefty sized volume - maybe not the doorstoppers IT and THE STAND were, but still clocking in at over six hundred pages – Herbert’s is a speedy little shocker that comes in at around a third of LOT’s page count, the kind of slim paperback that you could slip into your back pocket and carry around all day, for whenever you find a quiet corner and moment to yourself. (Those are the best kind, aren’t they?) And while King was using DRACULA as a template so he could dig into what might happen if the Count had found his way to an American small town, Herbert, the son of street traders from London’s East End, used it as a jumping off point to put a voice to his frustration at how the powers-that-be were letting his old home fall into ruin. Simply put, the events of THE RATS could have been avoided had the city not left an old house to rot.

The plot is as straight-forward as they come. There are these swarms of bigger-than-normal rats running around London eating people. Any survivors who have been bit will die painfully within twenty four hours from a virus that the rats are carrying. Someone has to put a stop it and of course, that job falls into the lap of Harris, an art teacher whose student was among the first victim of the virus. What? You thought the authorities were going to do it? They’re the ones that gave the rats their breeding ground by neglecting the bombed out buildings around London, or the homeless problem, which is how the nasty little buggers got their first taste of human flesh. No, it’s only with the help of our working class hero with no first name (I’ve read this book twice and never spotted one) and the kind of anti-establishment streak that has him locking horns with and ready to slug any authority figure that he meets that The Man is able to get anywhere with combating this menace before it wipes the entire city.

As you can tell, THE RATS is nestled very firmly and proudly within old-fashioned B-movie, pulp horror territory of the nature / science gone amok branch. We never get a description of Harris but it’s easy to picture him as the sort of virile looking, broad shouldered, square jawed manly man we associate with these stories. Scientists are here to spout off jargon, suggest solutions and then get the hell out of the way so men of action can take over and save the day through applications of violence and mule-stubbornness, usually after the initial attempt to stop the threat fails or even makes it worse. Women are um…here…basically, though of course, the only one who has any major role outside of potential rat fodder is Harris’s lovely girlfriend, Judy, she of no last name. Even that old monster movie boogeyman Atomic Radiation sticks its nose in with a near blink-and-you’ll-miss-it suggestion that these killer rats were spawned from mutants originating from a nuclear testing site. THE RATS is very much aware of its pedigree, as two of its set pieces, an attack on a school and one at a movie theater, feel like deliberate nods to THE BIRDS and THE BLOB. (Even the title is suggestive of such.)

You wouldn’t have found the level of graphic violence and explicit sex in those old B-movies that you do in Herbert’s books, though. Imagine one of those old flicks having a gruesome baby with a considerably harsher horror film of the post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD –era or a step between classical horror and the splatterpunk movement. Getting back to DANSE MACABRE for a moment, in his segment on Herbert and Ramsey Campbell, King accurately describes Herbert as “putting his combat boots on and assaulting the reader with horror […] …seizing us by both lapels and screaming in our faces.” A writer that has gone on record stating he loves to see how much he can get away with, Herbert is willing to charge full-bore into some very unpleasant places. This is, after all, a book about people being devoured by a swarm of disease carrying vermin. Herbert is clearly having a blast playing with our old fear of cloth and skin not being much of a defense against teeth and smashes fiction taboos about what’s okay and what’s not early. Within the first twenty pages, a baby and the dog protecting it fall victim to the rats, a scene that got Herbert in trouble in his home country, one reviewer saying that that the book was enough to make a rodent retch. While the remainder of THE RATS never quite matches that mean spirited shock, it still manages to sustain a level of nastiness comparable to some Italian gore flicks. A good part of the motivation to keep reading is seeing not only whether or not he’s going to go there but how.

What THE RATS lifted from those old movies most successfully was the pacing of those drive-in monster films. This is a book that moves, never letting the action lull for a moment. There are probably two chapters out of the twenty that don’t deal with the menace of the rats. If it looks like one of those lulls is coming, Herbert just takes the camera off his main characters for a moment and switches to a minor character for a little side vignettes, usually a few pages of back story and “…and then they got ate by rats” as the denouement. The episodic chunks are actually fairly successful at giving the reader a cross-section look at what life was like in post-war London and helping us grasp that there’s an entire city in danger, not just our Chuck Meatslab hero and company. It’s this refusal to let things lag for too long, coupled with our desire to see where he’s going to take it, and its short length that makes THE RATS such a quick, exciting read.

However, if you’re interested in checking out Herbert’s work, I wouldn’t call it the best place to start. That would be the first Herbert novel that I read and his second written, THE FOG. (No connection to the John Carpenter’s movie.) Reading THE RATS afterward, it feels like something of a dry run for THE FOG; an amorphous threat, similar cast of characters and story structure, as well as the same reckless abandon in regards to its content. But the scope of THE FOG is grander and the characters are given a tiny bit more weight. The nature of THE FOG’s threat, an insanity causing microbe, is also more interesting one than THE RATS swarm. There are, after all, only so many ways you can describe people fighting against rats crawling all over them before such scenes start to sound the same. Again, a reason the short length plays into its favor. When THE RATS reaches that point, its ends soon afterward. THE FOG on the other hand, is able to throw out such varied and memorable horrors as a entire town committing suicide, man-eating pigeons, and a whole class of murderous school children. (Also, THE FOG doesn’t have a moment where its main character ogles one of his young students. Seriously, ew.) Once you’ve read THE FOG, THE RATS is as good a place as any to go next. Despite the backlash he got from it, THE RATS was successful enough that Herbert wrote two sequels to it. The first, LAIR, sounds a little too much like THE RATS…AGAIN to really interest me, but I’ve seen someone describe the third post-apocalyptic installment, DOMAIN, as “George Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD with rat monsters.” Now that I’ve got to check out.

There was a film adaptation of THE RATS, but not a particularly faithful one. (According to the screenwriter, he didn't really read the book and instead just ripped off PIRANHA.) It's worth checking out, though, because the way they went about portraying the rat swarm is somewhat infamous...and adorable. Would you like to know more? Hop over to Checkpoint Telstar for Tim's review of DEADLY EYES.

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