This book is so savage that it opens with a scene in which a baby gets eaten alive by rats and then moves on to a scene in which a woman tries to burn down a church in retaliation for God killing her big-dick Irish boyfriend.
I’ve written about James Herbert before and was amused not only by the pervasive horniness of his writing but also by his somewhat conflicted set of attitudes towards the British establishment. Older Herbert loathed the British class system but adored the Queen and Mrs Thatcher and so produced a novel in which the Queen and Mrs Thatch were trapped in a low-key and largely ineffectual administrative tug-of-war with the wing of the British establishment that was protecting paedophiles and nurturing the psychic talents of Hitler’s secret Down syndrome lovechild.
Upon reading The Rats for the first time since my balls dropped, I was delighted to discover that Young Herbert’s feelings about the British establishment were a touch less conflicted. This may be a book about a plague of giant, mutant, man-eating psychic rats but it’s also a book about the absolute corruption and ineptitude of the British ruling-class.
Aside from being astonishingly graphic and deliciously unpleasant, the book’s opening scenes serve to shine spotlights on different aspects of a single problem. It’s not just that the rats eat a baby and then wind up eating a load of homeless people, it’s that the baby was the product of a working-class home where the mother was so busy and forced to live in such bad housing that she didn’t notice when a load of giant rats started munching on her daughter. Similarly, the woman who gets eaten alive while having a drink with some other homeless people wound up homeless because she was failed by her family, the church, the state and even the NHS. All of these people mean well and pride themselves on their willingness to help but when faced with someone whose libido is so vast that she unapologetically seduces married men they frown, shuffle their shoes, and turn a blind eye as her trajectory trends ever downwards.
The Rats is not set in the world of today where decades of under-investment and deliberate budget-cutting have seen British institutions retreat further and further from our lives. This is a book set in the shadow of World War II where large British civic institutions were still part of the texture of people’s daily lives; the institutions that feature in The Rats are well-staffed and well-funded, it’s just that the people who work for them are incompetent and the people making decisions are more interested in their own advancement than they are in looking after the British people. The Rats is a book about corruption and neglect, but the forms those vices take are very different to those imposed upon us by today’s Conservative party.
After some considerable jumping back and forth between different viewpoints, the book settles on a junior teacher at an inner-city school. Harris is very much your stereotypical post-war Angry Young Man who has received an education and chosen to teach at a school in a poor area out of a sense of class solidarity. This puts him at odds with the more socially-elevated Head Teacher as well as the ambitious deputy-head. However, despite choosing to teach in a less affluent school, Harris spends the opening chapters openly loathing the kids in his care: He hates their surly attitude, he hates the way they talk, he hates the way they dress, and any kid who does do reasonably well in school is viewed as some kind of nerdy loser.
This inner conflict spills over into Harris’ private life as he complains bitterly about his girlfriend’s middle-class spinster aunt only to adore the lifestyle that comes with owning a cute little cottage in the countryside away from the canals and tower blocks. Though not exactly central to the plot, this inner tension does go some way towards explaining not only the contortions of the Older Herbert, but also the actions of large sections of upwardly-mobile ostensibly liberal but ultimately quite conservative British people. Then as now, if you view your passage out of poverty as a matter of stepping on other people’s heads then your politics is less likely to be concerned with doing away with head-stepping and more likely to be all about ensuring that someone other than you gets stepped on next.
The plot proper starts with Harris noticing that one of his students is bleeding. Upon learning that the wound was inflicted by a large black rat, Harris accompanies the child to hospital where he learns not only of the dead baby from the opening scenes but also of the dead homeless people and a rash of recent rat attacks all over London’s East end. Not long after, Harris is horrified to learn that his student has died from an illness resulting from the rat bite and health officials tell him that aside from being preternaturally large, the rats are also carriers of a terrible disease that causes people to die in atrocious pain less than a day after infection.
The health officials who brief Harris on the disease also swear him to secrecy, the under-secretary responsible for chairing the working-group set up to deal with rat-related problems assumes that private contractors will be able to deal with the large rats and informs everyone that warning the public would just result in panic. As a result of being local and inside the government’s circle of trust, Harris is brought in to advise the government on the local area and assist the contractors but the government’s high-handed dismissiveness and the contractors’ officiousness prove to be little match for the dangers posed by the rats.
While you simply cannot fault the raw, atavistic savagery of Herbert’s set-piece rat attacks, I must admit to really enjoying the way that the government seems to offer little support other than pomp-and-circumstance backed by arrogant waffling. There’s a great bit when the rats mass for an attack on Harris’ school and while the teachers do manage to get a call in to the authorities, the police and fire service turn out to be almost incapable of doing anything other than standing around in smart uniforms looking official. This forces Harris to start yelling instructions out the window before the rats start gorging on kiddy-nibbles but rather than expressing gratitude, survivors and officials alike wind up moaning about his lack of respect for the school’s hierarchy and his refusal to let the people in charge make decisions.
Herbert returns to British attitudes towards social class and hierarchy again and again throughout the book. In one scene, we’re told that an arrogant under-secretary has been sacked for failing to do anything to prevent the rats massacring a load of people but it then turns out that the sacking is merely a charade and he’s actually still in control and waiting for a chance to return to public life. When the working-group hit on the idea of infecting live puppies with a deadly disease and feeding them to the rats, a load of rats get infected and the threat is believed to have passed, at which point the under-secretary sacks half the working-group and assumes full responsibility for the success right up until the moment the rats re-group and stage another massacre.
While Herbert’s politics mean that I spent a lot of time smiling or rolling my eyes at the nature of his critique, there is no denying the style and power with which Herbert’s views on British society are delivered. The characters, though basic and often little more than sympathetic viewpoints or metaphorical archetypes, are engaging enough to propel the whole thing forward and Herbert’s vision of a corrupt British society struggling to contend with a lethal health crisis obviously resonates with more contemporary and less ratty health crises.
However, as enjoyable as this kind of social criticism may be, you don’t read James Herbert for his political allegories. You’re here for the sex and violence and this is where Herbert really delivers as aside from the gloriously brutal set-piece battles with the rats, the text is also littered with these surprisingly graphic but somewhat restrained sex scenes. Indeed, while The Rats contains little penetrative sex or willy-brandishing, it has more finger-fucking than any other book I can think of. There’s even a weird running joke about Harris plucking at his girlfriend’s pubic hair while she’s trying to carry on conversations with other people.
Having read the David Ash books and been slightly weirded-out by the jack-knife shifts from harrowing violence to eye-wateringly explicit sex scenes, I found the use of sex and violence in The Rats a good deal more satisfying as the savage violence of the fight-scenes and the carnal luxury of the sex scenes are cleverly set against not only the smug bloodlessness of the committee meetings but also the child-like celibacy of respectable bourgeois living as embodied in the figure of the maiden aunt.
In fact, thinking again about the David Ash books, I am almost tempted to say that the problem with those books is that they should have loads more sex that they wound up having. The Rats is a complex and conflicted psychological work in that, on the one hand there’s Herbert’s vision of sex-and-violence as something primitive, vital, and ontologically opposed to the premature necrosis of bourgeois professionalism. However, on the other hand, there’s recognition that bourgeois professionalism has its upsides and that too much sex-and-violence is somehow dehumanising.
The fact that these two sets of desires pull against each other goes some way towards explaining not only Herbert’s weird politics but also the unresolved psychic constipation that animates the character of David Ash, a psychic who initially denies his psychic powers and then spends two books getting perpetually shit-faced in an effort to blunt his own faculties. The Rats requires its protagonist to walk a tight-rope between the animalistic supernatural savagery of the rats as embodied in the form of the two-headed, bloated monstrosity that turns up at the end of the book, and the bloodless respectability of the Head Teacher, the Maiden Aunt and the cuckolded Civil Servant. Harris feels the draw of sexless respectability but in order to triumph he must descend to the level of the rats. The David Ash novels explore a similar set of tensions, with the paranormal investigator drawn to the supernatural pleasures of the flesh only to be restrained by the requirements of bourgeois professionalism. It’s all a bit like Nietszche only with more fingering and tequila slammers.
Though inarguably Herbert’s most famous novel, The Rats is actually the first part of a trilogy that I will absolutely have to read. This is not entirely surprising given that the book not only ends on a cliff-hanger but also leaves a load of weird concepts unexplored. If you’re not going to tell me about how the weird two-headed rat was controlling the other rats with hyper-sonic screeches then you leave me with no option but to read the sequel. An unimpeachable and still weirdly-relevant classic of horror fiction.