Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
The Rats: James Herbert, October 22—24, 2016
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
James Herbert’s debut novel, The Rats, is set in the London slums which sees an outbreak of giant mutant rats. The victims who aren’t mauled to death by the dog-sized vermin have a painful death from infection ahead.
The story’s introduction comprises several one-chapter vignettes which are carbon copies of each other: generic unsuspecting victim(s) are brutally killed by rats that can’t possibly be that big. After the first incident, you’re kind of waiting for the gory bit because it’s not worth investing in a character that’s about to be lunch.
The story proper gets going when the authorities enlist the help of our protagonist – a teacher and striving, unbitten witness – to tackle the issue. Quite why the high school teacher remains so prominent is rather unfathomable. It’s your classic idiot plot: the contrivance of Harris’s ongoing role is on the basis that the entirety of the government officials and scientists are incompetent.
Harris plays a crucial role in one of the book’s only genuinely exciting sequences: the school siege. Here, Harris has to think about actual strategies to address the problem, and the tension is at a peak. Tonally and literally, it’s a departure from the oh-so-dull pattern that is repeated everywhere else.
Herbert’s reported social commentary goal (the authorities don’t care about the poor folk) can be inferred but it’s not clear. Such readings come easier to those that sympathise with that view and interpret accordingly. It’s a bit like saying biologists don’t like pandas because they’re getting wiped out.
The creepy, intelligent, large and lethal rats are genuinely creepy but the plot is so bogged down with repetitive inanity that the potential of the novel is lost somewhere in the mischief.
(Note: I did have to Google what a group of rats is called. A mischief. We got a fact out of it.)