The first volume, and the topic of this blog, is THE RATS, the first volume in the series.
As I picked up the recently-issued reprint from Centipede Press (gorgeous!), many thoughts passed through my mind. The last time I read the book was forty years ago. Reading a book from one’s youth is fraught with danger. Will the story hold up? Will it still be compelling? Will I care about the characters? Have I remembered it with more vibrancy than there is?
And most concerning, now that I am a published horror writer myself, would I cast an too critical eye upon it? (Not that I claim to be in Mr. Herbert's realm, it's just that one begins to notice poor storytelling, plot anomalies, and odd phrasing.)
As background, THE RATS was Herbert’s first work. Decried by many when it was published for excessive gore and violence, the book became an instant bestseller. The first printing sold out in three weeks.
A writer’s dream.
The story line was simple: an outbreak of large black rats threatens London. Nasty, sharp-toothed, aggressive, and laden with disease, the rats pour into one of the poorest neighborhoods of London, wreaking havoc and killing, killing, and oh yeah, killing. The story is told through multiple viewpoints although a linear narrative eventually develops. The story builds tension and resolves itself nicely, leaving an opening for a sequel or two.
Now to be visceral.
This story scares the shit out of me. And here’s just a few of the reasons why.
The story elevates rats into an unstoppable force of nature. Yes, we all know that pet rats can be cuddly! But these rats are large as medium-sized dogs and vicious with the violence of a rabid wolf-pack. They move across the landscape of the story like a flood of grey-furred water, engulfing all that comes before them.
Worse yet, they are super-intelligent. Imbuing them with mutant-enhanced intelligence, just makes them that much more dangerous. It’s one thing to see a rat scurrying down the street. It’s another to see that rat stop, focus on you with its eyes, and consider whether it's hungry enough to kill and consume you.
Herbert captures this terror with an deft touch and even though I believe I'm pretty immune to descriptive text, he had me squirming more than once. Perhaps it's all that tearing of human flesh...
Lore has it that THE RATS was once an extrapolation of Herbert’s boyhood experiences with rats in the East End of London combined with a late-night watching of Tod Browning’s DRACULA, specifically Renfield’s nightmare of rats.
Thanks to him, all of us readers can share that nightmare. And if you've not read it, I recommend it heartily.
Here's the link to Centipede Press and a wonderful rendering of one of the illustrations from the new volumes.
Image is (c) Copyright 2015 Centipede Press. All Rights Reserved.