Pan, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-4472-6450-7
Horror, 2014 (Reissue)
The Rats was first published in 1974 and it was horror author James Herbert’s first book. I am reading the special fortieth anniversary edition of this book, and it’s pretty cool how the edges of the cover are serrated to make it look like something has been nibbling at it. If the story had been better put together, the whole effect would have been deliciously creepy.
As you can guess from the title, this one is about giant, mutated rats basically chewing on everything in their path in London. This is definitely a book written in 1974 because it has many things we will never find in a book today: the gruesome death of a baby and a dog, the use of puppies as bait for the rats, the protagonist is a teacher who admires the bouncing big breasts of his fourteen-year old students, and other fun stuff that will automatically make some people call for James Herbert’s head at Goodreads and Twitter today if the author hadn’t already passed on. This one also has no shortage of gore, and I actually find the stuff that would seem offensive today adds some degree of gritty reality that only intensifies the horror elements. After all, when giant monster rats attack, how likely is it that they would spare the cute babies and dogs?
There are many good things about this book. Mr Herbert was a master at both being precise and scaring the crap out of me. The narrative is succinct yet detailed enough to create a terror-filled atmosphere, and he inserted just enough back stories of the characters here to make them feel somewhat like real people before throwing them to the rats. The Rats is a book that delivers in the monstrous gore department.
However, I suspect that horror fans who are reading this book for the first book today may feel that it is also tad familiar, as, even though it is not Mr Herbert’s fault, many monster books and movies that follow it are cut from the same cloth – same template, same narrative structure.
On the other hand, the story quickly becomes predictable in the sense that there is a clear pattern evident here after a while. It is structured in a way that every chapter featuring the main arc will almost always be followed by a chapter in which some soon-to-be-dead people will be introduced before being disposed of by the end of that chapter. These characters are often far more interesting that the bland and forgettable protagonist, so I soon get this frustrating feeling that there are great stories here, stories that are abruptly cut short to the rats just to keep the arc of the annoyingly nondescript protagonist going. That arc doesn’t even make sense, if I think of it. An art teacher… suddenly working with covert government agencies to stop the rats just because he happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Worse, later chapters just see him mostly shagging his girlfriend in filler chapters sandwiching tales of more interesting people becoming rat food. Ugh.
In the end, The Rats is a serviceable horror story. It can deliver the gore and the chills, while demonstrating the raw promise that the author would hone and deliver in his later books. Yet, this one is also pretty forgettable at the end of the day, so I’d personally recommend buying this book only if you are a collector or there is a cheap sale going on. There are far better horror stories out there.