I know all about rats. I live in an old Victorian terrace and, if I’ve had one rat scuttle beneath my floorboards, I’ve had a dozen. I even intercepted one trying to noisily gnaw its way up through my lounge carpet beside the radiator. Rats: I could tell you a thing or two…
Thankfully, though, none of my rats have been quite on the scale or ferocity of James Herbert’s rats. I had always known of The Rats as a classic of horror fiction but, if I am being honest, horror is not really my genre, so I had never read it before. However, the chance discovery of a scarce first edition of the novel seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, and I often find that simply holding and reading a book, which I know is rare, is a pleasure in itself.
The Rats was first published by New English Library in 1974. In its day, it was criticised for its overly graphic descriptions of death and mutilation, which were deemed shocking to 70s Britain and, accordingly, lapped up by an eager, sensation-hungry British public. In the half-decade since, public sensibilities have become desensitised by routine exposure to violent movies and video games and, today, the language of The Rats seems fairly inoffensive; although it remains a gripping and exciting story.
One of Herbert’s motivations for writing The Rats was to highlight the lack of government investment in clearing post-War slums in the poor, East End boroughs of London, creating an environment in which his imagined story had the potential for growing some roots in reality.
This concern has echoes, which carry through into our own generation, with the slow worldwide governmental response to climate change producing a threat to humanity every bit as sinister as a plague of flesh-eating rats. James Herbert may never have intended to be a modern-day environmental activist, but his rats are a powerful metaphor of a sweeping catastrophe, which humans have been slow to counteract.
And, for myself, after reading The Rats, I have found that I’ve been examining the dark shadows down by the skirting boards with a little more trepidation, fearful that where there might be one…
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow’s not scared of rats.