The titular rodents attack in The Rats (1974), the first novel by British horror stalwart James Herbert. Both a classic of the genre and surprisingly modern for its time, The Rats rises above common B-movie trappings due to the quality of Herbert’s writing. It’s not Shakespeare, of course, but writing good pulp horror doesn’t require a bard, it calls for a different sort of writer.
The tale is set in the familiar mold of H.G. Wells‘ The War of the Worlds (1898); a singular event blooms into a society-wide calamity, all the while observed through the eyes of one unassuming everyman character. Here it’s Harris, a teacher, who learns of the beasts when his young student is bitten by one. More attacks occur with increasing violence, first it’s children, then outcasts of the society, finally everybody.
Herbert fleshes out each victim before passing them on to the rodents. The small vignettes burst with details, painting a cinematic tableau of 1970s London. Herbert keeps things short and sweet, recognising that the readers are not here for a social treatise. There’s just enough to make the victims interesting, then it’s off to the rats they go.
The rats themselves are a seething mass of fur and claw, overcoming their victims by their sheer numbers. There’s a splash of eco-horror in the story; common London sewer rats get supercharged thanks to another, possibly mutated larger breed brought to the UK secretly from New Guinea. These big bad rats are portrayed with human qualities, they often stare at their victims and seem to anticipate their moves.
The attacks are vicious. Babies, moviegoers, animals at a zoo, all fall prey to gnawing teeth and gripping claw. A particularly impressive sequence of events takes place at an underground station, told from the viewpoint of several characters. First it’s a man on the platform, then a station worker, then people on a passing train, then the station master. With each changing viewpoint Herbert ups the ante. The reader knows what’s going to happen, but the joy is in discovering how Herbert pulls it off. The Rats might seem deadly serious on the surface, but inside it’s all fun.
The Rats launched a fruitful career for James Herbert. In the eighties, the novel itself spawned a movie and even a computer game. It also made horror stories about animal attacks popular – the familiar formula keeps reappearing through the 70s and the 80s, only the animals change. Herbert himself followed up on the furry creatures in the sequels The Lair (1979) and Domain (1984). However, as a standalone original The Rats is unsurpassed. Its strength is that it’s exactly what it says on the cover, a story about rats. Herbert works within very tight limits, but within those limits everything is primed to perfection. There’s a beautiful simplicity to a novel that sticks to its strengths with such tenacity, such single-minded purpose. If any book can survive a nuclear apocalypse, it’s probably The Rats.