The Rats By James Herbert (1974) Review

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Rat Race

The Rats: 9 out of 10: is a horror novel written by James Herbert, published in 1974. The story is set in London and follows the city’s descent into chaos as a horde of highly aggressive and mutated rats begins to attack and kill humans.

The narrative unfolds with an increasing number of gruesome rat attacks across the city, as these creatures, driven by hunger and an insatiable bloodlust, multiply rapidly. The protagonist, Harris, a schoolteacher, becomes aware of the escalating rat menace and joins forces with other survivors and the British Government in a desperate attempt to combat the relentless onslaught.

As the government and authorities struggle to contain the crisis, society crumbles under the weight of the rat infestation. The novel explores the primal fear of the unknown and the breakdown of civilization in the face of a seemingly unstoppable force.

Harris and his allies battle not only the rats but also the growing panic and hysteria among the remaining population. The story is a relentless and terrifying journey into the macabre, with scenes of graphic horror and suspense that keep readers on the edge of their seats.

“The Rats” is a classic horror novel that taps into our primal fears of the unknown and the vulnerability of human civilization when faced with an unstoppable threat. James Herbert’s narrative is intense, gripping, and filled with visceral horror, making it a memorable and chilling read for fans of the genre.

The Good

The Good: James Herbet knows how to write a novel. The Rats is often spoken of as the first nature gone wild book of its type. I am not sure that is true, but it certainly was one of the first to capture the public’s imagination. It spawned two sequels and James Herbert went on to a successful career as a popular novelist.

One place where Herbert did not luck out is the movie rights. Anyone who has read Peter Benchley’s Jaws knows how lucky he was that Spielberg and writer Carl Gottlieb took his story of a police chief’s wife and Woods Hole biologist’s torrid affair and turned it into a thriller about sharks.

The Rats spent way too long in limbo from bestseller to film adaptation, eventually being made into a low budget Canadian film in the early eighties. It was inexplicably called Deadly Eyes, and was more about high school girls trying to seduce thier teachers than a giant rat attack in London.

Herbert’s true talent in The Rats was the detailed background of the various victims of the rats. We get pages about the drunken downward spiral of a closeted homosexual who finds true love with one way too young in middle age or the good catholic girl who engages in nymphomania in the attempt to find the perfect organism in some incredibly well-written tales.

There are dozens of such tales and honestly, they are almost all interesting to a fault. Herbert also does not shy away from the sex and the violence either during these stories either. His writing actually has a lot in common with a younger Stephen King.

James Herbert also does a top-notch job with large group attacks. A heartbreaking attack on the London Zoo as the various caged animals are torn apart by rats as their keepers desperately try to save them or the subway train overrun with rats as it hurls down the tunnel.

Finally, there is an excellent sense of place. This is London in the early seventies and James Herbert knows it well. His fascinating look into the underbelly of the city where there are still blocks damaged from the blitz thirty years earlier and people living in giant tower blocks in complete poverty provide a glimpse into a world that is now thankfully gone.

The Bad

The Bad: The reprint of The Rats has a nice foreword by Neil Gaiman. in it he points out the flaws of Herbet’s first novel focusing on the mini-stories of the rat victims and how those stories overshadow the rather milquetoast protagonist.

I don’t completely agree with this. But he is not wrong either. If you took our school teacher protagonist and his blonde girlfriend and swapped them with the writer protagonist and blonde girlfriend from Salem’s Lot, no one would be any the wiser. But Herbert is not King in one regard, as the blonde in The Rats makes it through the book unmolested.

I don’t think the schoolteacher is a bad protagonist. He is overshadowed by many of the side characters. But he does the job of keeping all the stories together and being our eyes and ears as the British government battles the rat menace.

The Ugly

The Ugly: Speaking of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. The Rats shares one other attribute with that brilliant novel. The ending is muddled, hurried and anticlimactic. Apparently our schoolteacher turns into Jason Borne right at the end and figures out where the “King Rat” lives and drives in the middle of a chemical attack to the secret lair only to find the king rat is an albino obese rat with two heads requiring barely a shovel to the noggin to defeat. Shades of King’s “and then he stabbed Dracula in the coffin” ending.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: I really like this book. It is of a different place and time and that is one of its strengths. Like watching a movie from the seventies and soaking in the scenery. The Rats is like a brilliant collection of mini-biographies that all end with “then they were eaten by rats”. The book itself is pretty grounded (The rats are not magical, nor fly, or anything) as or the characters in the book. Even our school teacher protagonist acts as one might expect he would until the very end.

An entertaining read with some truly scary and heartbreaking scenes that will stick with you for a while. Definitely not a slog. A well-written entertaining book.

Random Notes from reading

The Reprint has a nice foreword by Neil Gaiman. in it he points out the flaws of Herbet’s first novel focusing on the mini-stories of the rat victims and how those stories overshadow the rather milquetoast protagonist.

Well, far be it from me to disagree with one as talented and accomplished as Neil Gaiman, but I think dismissing the mini-stories is underselling the drama. Some of the background stories border on novellas (Okay, a slight exaggeration.) The drunken downward spiral of a closeted homosexual who finds true love with one way too young in middle age or the good catholic girl who engages in nymphomania in the attempt to find the perfect organism are incredibly well-written tales. I think Neil is wrong, well just a smidge.

I like the protagonist is an ordinary teacher who had escaped the East End through schooling and is trying to give back to the community. It is a very seventies protagonist. Like a well-worn jacket. The stars are the rats and the drunken sex maniacs who keep getting eaten by them.

I have read The Rats before a few years ago and to use the same cliche as above the book feels like a well-worn jacket. Significant detail and yet the story moves at an excellent pace. A great sense of place as well. Neil is right about one thing. James Herbert is an excellent craftsman.

Herbert really knows how to write a horror scene. Even a light scene with the exterminator and old lady with the broom being attacked is written to great effect.

Herbert also has great group attack scenes such as the heartbreaking attack at the London Zoo and the thrilling attack at the theater. Herbert also likes to put a surprising amount of erotica in his scenes, not that I am complaining.

One trick he tries to pull off a few times is the ye olde “the authorities have defeated the menace, and all is well” fake out. The thickness of the remaining pages alas gives up the trick before the narrative can.


If there is a weakness, it is the final showdown between our milk toast protagonist and a bunch of rats, including the mutant boss (Who is blind, obese, albino and two-headed) in a basement. It is a light criticism since the book is running on all cylinders, but it is probably where the criticism I dismissed earlier comes from.

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