The Rats - James Herbert - 1974

The Rats is a book that has always been important to me.

Not just as a writer, but as a reader too.

When I was young, the only books I would usually purchase brand new were the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I loved watching fantasy movies like Hawk the Slayer, The Beastmaster or Conan and the Fighting Fantasy books allowed me to live through my own adventures, making choices along the way.

And occasionally cheating by re-rolling the die when it landed on a 1 and I died in combat. Despite all this fun I was having with swords and sorcery, horror was always my favourite genre, but for some reason, I don’t recall purchasing any horror books from new. This meant that my fix of horror novels would come second-hand from local market stalls.

One stall, in particular, was always my go-to.

I don’t remember much about the couple that ran it, I was young and didn’t take a lot of notice of grown-ups, especially when they had books to sell.

The market stall in question went by the name of Val’s read and return. Something I only knew because they would stamp their books with those words, just inside the cover, in purple ink.

I picked up many books from them, especially titles such as the Pan Books of Horror Stories and various others that I bought, simply because the cover art looked interestingly gruesome, or at the very least, unusual.

It was through stalls like Val’s that I first encountered the works of Stephen King, Graham Masterton, Guy N Smith, Shaun Hutson and, of course, James Herbert.

The first titles of his that I picked up were The Fog and Lair. I read The Fog and thoroughly enjoyed it and was going to read Lair when I found out that it was a sequel to a book titled The Rats.

So, I put Lair to one side and waited until I saw The Rats appear on the stall.

Except, it never did.

Then, as time passed, I forgot all about it, until one day a book shop opened up in my hometown. I ventured in, mesmerised by all of the titles on offer, my feet slowly but surely pulling me toward the horror section and there was The Rats. Proudly displaying its cover art portraying snarling, vicious-looking black rats, quietly making their way from beneath a canal bridge, all incisors and drool.

Some of this may now be a little rose-tinted by my age-addled brain as it looks back upon my youth, but either way, The Rats was (and still is) special for me. It was a horror novel that I actually bought from new and it was also the one that really got me into reading horror fiction. It may have been around 15 years after its initial release when I finally got it in my hands, but boy, was it worth it.

The Rats tells the tale of an East London art teacher, named Harris who finds out about the rats when one of his students arrives late, a crude, bloody bandage wrapped around a bite on their hand. From then on, Harris gets involved in the investigation into the rats after the Minister of Health asks him for assistance in showing them the location where the rat-bite occurred. He also lets Harris in on a terrifying secret; anyone bitten by this seemingly new breed of mysterious, large black rat, will die in within 24 hours.

Their symptoms are similar to those of leptospirosis, only more extreme. The victims suffering in agony, their skin becoming jaundiced, tightening and tearing. The strongest painkillers barely alleviating their pain as their skin splits open.

From then on it’s a race against time to find a way to safely eliminate the rats before their numbers increase out of control and they spread from the East End into other parts of London.

As you may have gathered, we're not just talking about your regular brown rat either. These are black rats, plague rats and amongst there number are some dog sized monsters.

One could say that they are, rodents of unusual size.

What's more, they are intelligent, cunning and show no fear of man.

Despite Harris being the main protagonist, he’s probably only in roughly 50% of the book, some of that time even being taken up with him having a break away from London for a weekend.

The chapters were Harris isn’t involved, are almost like short stand-alone chapters detailing various characters and their (usually fatal) encounters with the rats.

You could take one of those chapters by itself, read it, and find an enjoyable little horror tale about someone encountering giant flesh-eating rats.

And yet, even with these slightly individualistic tales with a rat-infested London as their theme, they all work well to create a complete story.

Sure, the story is a product of its time in some aspects, with female characters being pushed to the background as swooning, screaming damsels. But then there’s the first chapter dealing with a gay businessman, now a homeless alcoholic after having been ostracised due to his sexuality. Sure, the treatment he receives from his peers is a lot less accepting than it is nowadays, at least I hope it is better now, (although some people will always be bigots regardless of what century it is) but I don’t recall many gay characters appearing in books from that era. Even if he was only there as rat-fodder, it was probably a fairly brave move at the time to have a gay character as the first person we meet.

So yes the book is a little dated, but for me, it still stands up well by today’s standards.

If this was something that had only now been released, I like to think that I would enjoy it just as much as I did when I read it for the first time.

As a horror story, it is a great piece of fiction.

As a debut horror novel, it is amazing.

The book apparently sold out within three weeks of being released, despite complaints that the scenes of death and mutilation were too violent and that its depiction of London’s East End as being filled with slums and rubble, was too extreme a portrayal.

Five years later, in 1979, the sequel, Lair, was released.

1982 saw the release of Deadly Eyes, a Canadian adaptation of the book (well, a very loose one anyway) that was released in the UK as The Rats. The giant rats for that movie were created by having dogs running about in rat costumes, similar to 1959’s Killer Shrews.

Then, in 1985, videogame publisher Hodder & Stroughton released The Rats videogame; a text-based adventure that had the player typing the actions they wished to undertake upon the keyboard.

The difference here being that players chose from a list of pre-set commands, rather than having to type things like, “Pick up brick.” And then have the computer display something like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Before you then die because the game hadn’t been programmed to respond to you impatiently typing, “Throw the fucking brick!”

The game saw players use strategy and planning to try and not only eradicate the rats, but to also stop their spread through London.

I know text-based adventures are pretty much extinct now, but when did you see a game based not only on a novel, but a horror one at that?

Nowadays, we barely get videogame adaptations of movies. Well, unless they have “Lego” attached to the title anyway. That being said; yes, I would play Lego versions of horror novels.

Obviously, the rats themselves are the villains in the book, but there is also the government; each party trying to blame the other and not really doing enough for the class divide, leaving the working class at the bottom of their list of priorities.

Sound familiar?

The Rats will always be one of my all-time favourite horror novels. Like I mentioned way back at the start. It is important to me.

It might not have been my gateway into horror fiction, but it feels as if it was.

It’s slowly approaching its 50th anniversary, but other than a few exceptions, it doesn’t feel particularly dated either.

It’s a book that has stuck with me for years.

When I read it again for this review, it had probably been over ten years since I’d last read it, and yet, I remembered it clearly. Even innocuous moments that don’t really move the plot along are etched in my mind.

For me, it’s a comfort read.

It’s something familiar, that’s still as enjoyable as it was the first time I read it. I might not pick it up very often, but when I do, it’s a little slice of my childhood that I can just simply enjoy.

For anyone who has never read it (or hasn’t read it for a long time) I highly recommend it. It isn’t just a great piece of horror fiction, it’s a great piece of fiction from an author who, even at this early stage in his career, was a master of his craft.

James Herbert was (and is) one of my favourite authors and The Rats will forever be one of my favourite books.

James Herbert – 1943 - 2013.

The Rats is available on paperback:


And on Audible: