The Rats Review
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Unabridged Audible Audiobook: 6 hours, 14 minutes
Read by David Rintoul

In 1974, a young James Herbert wrote his first horror novel, The Rats, to great commercial acclaim. The first printing sold out in Britain in less than a month. Critics were not so welcoming of Herbert’s graphic violence (tame by today’s standards) and saw the novel as nothing more than cheap exploitation—which it was. Reading Herbert’s book is much like watching a favorite B-monster movie. And much like the B-movie-gone-crazy horrors of Them, Jaws, or Piranha, Herbert injects his monster narrative with a dash of social commentary, elevating it above its “simple” horror groundings—so much so that the novel still holds up today as an exciting piece of gory pulp fiction.

The plot is simple. Set in London in the early 1970s (probably during the Conservative tenure of Edward Heath), the story finds the city experiencing a plague of giant mutated rats. The locus of the infestation appears to be the poorer communities of the East End, where the rats have taken over the canals and docks and are moving inland. Like Herbert—before becoming a professional writer—our hero, Harris, is a school teacher who becomes involved in the action when a pupil is bitten by one of the large, black vermin. In a matter of hours, the boy dies of complications.

Like his American counterpart, Stephen King, Herbert excels as a storyteller as he builds a life for his incidental characters, layering their prosaic worlds with history and pathos, only to dispatch them soon after—dead and consumed in a river of furry bodies. In one such episode, we are privy to the history of Mary Kelly (also the name of one of Jack the Ripper’s victims), a drunk woman, sheltering with other winos in the bombed-out ruins of an old church (symbolic? I think so). Nearly a whole chapter is devoted to Mary—until, that is, the rats attack, and she and her fellow drunks are torn to shreds.

In another episode, a baby and her protective dog are graphically attacked. Herbert does the unthinkable—he kills animals and kids—prefiguring the Splatter-punk movement of the 21st century and authors like Brian Keene or Jack Ketchum.

Other highlights include a swarm of rats attacking commuters on the London Underground—where, Herbert points out, middle class, working class, man, woman, black, and white mix and are all fated to the same end. Harris’s school is also attacked, and he must defend the children in a wonderfully executed rush of action and tension. Herbert makes urgent his political agenda as he points to a failure of the government (after pushing the poor into the high rises and council houses) to maintain the slums of working class London and leaving the lower class to fester and rot on their own. Herbert himself was from a working class background, and that comes through in his choice of protagonists, as they overcome with wits and will rather than expert skills.

The Rats is a graphic novel (and the first in a trilogy) full of gore and savagery; sensational at the time of its release, it still packs a punch. I remember reading it in the early ‘80s, as it was passed among friends like pornography. In some ways, to us, it was, since Herbert also writes some explicit sex scenes—though, again, they’re tame by today’s standards and not quite Fifty Shades of Grey.

At long last (at least in the U.S.) the unabridged version of the novel, read eloquently by actor David Rintoul, is available. Rintoul captures working class London beautifully and moves the story at a rapid pace. The audio runs 6 hours and 14 minutes, but it contains not a wasted moment as it rushes headlong to its climax. Herbert sadly died in March 2013 at the age of 69, but he leaves behind some great novels that exude (according to Stephen King) “a raw urgency.” With Lair and Domain now available (both read by Rintoul), I can now relive the gore- and vermin-infested excitement of my youth. I suggest you do the same.

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