COMING SOON TO CASUAL DEBRIS

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Novel: Stefan Kiesbye, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone; Shogun is on perpetual hiatus.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

James Herbert, The Rats (1974)


Herbert, James, The Rats. London: New English Library, 1974. (first edition, image right)
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The Rats. London: New English Library, February 1980 (my edition, similar to right).
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The Rats. London: Pan Publishing, March 2010 (latest edition, bottom).

Rating: 7/10

There is nothing intelligent about James Herbert's The Rats: the social commentary is incidental, the writing is plain, and while the structure is interesting it is far from ground-breaking. Yet the novel is, without respite, highly entertaining.

"Without respite" is an easy claim as the book is quite short, but Herbert's structure, the short scenes, constantly changing locations, growing tensions and simple writing make for a quick, tense-filled read. The novel is structured around various rat attack scenes interspersed with quieter moments, tender scenes of love (sex) between our hero Harris and his lover Judy, or tender scenes of officials discussing the vermin problem. (Seriously, nothing about this novel is tender: the sex is fleeting and unnecessary while the officials are portrayed as competitive and limelight hungry.) The novel progresses with a mounting rodent threat and the increased involvement of East End high school art teacher Harris, all of which come to a satisfying climax.

The rodent attacks begin in localized areas with a small number of victims, and progresses to mass attacks such as a subway train and Harris's own high school. It is interesting that with the early attacks Herbert chose to give the victims quite a bit of back-story, then quickly had them consumed by rats. I'm not aware if this were at the time a convention, but I was fully immersed in the back-stories, from the closeted salesman Henry Guilfoyle to the once religious Irish girl now vagrant Mary Kelly. For whatever as yet unknown reason, I enjoyed the technique.

These chapters are set beside those of Harris's early involvement as once of his students appears in class with a rat bite, and the tension mounts until we find ourselves amid more large scale attacks. The structure of an active chapter followed by a quiet one allows the reader a bit of a breather between attacks, which is needed since each attack starts slowly and mounts nicely. If we were to jump from one maddening climactic moment to the slow quiet beginnings of pre-attack, it would be more difficult each time for the reader to muster up the required energy to get involved with the scene. The drawback is that some of the quieter chapters, such as when Harris and Judy visit the countryside, come across as a little dull, but really I believe this is because their relationship itself is a little dull.

I mentioned that I was involved with the early victims and their history, but I didn't care too much about Harris or Judy. Our teacher's story is that he is originally from the East End and knows the rat area well, which gives him first-hand experience with the vermin and allows him, a simple school teacher, to become part of the government operative against these rats. While it was not strictly necessary for such a book to have a single protagonist, it lends the novel a sense of continuity which I liked, probably because the book is so short. Moreover, utilizing an average guy in the midst of the action can easily bring the reader into that midst as well. This is no fully-trained special forces rodent killer operative, but just some dude who happens to be quick-witted and concerned for his fellow Londoners. As for Judy, she is a non-character, there only so that our hero Harris can have someone discuss the stress of the invasion, and more importantly, so he can get laid.

Herbert's writing is nothing special but that is an advantage to such a fast-paced read. It would have been nice had he not used the same words over and over and over again, but that's a minor qualm. What did not work for me stylistically is his attempt at internal monologue. A few characters, from Harris to the required British official Foskins (who was a good deal more complex than Harris) had their internal thoughts brought out in the midst of the story in awkward third person narrative. When Harris and Foskins are at the pub together and Harris leaves, we are suddenly wallowing in Foskins's thoughts, an odd leap since the main character has just stepped away and I felt jolted by Foskins's unexpected voice. Another ill-use of the interior monologue occurs near the end, as Harris is rushing toward the novel's climactic scene. Here the rats are continuously being referred to as "evil," which bothered me. Simply put, they are not evil but animals acting on instinct. I believe the word is supposed to be attributed as part of Harris's own stress-filled perceptions, but it ends up coming across as a poor attempt to create drama and to increase the threat of these creatures.

I mention earlier that the social commentary is incidental. Apparently some people were upset at the portrayal of London's canals and garbage situation, but I did not find it accusatory. There is some direct yet brief comments suggesting these areas be made sanitary, but there is no alternative considered, no solution offered, no soap box beneath the author's feet, and no character that represents a better way of life. Moreover, the sanitation situation is necessary for the plot to unfold. There is in addition a scene depicting city workers using virus injected puppies as easy prey to the rats in an attempt to spread a poison throughout the rodent populace, and Herbert is careful not to offend animal rights activists by continuously explaining how Harris is sickened by this and refuses to actively participate. Repeats it often enough to irritate me, and even has Harris lifting a puppy and caressing it, giving it some raw meat as a kind of last supper and thinking moreover of what a wonderful animal lover Judy is... give it a rest.

Of course we learn that the rats were mutants created by nuclear testing in New Guinea, for aren't monster creatures always the result of radiation? It was radiation, after all, that helped the aliens regenerate for the TV series The War of the Worlds. No, Herbert is not shouting out against weapon testing, but really this information is unnecessary and I did not care what caused the rats to mutate and attack, only that were there. We do, I suppose, need this information since it does help bring us to the rodent lair, but I wanted nonetheless to comment on this point.

Another strong aspect of the novel is Herbert's depiction of London. The city is a dark, filthy urban centre of heartache and lost opportunities. The poor community souls we meet have each found some sort of pre-rat infestation sorrow, even tragedy in the case of poor Mary Kelly. The tube stations, dingy churchyards, cinemas and even the zoo are all seen in the dark or, in the case of the high school, in the light while showing off the grilled windows, creepy basements (we don't see it except for the rats and the boot of some poor soul) and disorganized staff. Harris's own flat is located near the top of a taller building, feeling immediately that it is safe from the ground, and in a brief sequence we watch alongside Harris as the streets below are infested with hordes of the over-sized creatures. The only truly safe place appears to be the government buildings, where people discuss the situation openly and nobody thinks to look over their shoulder. London is truly the most complex among the characters, and the city adds a good deal to the narrative.

As an aside I came across this description on the audio version: "For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now..." This is odd since humans have been on the Earth for a mere two hundred thousand years, one fifth of the alleged time span. Does that diminish our long-standing relationship with the vermin? Well, since I cringe simply by typing "vermin" then they must be my natural enemy (and yours too, and I suppose some rats I know personally see me as their natural enemy, simply by the token that I am human). Herbert's object of attention alone can muster up some nasty chills while reading the novel, and as fair warning, I've never been phobic towards any form of rodent, but I admit some of the scenes in this work had me making some less-than-attractive faces.

NOTES:

  • There's a great discussion of the other killer-crazed animal novels that were spawned by the popularity of The Rats at Vault of Evil, titled "Rivals of The Rats."
  • The novel was filmed as Deadly Eyes, released in 1982. I haven't seen it though I understand it is terrible, lacking budget but also imagination, with dogs dressed up to imitate the larger rats.

3 comments:

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I loved your review and although I disagree with some points I was mostly in agreement. I wouldn't say it wasn't clever as I think the skill was in structuring the story so that it moves at great speed, seldom letting up. I first read this as a kid and I think it was clever enough for me. And you are quite correct the movie was terrible.

zybahn said...

Thanks for your comments. I think we are agreeing with the structural aspect; I mention that it is due to the structure that the books is a well-paced read, hence my "without respite." I haven't actually seen the movie but from what I hear it's best to skip it :)

Will Errickson said...

I've got the two sequels, LAIR and DOMINION, on my shelf but haven't gotten to them. If they have the same energy as the original, should be a treat!

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