It’s London and the early 1970s. The city still bares the marks of the Blitz, peppered with rubble strewn bomb sites, and the flowery hope of the swinging sixties seems to have withered, poisoned by Britain’s industrial, economic and political decline. This is the backdrop to The Rats, James Herbert’s 1974 horror classic.
In many ways, it’s pulp, pure unadulterated, page turning, yarn ripping pulp – and I love it for it. In another way, it’s more than that. Stephen King compared it to the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK.’ Our monster for this story is, or rather are, the rats: a twist – at the time – on the stock mindless, unstoppable force. They are big, they are man eating and they are multiplying like, well like rats. Oh, and they have a bite that if you are lucky enough to survive an attack you will die an excruciating death from the bacterium in their saliva.
When it was first published, aside from selling out its initial 100,000 print run in three weeks, it was criticised for its gore. Something for which today it would fit right in on primetime TV or every other person’s snuff seasoned Facebook feed. The book kicks off with a graphic killing of a homeless man, down on his luck and about to get a whole lot unluckier. We progress quickly to an attack on a small child and its dog. As terrible as this is, going right for kids and cuddly animals, I felt there was always a point. The reader is under no illusion from the start of the terrible force that is coming up from the basements, the sewers and the underground. Also, the rats are undoubtable a motif of decay and perhaps of the forces in the world that were causing Britain to reenvisage itself. No longer the world power, painting half the world pink with civilisation. Instead,a sick man of Europe, torn between its heroism of a few decades previous and the dismantling of its Empire in a new financial world order that made it reflect inwardly about whether everything about Empire was as good as was thought.
Structurally, it is hard to fault. It follows a neat five acts structure, sublimely tight pacing, including two ideally placed interludes, for the reader to catch their breath and think, maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay. (Silly reader). Our hero, Harris, is an art teacher in the East End of London. He is a baby boomer born in that part of the city and he has stayed despite its problems. Harris’s vague sense of duty to the area is authentic and useful to the plot. Like a lot adults who can remember their youth but can see the certainty of middle age skulking towards them, their past and the place that begat them can offer a familiar comfort even if one has ambivalent feelings towards it. Harris is loyal but can’t quite put his finger on why he should be, to this place, to his girlfriend, to his school. Again, I think this rings true. Harris, for me, played as a good hero because he was slightly reluctant and found himself in the middle of things not necessarily out of design. In the hyperbole of a full-on action-horror story this is great stuff, but equally extremely relatable to as a reader with middle age skulking towards me. The loyalty Harris feels, combined with his familiarity with the East End of London, is what propels him deeper into the narrative as he is cajoled by the authorities to help them.
There are a couple of minor gripes, for example the origin of the rats is weakly indicated at the start and I think there could have been a stronger way of doing this that tied into the decay theme – I’ll come back to that below. Secondly, the love interest could have been put to more use. I thought she would have been put in peril but this is not followed through with; however, there is plenty of peril to go around.
The modern reader might also cringe at the gender relationships. They could feel very sexist: for example, Harris’ girlfriend is the one always to make his meals, even though she works herself as a dress designer in a major department store. What women there are feature as passive players – the young women on the brilliant tube train section, the senior civil servant’s wife, the dates in the cinema scene – and objects of sexual desire. However, I read these with a smile, like reading an entry in a parent’s teenage diary. They date the book but not in any significant way, unless you are so painfully liberal as to be a utopian-Stalinist who is so psychologically fragile as to have an unsubtle (and unstable) mind (safe room, colouring books and puppies at the ready).
Herbert does action perhaps better than anything. The tube train section, for me, is perhaps the stand out. I won’t spoil it but it is brilliant horror, full of tension, tragic and inevitable death, panic and heroism. In fact, Herbert does heroism well too. From Harris to minor vignette characters, the heroes in The Rats aren’t exceptional, they are merely ordinary people doing the best they can in extraordinary circumstances. Okay, they are usually men and thinking about sex, but hey it was the 70s, man! And we’ve already covered that point. In addition to the tube, the school scene, the bombed-out church, the zoo and through to the exciting end sequence are all fast paced and tense.
The Rats was adapted into a 1982 movie entitled Deadly Eyes. I’ve not seen it yet so I can’t comment but I can see why it was adapted. Aside from its commercial success, the plot structure is a classic five acts, that could be condensed easily enough to the obligatory Hollywood three (see John Yorke’s screen writing classic In to the Woods for more details). The action set pieces combined with the London backdrop would also be a thrill with modern CGI, hopefully mixed with a little Carpenter-esque animatronics, a la The Thing. In fact, the entire time I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how good this would be as a movie made today but with a few changes to bring it up to date.
London is a very different place now. The docks, which feature so prominently in the book as a declining industrial zone, with dysfunctional labour relations, have since been redeveloped into a delightful shiny, phallic edifice of neo-liberal avarice and greed – or so the subtext could read. The UK is facing a new crisis of identity, still connected to the decline of Empire, but now reimagined in a truly global and multicultural London where people move around the world nearly as easily as money appears into the bank accounts of the top one per cent. Bretix is happening, the far right is having a boon, as are fundamentalists of all descriptions, and trust in politics and authority is at an all-time low.
Seems to me a ravenous, multiplying horde of amoral, giant, man (yes, yes, or woman) eating rats could be an allegory for any number of psycho-analytical neuroses. (You, there with the manicured beard, put the puppies down). One could imagine bankers in Canary Wharf would be ideally placed to be set upon, but not just them. I’d planned a whole scene with an EDL meeting coming to a sticky end, and a jihadist bomb cell not quite getting the glory they desired. The same class dynamic can be played out. Foskins, the polite, reactionary, greasy poll climbing bureaucrat, detached from the people he serves, is as appropriate today as he was forty years ago. As in Twenty Eight Days Later London would be the star, as much as Harris, maybe played by Idris Elba or ParminderNagra this time around. I’d put the love interest in peril this time, and I’d make Harris a biology teacher to help with the resolution, particularly when crunching five acts down to three.
The only other thing I’d do is open with the sound of scratching, low, barely audible, then louder as container ships from all around the world are unloaded at the London docks and loaded onto lorries. Rats scurry between loading pallets and from under tyres, always close to the humans but unseen. Another pallet is unloaded, a wooden box with holes in it. The scratching starts to get louder, and we hear the first, quiet squeaks. A Parcel Force worker signs for it and it is loaded into the back of a delivery van. The banging and crashing and whining of loading and unloading grows louder as the back door of the van is rolled shut. The camera, in half-light, begins to move toward the wooden box with holes. The scratching is now gratingly loud and the squeaks almost screams. We reach the holes and move in to darkness. Two red eyes appear from the black. The cacophony stops. The eyes hold our gaze for seconds before the silence is broken by a screaming screech and teeth lunge at the screen. Harris rolls over and turns off her alarm…
In conclusion. If you love horror, haven’t read this one, and don’t take yourself too seriously, then I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Page turning fun, from beginning to end, that makes you want to write it up into a screenplay.
The Rats was published by Pan Macmillan (40th anniversary edition) on 8th May 2014.
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Review by Daniel Soule
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