Book Review: The Rats by James Herbert

‘Harris would never forget the horror he felt under the gaze of the three pairs of sharp, wicked-looking eyes…’

I started reading James Herbert novels when I was 11 years old. Looking back, this was far too young. One fortunate byproduct of this, however, is that I could read Herbert’s books with a completely uncritical eye. His pulpy, abrasive prose has its charm but there are also some deeply troubling things here, and I don’t just mean the mutant rats…

When giant rats begin to attack the good people of East London, the authorities enlist the help of a local teacher (for some reason). Harris, the teacher in question, barely steps foot inside a school at any point within the novel but he does find time to mention (and I quote) “…giggling girls… in short skirts… with bouncing breasts, both about fourteen years old”. A reminder that this is our protagonist. While this is admittedly the most concerning passage in the book, Herbert famously struggles when writing female characters more generally. Here, they invariably appear, have sex with someone and are then routinely dispatched in a matter of pages. Judy, Harris’ girlfriend and the only significant female character, has no definable personality beyond availability for sexual intercourse and voicing concern.

That being said, the story here is great and Herbert does have something important to say about the lack of care by the government towards the working classes and he also provides several vivid descriptions of the East London streets that he himself was born and raised in. The Rats is a nasty book, shocking in places, and it is this ability to shock that has led to Herbert selling more than 50 million books worldwide. Tellingly, Stephen King is a fan, himself no stranger to writing stuff that has since aged pretty badly (although nothing like to the same extent).

Returning to The Rats after so many years was a lovely, warm nostalgia bath that I luxuriated in across its 200 ludicrous pages. While there were moments that made me wince, I have ordered both of the sequels and I genuinely can’t wait to dive into them too.