Haunted by James Herbert

hauntedA skeptical ghost hunter goes on a mission in Haunted, a 1988 novel by James Herbert. Arriving with some emotional baggage of his own, the ghost hunter soon discovers that ghosts are real – and that they want vengeance.

It’s the first appearance of Herbert’s ghost hunter David Ash, who would go on to further adventures in The Ghosts of Sleath (1994) and Ash (Herbert’s last novel, 2012). Ash believes in natural explanations, that all apparitions and similar phenomena can be explained by drafts, leaks and other such faults found in old houses… and the rats, the rats in the walls, perhaps?

Invited to Edbrook Hall by the three Mariell siblings, Ash’s investigations soon take a sour turn as he glimpses a girl in white around the premises, supposedly a ghost of the family’s long-dead younger sister. Revelations follow revelations, and in the end even Ash’s own family history comes into play.

At a mere 228 pages Haunted is a quick read. Herbert keeps the chapters short and his language blunt. The otherwise effective narrative is interrupted by two jarring flashbacks that would’ve probably been more effective as a prologue. Incidentally, that’s exactly how they were handled in the movie adaptation of the story (1995).

Ultimately it’s a ridiculously far-fetched tale, even for a ghost story. The big twist itself is great; it’s the motivation for the events that is glaringly beyond belief. Herbert’s writing saves a lot, but whereas his sentences are brisk, sharp and clear, the plot is a convoluted, murky mess.

The movie adaptation from 1995 adds some story and makes it all a bit sexier, but both versions follow the same basic outline.

** (2/5)

The Rats by James Herbert

RatsnovelThe 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. WellsThe 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.

***** (5/5)