Thursday, 9 February 2017

"The Rats" by James Herbert



1977. Spitalfields fruit and veg market, London. The rat moved furtively among the rotting remains of discarded matter dropped by the porters. The animal looked at me gazing at it then continued to rummage. It was 20.30.

I had recently joined City printers, Daniel Greenaway and son as a warehouseman. Recently married I worked all the overtime I could. Tonight was no different. Now, I was on my way to Liverpool Street to catch a train home.

1977. The year of the punk. High octane music. Raw, blunt, violent and feral - just like a rat.

In my shoulder bag was a copy of James Herbert's first novel, "The Rats," a horror story published three years earlier. At home was my copy of the debut album by The Stranglers, "Rattus Norvegicus." A powerful piece of rock. The Stranglers were never punk, far too old, yet their music, this album aligned itself with punk as did Herbert's book. Both book and punk were ferocious, wild, untamed, untrained with a basic thrust that had no refinements. no subtleties.  Both music and book set about, in a primitive fashion, to be accessible yet hard hitting and utterly uncompromising.  

In reality, Punk was nothing more than Rhythm and Blues on speed. It wasn't an original sound but a borrowed one. Its delivery, angry, feisty was what set it apart. It laid to waste all those that went before yet was itself of the same source music as that which created former 'movements.' Rock 'n Roll, Psychedelia, Prog etc. This wasn't the case with James Herbert. There had been nothing like him before. Yes, there had been horror authors, damn fine ones too, most notably, on the contemporary front, Stephen King. King though was more refined. His prose bordered literary fiction rather than purely commercial. His rich characterisation depicted beautiful American scenes capturing the core of American family life. It had horror at its heart, scary stuff too, but it was far more than just of that genre.

Not so Herbert. He paired everything back to basics. His characters, all good, were often sketchy with little development to speak of. Their very existence within the books narrative was to add sufficient meat to the bone for the horrors to be unleashed into the reader's mind.

The prologue sets the scene. It raises questions in your mind, questions that can only be answered by turning the page. A house, long vacant, the former home of a woman whose mind has run to lunacy, becomes overgrown, so overgrown it is barely visible from the road. So dilapidated has it become that its existence fades from people's awareness. Still, in this derelict state, there is something ominous about the place.

If the prologue had been the dissonant clamour of feedback then chapter one was a power chord struck loud. In a short four pages, we learn of Henry Guilfoyle. His success as a salesperson, his failure as a closet homosexual. A man whose career declined following a foolish fling with a much younger colleague. At forty-nine Henry Guilfoyle has been drinking himself to death but alcohol takes its time. Not so the rats who devour Henry in a gruesome, frenzied attack.

All this in sixteen pages. Then, the pace increases. This is a story told at 100mph. The sheer velocity of the novel is equipaced with the carnage of the rats as they plunder the East End of London before turning to the London Underground.

Critic's lambasted "The Rats" calling it un-literary, crass, its author less than worthy. The book buying public loved it purchasing copies by the tens of thousands.


What impressed me was the simplicity of the concept. Facing that rat in Spitalfields, I was irrationally scared. Human's are naturally afraid of rats. Much of that fear is unfounded, based on myth but all the same, rats feature large in human phobias.

Once Herbert has his foot pressed against the accelerator having pushed metal to the floor, or, at the risk of mixing my metaphors yet returning to an earlier one, he pumps out a three-chord riff at maximum speed.  It is gung-ho, full speed and pagan.

When the climax reaches its final chapter it comes with an animal frenzy. The author's prose, fast and fevered,  creates a sense of near panic,  an obsessive desire to rush the sentences printed before you in aid of getting to the end, of seeing good win over bad.

And it does.

Almost.

As the pace slackens so the epilogue arrives like the dying notes of a guitar fading into a drone. Not all the rats are dead.

Although a horror story "The Rats" could also be classified as a disaster novel. The only other book of its kind that captivated me when I first read it and which I still go back and read now, is John Wyndham's "The Day of the Triffids."  Wyndham's work has stood the test of time yet still there are those who refuse to recognise its worth or the authors value to literature. James Herbert too remains the eternal outsider. "The Rats" may not be a literary masterpiece but masterpiece it most certainly is.

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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

1 comment:

Cara H said...

I may have read this book. I need to read it again, as I remember nothing about it.
It's funny with rats. On one hand, I love them. I've had pet rats. My son and I had a rat named Terrance, whom we loved very much. Terrance loved pumpkin seeds and cooked yams. He was smart and gentle, and it broke our hearts when he developed tumors in his lungs and started coughing up blood.
On the other hand, sewer rats are the stuff of nightmares. I used to live in a place where if you came out at night, you'd see rats scurrying around. Once when I went walking by the South Platte River, a rat scurried across my path and jumped in the water. I felt as if my skin was crawling after that. I've literally had nightmares about them.