One of the most reliable trends in paperback horror of the ’70s and ’80s was the subject of animals going wild. Virtually every species got its moment of hip-pocket shock infamy: roaches, cats, worms, dogs, locusts, etc. There was even a string of novels about giant crabs by the infamous Guy N. Smith.
The man who made all this interspecies mayhem possible was James Herbert with his debut novel, The Rats. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries in the animal terror-pulp world, he would go on to a multi-decade career as England’s answer to Stephen King. Once you read The Rats, you’ll understand why he distinguished himself from the rest of the crowd.
The plot of The Rats harkens back to 50’s sci-fi, with London unexpectedly finding itself the scene of attacks by packs of rats. Not just any rats: these little bastards are organized, intelligent and strike in a mixture of sizes (from regular to “big dog” size). The only hope for the survival of the human race lies in Harris, an art school teacher, and Foskins, the Minister of Health who knows more than he might let on.
Don’t let the boilerplate nature of the aforementioned plot turn you off because The Rats is an absorbing, sharply-paced read. Herbert builds the simple plot around a series of creepy setpieces that become grander and more baroque in style as the novel progresses. For example, there’s a stunning attack scene that happens in a tube station and a dizzying, surreal moment where a zookeeper looks on in horror as the rats descend on his zoo and uncage an array of animals that run wild.
But there’s more to the novel’s effect that carnage. The real power comes from Herbert’s writing style. He has an eye for surreal imagery that really captures the reader’s imagination, like a scene where Harris witness a wave of rats gliding over a trapped car.
Better yet, he shows an inventiveness – and, surprisingly for shock-horror, a thoughfulness – that goes beyond lurid descriptions of mayhem. Consider how the attack scenes in The Rats often have a prelude where we get a brief character sketch of the person or persons about to be attacked. In a few paragraphs, Herbert lays out the contours of an inner life and an internal conflict for a character in a way that other authors working at this level wouldn’t bother with.
A moment where this technique is used to essay a group of doomed derelicts, giving a glimpse into how they became societal cast-offs, is a heartbreaker. Such moments not only add dramatic weight to the proceedings but also lend a note of humanity that is often underappreciated in Herbert’s work. Another memorable moment in this vein is a moment where a mother discovers her infant child has been attacked: rather than go for cheap shock imagery, Herbert gives an impressionistic portrait of the scene that keys in on the emotional anguish of the mother. It’s more powerful than a visceral approach could be and shows how, even at the beginning, Herbert had a skill that the subsequent wave of imitators would lack.
The result was a novel that triumphed over the harrumphing critics to win over a big audience and influence an array of other writers. The Rats was not only often imitated but its success would inspire a movie, a video game and another two literary sequels from Herbert. He’d write better and more conceptually inspired material in his career but The Rats proved that Herbert had a gift that deserved genre biz success from the very beginning.