NOTE: This is the fifteenth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
I openly admit right from the start that this article is a cheat. Everything up to this point has been a review. My ethics do not allow me to write/publish reviews of things I have not completed. So this particular entry in my All Hallow’s Read saga will not be a review. Instead I am posting an observation of a book I have not (and likely will not) finish because I think it may be of interest to some of you, and is a curious example of how a writer changes.
For this reader, The Rats, by absolutely legendary English writer, James Herbert, is a mess.
With a title like The Rates very little is left to the imagination. You know it’s about rats killing people. You’re absolutely right. Not only do they kill people, they kill a LOT of people. Nearly every chapter is the buildup to a rat attack. Mr. Herbert tells you almost everything you need to know about a character and their life just to have them devoured in disgusting circumstances by the end of it. At first I found this kind of cool. Everyone died in a new and inventive way, their stories were entertaining, sometimes very sad, and I enjoyed getting to know them. Few them were compelling enough to last beyond their initial attack anyway, so what if they wind up in a hundred rat digestive tracts?
The problem I ran into was that the narrative felt totally random. There is a protagonist art teacher whom we follow around every now and again, and he’s interesting, but not enough for me to fully invest in. Similarly most of his chapters end with someone turning into Rat chow. The randomness got to be tedious and I found myself wishing for more cohesion.
During an overlong action sequence in a school I gave up. So much was happening and I cared so little about all of it.
My first experience with James Herbert was his book Haunted. Coming across it at a library I gave it a quick glance and read the prologue. Very atmospheric. I could have gotten it but settled on something else. That prologue said to me that Herbert’s long career was much deserved. It read like a classic tale of M.R. James but more modern. A welcoming combination.
The Rats was a HUGE bestseller when it was released. People described feeling imaginary rats crawling all over them while reading. The novel caused a controversy when it was openly discussed that Herbert’s intentions were to satirize the upper classes treatment of the poor, and the kinds of beasts that can be bred in such filth. The public ate it up like a giant mutated rat chows down on people flesh.
It’s bestseller status makes complete sense. I can easily understand why people would have trouble putting it down. Shock value alone is enough to keep you turning pages. That shock value, as well as satire, works for sales. Not for me.
But I kept going because I knew the kind of writer Herbert would become and was fascinated by his early choices. Stephen King’s Carrie is the same way. A first time novel that grew into a bestseller, majorly due to it’s intense shockability. My opinion on Carrie is a lot like the one I have for The Rats. It is clearly a cool idea executed by a writer trying to find his voice.
James Herbert died in March. Horror writers aplenty came out to say wonderful things about him. Unsurprisingly my favorite quote came from Neil Gaiman. Not only because it’s Gaiman and most everything he says rocks, but he has a very good point about Herbert’s successful trajectory.
“His first book was a bestseller, which is something that happens to very few writers. He had to do all his growing up in public. He had to learn to write in public.
“Jim’s [sales] numbers were extraordinary and he was very grumpy that nobody noticed. He’d point out that he had outsold Stephen King in the UK. He was a bestselling author which I think also meant that he felt he wasn’t getting the attention that he deserved.”
The quote goes on but there’s the rub. The Rats feels like a story composed by someone with massive potential learning to write. (Not all that different from these articles. I’m still hunting for my voice.)
That’s fascinating because he would grow up and he would become a legend for more than just shocking people.
As I said, I recommend this book. My reasons are these: 1. It really is a page turner, of you have the endurance (sadly, I didn’t). 2. A great example of how a legend begins.