"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Rats by James Herbert

What would the world be like if humans were no longer the superior species? What if rats were dominant, cleverly stalking and hunting mankind in packs, becoming larger, stronger and more ferocious each day? These questions set the premise for James Herbert’s The Rats. The concept sounded interesting to me, albeit a little far-fetched: a swarm of abnormally sized rats appear seemingly out of nowhere and start attacking and eating humans, and the plot follows the plans to stop them. The story itself is very thin and unexciting however, and I really don’t have a clue how the protagonist, a school teacher, gets roped into helping the government and top scientists to eradicate the swarm. Set in the area of London in which the author spent his childhood, The Rats is something of a commentary on the government's lack of interest in less privileged areas of society, as well as the consequences of not dealing with tragedy until it is too late.

The Rats is largely considered as a horror classic, and James Herbert has sometimes been dubbed ‘the British Stephen King’, so due to these two claims, I thought I had better check one of his books out; Herbert is certainly no Stephen King however. First of all, King is a better writer: a major issue I had with this novel was how poorly the sentences were put together. The problems consisted mostly of repetition of words in close succession, such as:
“Just then, he heard a scream from upstairs. He picked up the discarded poker and raced upstairs.”
I can’t stand the repetition of ‘upstairs’ here; I can think of a hundred ways to change these sentences so that it flows more smoothly, so why couldn’t Herbert have done so? There are numerous incidents such as this, but furthermore the writing feels very disjointed and clunky, with very short sentences where there could have been a conjunction to ease the flow of the writing. I suppose bad writing in published work is just a massive pet peeve of mine, so it may not bother you, but for me it made the book quite annoying to read.

As for the idea that The Rats’ is horror classic: I didn’t find it scary so much as funny. No, not because I’m a psycho and find people being eaten alive by rats to be particularly hilarious, it was because it was so awfully cheesy. It would make a great B-movie cheese fest, along the lines of films such as ‘Sleepwalkers’ - if you haven’t seen this please do, it’s about murderous cat people and is great fun. In fact there is a 1982 film adaptation of the novel entitled ‘Deadly Eyes’, but I haven’t seen it yet. I thought the concept of the story itself was a little silly and farcical to begin with, but this is exacerbated by scenarios in the book such as someone dying on the floor of a cinema whilst being eaten alive by the gargantuan rodents:
“Raising one arm from his eyes, he stared up uncomprehendingly at the huge coloured screen above him. His eyes read the words, and his voice spoke them faintly, but his brain did not understand. He whispered ‘The End’.”
I cringed at that. There are also some very over used phrases - not quite clich├ęs but not far off - which just make me sigh and shake my head whenever I read them:
“He didn’t know how long he’d lain there. It could have been five minutes, it could have been five hours.”
As I mentioned earlier, the story is almost non-existent. The novel consists more-or-less of a series of accounts of the rat attacks rather than there being a focus on any sort of structured plot. A chapter begins by introducing a new character, and often gives pages and pages of back story as though they are going to be central to the story, but then they are simply attacked by the rats and savagely killed. I wouldn’t have minded hearing several instances of the attacks if I didn’t have to endure the rambling back story of the victims first.

So moving on from my general grumblings, let’s talk about some the characters. The protagonist, Harris, has absolutely no personality. For some reason Herbert refers to him as ‘the teacher’ an awful lot, as though this has significance, when all it does is reinforce the concept of him as a non-entity. The rats themselves are a little ridiculous; they rapidly become bigger and bigger as the novel progresses, starting out as ‘large rats’, then advancing to the size of cats, then of dogs! Here’s a taste of just how large they grow:
“Its body must have been at least two feet long, its tail another nine or ten inches.”
Harris’ girlfriend, Judy, is as equally bland as ‘the teacher’ and is simply an old fashioned female stereotype. She merely exists to act as an object Harris can have sex with whenever he chooses, and to cook him meals on demand. In fact the entire book seemed a little misogynist. For example when the rats attack the school Harris teaches at, the girls are terrified and crying, while the boys just think the whole situation is cool and are strangely excited; when the rats attack a train the women transform into dithering idiots and it is up to a man to try to lead them to safety.

In conclusion, despite the novel’s esteemed status in the horror world, I was unimpressed. It was severely lacking in plot, and I found that the compilation of the rat attacks was rendered boring due to the gratuitous descriptions of a victim’s life before they were attacked; especially considering the central characters were so underdeveloped, and as a result I found I didn’t care whether anyone survived or not. I probably won’t read the next two books in the trilogy (Lair and Domain), at least not anytime soon. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, because if you’re after a good old fashioned gory blood-soaked horror then you’ve certainly found it in The Rats which contains plenty of gritty scenes of mutilation and murder-by-rat; if you are at all squeamish then steer clear!

It is probable that The Rats would have been more powerful and effective back when it was published in 1974, as rats were viewed as more dangerous and more of a threat than they generally are nowadays. As for me, I love rats; I used to have two pet rats a few years ago, so I didn’t find the concept particularly scary or threatening - giant spiders or giant wasps would have been a different story though!

Rating: 5/10

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