King of the Rats.
James Herbert was born on April 8, 1943 in the bomb-devastated East End of London, the third son of Herbert and Kitty Herbert, street traders selling fruit and vegetables. The family lived at the back of Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel, a slum area full of rats:
What we lived in was a slum. It was a very narrow street, cobble-stoned, only gas lighting in those days. Two doors from our house was a little alleyway where Jack the Ripper cut up one of his victims. Behind us were stables where they [his parents] used to keep their fruit and veg, and it was all alive with rats. We had two monster cats to keep the rats down. We moved into this slum because it was due for clearance, and we thought we would get a nice council flat. Well, they didn't knock it down until fourteen years later. (Winter 1990: 122)
The childhood in the creepy old house was not a happy one, the young Herbert being by himself almost all the time:
The house we lived in was creepy. I was left alone a lot as a kid. My brothers would be out, my parents would be in a pub, and so I would be there alone, sitting and painting. It was a very narrow, tall house, three floors with a cellar where the coal was kept. [...] At times I would be sitting there and the house would creak around me. It was very old; I mean, it was collapsing into itself. It would creak, which is scary enough if you are a kid. You're there on your own, and you're on a sinister street anyway, and you know there's rats at the top of the street, old stables behind you, and then, the lights would go out. [....] And there were all sorts of things in this cellar. A lot of rats. I mean, it must have had my imagination riotting--it was all getting ingrained down there, it must have been. (Winter 1990: 123-124)
Thus, the combination of the rat-infested neighbourhood, the powerful image of the thousand rats staring up at Renfield in Tod Browning's classic screening of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, and Herbert's job as an art director, led to his first novel, The Rats, a narrative work characterized by detailed graphic horror.
The street I lived in was over-run by rats. Big ones --monster rats. I mean, my cat actually came home bald once; he has been in a fight with a rat. And I used to watch them out the window. We always had a window open in the summer, and one day, the cat jumped in with a big rat in its mouth, so that obviously stuck with me. [...]
I switched on the TV and Dracula with Bela Lugosi was on--where the madman, the one who eats spiders, said he had this dream, this vision of a thousand rats looking up at him, staring at him, with red eyes. And for me, as an art director, that was very visual. I could see myself looking out the window, and a thousand rats staring up at me. And it all clicked. (Winter 1990: 126-127)
The Rats depicted London under siege by monstruous, flesh-eating rats, their origin unknown, rats which, in the author's conception, were a personification of the inefficient political and economic system in the 1950s England, which failed to improve even a little the people's life by clearing down the slums; the vermin were also a means of revolt against the essentially rotten post-war English society. (Cole 1992: 101)
The whole idea was a kind of allegory of one man against a system, and this is what I do with nearly all my books. It is one man against the system. Now it's a system that we all know, that we have all come up against, whether it's political or the tax man or your boss. It's a system that's eternal and you are up against it all the time. [...] The rats represented that big system, which is not necessary evil--but to me, it is, because it's invulnerable, we can't actually beat it. And that's why The Rats was open-ended: the hero won his individual battle, but the system still marched on. It still won. He didn't get rid of it. It still went on. (Winter 1990: 127)
The Rats was often considered an extremely brutal and cynical horror--thriller mixture, one in which Herbert "ripped in to his material with no regard for moral or social sacred cows. He dealt bluntly, crudely with his characters, zeroing in on their prejudices, their seediness, their indifference to human values" (Cole 1992: 101). And, according to his American confrere with whom he was often compared, Herbert "rarely finesses and never pulls back from the crunch; instead he seems to race eagerly, zestfully, towards each new horror." (King 1986: 363-364)
After attending the Our Lady of Assumption Catholic school in Bethnal Green, the young Herbert obtained a scholarship at St. Aloysius College in Highgate; then, when sixteen, he went to the Hornsey College of Art to study graphic design, print, and photography; it was here that he developed an interest in advertising, a career he started, after graduation, in a small studio in Chancery Lane "as a paste-up artist, paint-pot washer, and general dogsbody," thus learning "more in six months about advertising than I did in four years at art college" (apud Winter 1990: 125). Two years later, he was hired by a leading London advertising agency as typographer, to become not after very long time, the art director, then the Group Head.
I used to draw, because that was what I wanted to be--an artist. So I would spend most of my time just drawing and painting--and reading, of course. I used to draw comics.... I learnt more about drawing by copying hands and feet and heads from [comics] than I did in four years of art school. And what I was also picking up at that time, though I didn't know it, was writing, because he [Warren Tufts, American comics artist] used to write very succinctly and amusingly--very dry hunor, this guy had. And I really did not learn just about art and writing, but a kind of attitude toward life, so that was one of my biggest, earliest influeneces. (Winter 1990: 123)
As he stated himself, Herbert always preferred to write on small notebooks, not to type or to use a computer:
I can type a little bit, but I always think of myself as a drawer and painter, and therefore, that I am actually drawing words on paper. The connection from the brain down the arm onto the page is a good connection for me. I don't do drafts. I write through without ever looking back. Every book I have done, I've always wished I had the time just to sit down and write the whole thing again, because you can always improve. But I don't. When it's done, the baby is born and that's it. I read through it all once--the term I use is 'crossing out'. I make it flow a bit more, cut out the countless repetitions, and then it's done. The only thing I go on when I am writing is whether it feels good. When I'm writing, I'm not sure what's going to happen. Once I've done it and I am reading through, I know exactly what's going to happen and it's a bloody bore. So that's the painful part. (Winter 1990: 126)
Written in about nine months only in weekends and evenings, The Rats was published by New English Library in 1974 in a first printing of 100,000 copies, sold completely within three weeks. It was subsequently reprinted in tens of editions and translated in many countries, including Romania (Sobolanii, Nemira Publishing House, Bucharest, 2008).
According to the author, the novel was so successful because
there was nothing quite like it on the market--the last big horror writer was Dennis Wheatley, and he was dead, so he wasn't doing much any more! His kind of horror was a very snobbish, right-wing type of horror fiction. Although I loved it as a kid, it wasn't really all that accesible to the public; it wasn't streetwise', and the language was a little bit above what most people were used to. So that was the secret why The Rats actually sold so well to begin with: because it was very accessible, and because it was very explicit. That wasn't a deliberate ploy of mine, it's just the way it turned out. If I was going to write about someone being chewed by rats, I wanted the reader to know what it felt like. [...] I didn't know whether the book would even be published. I was really doing it for myself, which is another thing about writing--you must do it for yourself. You mustn't look at the market, you mustn't think you're going to to have so many thousands of people reading what you're writing, because that's when you begin to think about it on a different level. Qones 1992: 22)
In Caroline Lynch's article Herbert--The Writer Who Brings Horror Down to Street Level (Irish Press, August 5, 1989), Herbert was quoted saying that
I brought horror down to street level with men in the street in mundane situations and then something dramatic happens. I didn't leave anything to imagination and this hadn't been done before, (apud Ashley 1992: 73)
The marketing department of Hodder and Stoughton decided to label The Rats as a "nasty" horror novel, thus making the first step towards establishing a new category of fiction in the 1970s. The "nasties" were books in which the emphasis was on graphic violence and vividly described scenes of visceral horror in which various animals or insects attacked and ate people. Among the main authors one could mention, alphabetically, Gregory A. Douglas [Eli Cantor, 1913-2006] (The Nest, 1980), John Halkin (1927-; Slime, 1984; Squelch, 1985; Blood Worm, 1987), Shaun Hutson (1958-; Slugs, 1982; Breeding Ground, 1985), Richard Lewis [Alan Radnor, 1945 J (Spiders, 1978; The Devil's Couch-horse / The Black Horde, 1979; The Web, 1981; Night Killers, 1983; Parasite, 1981), Guy N. Smith (1939-; The Slime Beast, 1975; Night of the Crabs, 1976; Killer Crabs, 1978; The Origin of the Crabs, 1979; Crabs on the Rampage, 1981; Crabs'Moon, 1984; Snakes, 1986; Alligators, 1987; Crabs: The Human Sacrifice, 1988; Carnivore, 1990; Killer Crabs: The Return, 2012), Mark Sonders [Michael Berlyn, 1949-] (Blight, 1981), John Tigges (1932-2009; Slime, 1988; Venom, 1988).
As the term "nasty" became more and more pejorative in England during the 1980s, Herbert denied that such books, his own included, exploited violence just for its sake:
I think if you are going to describe an atmosphere or a house, or a person, why fall short of the violence? Why don't you explain what happens if somebody hits you with a meat cleaver? Why shouldn't you explain exactly what happens and how nasty it is? (Winter 1990:129)
When talking with the critic and editor Mike Ashley about the reviewers who considered his books full of blood, gory and messy horror (for instance, Henry Tilney, The Observer, May, 12, 1974; Henry Coen, Northern Echo, August 16, 1974), Herbert had the chance to defend his conception on horror fiction, speaking at the same time about some of the advantages of writing this type of literature:
I hate violence, and I always believe that if you depict violence you've got to describe it in detail to show how bad and nasty it is. The reader has got to feel it. And that's why I decided to explore that territory. Unfortunately because of the success of these books a lot of other writers jumped on that bandwagon and exploited it. I took the rap for a lot of that. Yet if you look there are a lot of other elements in my stories. For instance, they've all got a very strong moral tone: there is, I believe, some good writing, some subtle writing, and there is a lot of suggested horror rather than overt description. It's a reputation I've earned unfairly because people read The Rats and The Fog and they forget about the rest. [...] The great thing about horror fiction is that you can write humour, romance, you can write almost anything and it can still come under the heading of horror. You can start a story in the ordinary way, and once you get fed up with the mundane aspect you can bring in something that's totally outrageous, so you get your own and the reader's interest and adrenalin flowing, (apud Ashley 1992: 72-73)
Not considering himself "a purist horror writer" (apud Gaiman 1992: 82), and never forgetting Howard R Lovecraft's seminal assertion from Supernatural Horror in Literature ("The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," Lovecraft 2008: 1041), Herbert considered, as quoted by Des Hickey in Haunted Millionaire [Sunday Independent, August 6, 1989] that he believed
there's nothing like a good scare to get the adrenalin going. It lets you have a frightening experience without actually feeling threatened. It's totally cathartic, (apud Gaiman 1992: 82)
It is because people, always having or dreaming of a dark side--although hardly ever admitting it, often loved to be scared and, thus, to feel alive:
People like sensations, whether it's sex or having a good meal. Apart from the rushing of blood and that sort of fear, you get the primitive side of things where there is a fear of the unknown, inherent in all of us. (apud Gaiman 1992: 82)
It is also because
[w]ith the supernatural, whenever you get bored with what you're writing you can just go way over the top and make something quite outragerous happen. If you're getting bored with what is happening you can be sure that the reader is too, so it's important to do something drastic, (apud Gaiman 1992: 83)
The author of The Fog considered he had to write only about what he knew for sure, on a realistic level:
I think part of the success of my books is that I keep them on a realistic level. Just because you write about the supernatural doesn't mean it all has to be mumbo-jumbo that your readers can't identify with. I was brought up on a steady diet of Dracula and Bela Lugosi films--I always liked being frightened, (apud Ashley 1992: 72)
This had to be done in a strong moral tone, revealing the never-ending fight between good and evil. However, Herbert's heroes, never cushioned from the harsh realities of every-day life, were not always good despite the fact that they
are people you who can identify with--they don't pontificate, they are not goody-goody, they're not wet, they are a little bit rough-and-tumble, but they do stand for the overall good. And they are the individual fighting for what is right. Whether it's against monster rats, a fog that drives people mad, anything, it is the individual fighting for his own peace of mind, if you like. Which is the right. (Winter 1990: 133)
As mentioned in Lesley Bendel's article Oh Rats! It's Herbert's Horrors (in Writers' Monthly, October 1987) the English writer declared
My hero is always one man, the loner, against the system (symbolised by rats, fog or something else). He usually wins his private battle, (apud Ashley 1992: 72)
Herbert's heroes, either in the Rats trilogy (Harris in The Rats, Lucas Pender in Lair, Steve Culver in Domain), or in other novels Qohn Holman, The Fog; Harry Steadman, The Spear; Liam Hallohan, Sepulchre; Chris Bishop, The Dark; James Kelso, The Jonah; Jon Childers, Moon; David Ash, Haunted) had to confront some supernatural, paranormal, catastrophic or apocalyptic threats directed to their own community or entire country, and, of course, had to win the battle by using instinct and intuition after repressing all their personal problems. But Herbert never described his heroes in detail because he wanted "the reader to be the hero, whether it was a man or a woman" (Winter 1990: 133). Nevertheless, the author of The Dark pointed out the fact that nothing could be taken for granted, nothing should be extremely bad or extremely good as some of his confreres seemed to believe:
In my books, some things are absolute, like the rats. They are absolutely vicious, nasty, horrible; but there are greys in between--nothing, ultimately, is that bad. A lot of horror writers don't realize that. With the trash horror writers, it's just either good or bad--mostly whatever is bad. (Winter 1990:133-134)
Generally, the physical universe, the human nature, the state-of-the-art technology, the political or governmental systems, became mingled, but not always in the best interest of the common people. To refer only to the Rats trilogy, one should note the way the scientific establishments (the Ratkill organization), the governmental or administrative structures (The Ministry of Agriculture and the Conservation Centre of the Epping Forest, respectively), or the military structures (The Ministry of Defence) could not coordinate their plans and actions in a crucial and short time period.
Stories of mutant creatures dangerous for the humans were not something new, as in 1904 Herbert G. Wells had published The Food of the Gods. The science fiction and pulp magazines of the 1930s were full of stories about technologically-induced mutant monsters, authored, for instance, byJohnTaine [Eric Temple Bell, 1883-1960] (The Greatest Adventure, 1929; The Iron Star, 1930; Seeds of Life, 1931), Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977; The Man Who Evolved, 1931; He that Hath Wings, 1938), or Jack Williamson (1908-2006; The Metal Man, 1928). One could also mention The Papers of Andrew Melmoth (Hugh Sykes Davies, 1960), The Hamelin Plague (A. Betram Chandler, 1963), Dr. Rat (William Kontzwinkle, 1976).
The beginning of a saga
The prologue took place in an abandoned (house, not haunted, in this case, by immaterial ghosts, but inhabited by weird living creatures:
The old house had been empty for more than a year. It stood, detached and faded, next to a disused canal, away from the road, screened by foliage gone wild. No one went there, nobody showed much interest anymore. A few windows had been shattered by the neighbourhood kids, but even they lost interest when nothing more than silence responded to the crash of broken glass. In fact, the only interest that had ever been shown by others was on the day they took the old woman away. [...] So, the house was empty. Nobody came, nobody went, nobody really bothered. In a year it was barely visible from the road. The undergrowth was tall, the bushes thick and the trees hid the upper storey. Eventually, people were hardly aware it existed. (Herbert 1989a: 7-8)
The first attack of the rats was on a certain Henry Guilfoyle, ex-salesman for a Midland paper company, forced to move to London because of his drinking and of his being gay:
As he lifted his hand to his face again he felt something warm clinging to it. Something heavy.
He tried to shake it away, but by now it had a firm grip. He pulled at the body with his other hand and felt brittle hair. Through his panic he understood what held him in this monstrous grip. It was a rat. But it was big. Very big. It could have been mistaken for a small dog, but there was no growling, no long legs to kick his body. Only what seemed to be razor-edged claws, frantically beating on his lower arm. [...] The blinding pain seemed to run up his legs to his very testicles. More teeth sank into his thigh.
As he stood he felt tiny feet running up the length of his body. He actually felt hot, fetid breath as he looked down to see what could climb a man's body with such speed. Huge teeth that were meant for his throat sank into his cheek and tore away a huge flap. [...]
Rats! His mind screamed the words. Rats eating me alive.
Flesh was ripped away from the back of his neck. He couldn't rise now for the sheer weight of writhing, furry vermin feeding from his body, drinking his blood.
Shivers ran along his spine, to his shocked brain. The dim shadows seemed to float before him, then a redness ran across his vision. It was the redness of unbelievable pain. He couldn't see anymore--the rats had already eaten his eyes. (Herbert 1989a: 14-15)
After the horrific kill of a dog and a baby in a house kitchen, the rats, as big as cats, struck at a school boy under a bridge, a kid who would die after twenty-four hours just because of one bite on his hand. The attack was seen in a dream by Harris, the boy's teacher, in a scene clearly reminiscent of Dracula:
But this morning, it had caught him in a deep dream. He tried to remember what it had been about. Something to do with teeth. Sharp teeth. Tearing.
Bloody hell, he thought, it was rats. Thousands of them. He'd looked out his window, he remembered, it was night-time, and there below him were thousands of rats, all perfectly still, just staring up at him in the moonlight. Thousands of wicked-looking eyes. Then they'd surged forward, crashing through the front door, scurrying up the stairs. (Herbert 1989a: 44)
In the opinion of a Mr. Foskins from the Ministry of Health, these events had to be kept secret so that people would not panic. The truth --which probably would have saved lives--did not count for a bureaucratic official; therefore, nothing was done in spite of the medical diagnosis of the possible deadly disease spread by the rats, bluntly put by doctor Strackley:
The deaths were caused by an infection introduced by the bite of the rat into the bloodstream. The usual disease caused by the vermin is called Weil's Disease, Leptospirosis or Spirochoetal Jaundice. [...] The organism that causes it, Leptospira Icterohaemorrhague, is carried by rats and conveyed to man in their urine, either through the skin or alimentary tract. [...] Incubation period is from seven to thirteen days; onset of the disease is abrupt fever, muscular pains, loss of appetite and vomiting. The feverish stage lasts several days before jaundice appears and the patient becomes prostrate. Temperature usually declines in about ten days but relapses tend to occur. We often treat the disease by penicillin and other antibiotics but we do have a special serum for it. [...] Now the incredible thing about last night's two cases is that the whole process happened within twenty-four hours. There are other differences too. [...] The fever strikes within five or six hours. Jaundice sets in immediately. The victim rapidly loses all his senses--sight goes first. The body goes into a coma, occasionally being racked by violent spasms. Then, the most horrible thing happens. The skin--by now completely yellow--becomes taut. It becomes thinner as it stretches over the bone structure. It turns to a fine tissue. Finally, it begins to tear. Gaping holes appear all over the body. The poor victim dies a terrible painful death, which even our strongest drugs seem only a ease a little. (Herbert 1989a: 50-51)
As a rule, the rats had never before attacked people for food, as, according to Ferris, a Ratkill man, they could "live on practically anything and they certainly wouldn't attack just for flesh. Corpses, yet. They'd eat corpses. But attack a man just for food? No" (Herbert 1989a: 53). However, when Harris and Ferris went along the canal bank to investigate, the rats, led by some bigger and blacker specimens, did attack them out of the blue. Angry public debates on television, followed by some short statements from the government representatives occurred, and that was all till two terrible incidents--firstly in the Shadwell Underground Station when the vermin swarmed all over it and attacked a train coming out from the tunnel, and secondly, near the Stepney Green Station--unleashed the unimaginable:
In the confined space of the tunnel, men and women were running, fighting, cowering as hundreds of black rats rampaged amongst them, leaping and tearing, their bloodlust stirring them into a frenzy. [...] The rats had entered the train and were now attacking the passengers who hadn't managed to get off or had scrambled back on. [...] Below him [Henry Sutton] was part of a nightmare. A scene from hell. He saw bloody-covered limbs; torn faces; ripped bodies. A man stood almost opposite him, against the wall, stiff and straight, his eyes lifelessly staring, it seemed, into his own, while three or four rats gorged themselves on his bare legs. A fat woman, completely naked cried pitifully as she beat at two rats clinging to her ample breasts. A young boy of about eighteen was trying to climb to the top of the train by pushing his feet against the wall and slowly leveling himself up. A huge rat ran up the side of the wall and landed on his lap, causing the boy to fall back on to the ground. Screams pervaded the air. Cries for help beat into his brain. All in the half-gloom, against the blackness of the tunnel, as though the whole event was taking place in black limbo. And everywhere scurrying, furry black creatures, running up the walls, launching themselves into the air, only stopping when their victims' struggles ceased, and then eating and drinking. (Herbert 1989a: 88-89)
The rats never seemed to stop attacking people --grown-ups or children--, irrespective of the place or distance to be covered. Their next target was the school Harris was teaching in, coming in through the basement or scaling the walls to break through the grille-unprotected windows:
There it was, as though it were a scouting party for the others. It looked to and fro, sniffing the air, its pointed nose twitching. It saw Harris and rose on its haunches. It stood at least two feet from the ground. [...] Its body must have been at least two feet long, its tail another nine or ten inches. The bristly fur wasn't exactly black, but very dark brown, with lots of black speckles mottling it. Its head was larger in proportion to the ordinary rodent's and its incisors were long and pointed. Its half-lidded eyes had the lifeless glaze of the dead, but its partially-covered teeth seemed to grin wickedly. Even in death, the body seemed deadly, as though the disease it bore could be passed on by mere touch. (Herbert 1989a: 100-101)
Harris and the Headmaster, already-bitten and almost-dead, had to fight with all their strength to stand against the vermin and to protect the children:
The Headmaster had one of the rats by the throat and was fighting to keep it from his face. The other was boring a hole in his side. [...] Sickened, knowing his Principal was already dead, Harris ran forward and brought the poker down with all his might to one of the rats. It squealed, high-pitched, an octave above a frightened child's, and withdrew its teeth from the struggling man's side. Its back was broken, but it made an attempt to crawl towards Harris. He brought his foot down on its head and crushed it. He couldn't hit the second rat for fear of hurting the Headmaster, so he dropped the poker and reached for it with his hands. He grabbed it near its shoulders and lifted, taking care not to let its snapping teeth touch his body. [...] Its weight and its strength were tremendous, and he felt his jacket and shirt being torn to shreds by the clawing feet. Holding it from behind, he raised himself to one knee and pushed it against the floor. [...] Harris dragged the rat along the ground, his fingers aching, trying to squeeze the life out of the wriggling body, but not having the strength or the grip. The rat dug its claws into the wooden floor, forcing him to hold its head and shoulders slightly off the floor. The small head snapped from side to side, endeavouring to sink its teeth into the man's flesh. (Herbert 1989a: 103-104)
The only solution Harris could think of was to use the laboratory aquarium to drown the creature:
Gathering all his strength, sweat streaming from his face, he raised himself and the rat and plunged the writhing body into the water.
The tank seemed to explode. Water and fish cascaded over him but he held on grimly pushing its head down to the deep bottom, ignoring the pain in his chest and arms. He began to wonder if there would be enough water left in the tank to drown the rat, or whether its flying limbs would crack the glass sides. But gradually, the struggles became weaker, the twists of its body more feeble, the jerk of its head less violent. Finally, there was no movement at all. But Harris still held it there. Just to be sure. (Herbert 1989a: 105)
After coming to the conclusion that these "weren't ordinary rats," but intelligent ones capable of attacking, without fear, the police dogs, of retreating from the torrent of water coming from the firemen's hoses, of gnawing through thick doors with teeth like electric saws, and finally of eating each other to get to their targets, the Ratkill men pumped a gas, lethal to vermin in confined spaces, but harmless to humans unless sucked in large amounts. An official investigation began and a scapegoat was found, Foskins, the Under-Secretary of State. Although formally dismissed, he continued to take a major part in all the actions, being the one who, during a special operational meeting, made the essential difference between the Brown and the Black rats.
We've examined these monsters thoroughly and haven't found anything unusual about them apart from their size of course and their slightly larger brains. Their teeth are bigger, but only in proportion to their body. Their ears, which seem peculiarly long at first because of their nakedness, are also in exact proportion to their body. But the Black rats normally have longer ears than the brown species. Which brings us to an interesting point. [...] The Brown Rat seems to have vanished from London. Since the Brown rat is unable to climb as well as the Black, over the years it has had less chance to survice in the city. Whereas the Black rat is able to scall walls and leap across rooftops, the Brown has found it increasingly harder to gain access into premises that have barriers against them. For years, the two species have been battling for superiority and now it appears that the Black have won. We've found no traces of the Brown, not even its spoors which are quite different from those of the Black. [...] This is the villain we face. [...] Rattus rattus. Black rat. Or Ship rat. There are some of the species known to be this size in tropical countries. We think a member, or members of that species came over in a ship and bred with our own common variety. Because of the difficulties involved, we suspect they were brought over secretly. (Herbert 1989a: 124-126)
During the following discussion, Harris made some very interesting remarks when asked if any rat he saw was frightened and, subsequently, forced to run away by the simple presence of a man:
No. It wasn't fear. It seemed to raise its head, as though it had suddenly heard something, almost as if it had been called. But I heard nothing. [...] But it is unusual the way they study you. It's happened more than once, almost as if they're reading your mind. It's uncanny. (Herbert 1989a: 126-127)
A possible extermination solution was suggested by a young researcher, namely, to infect the vermin:
We can't poison them because they only want human or animal flesh. But we could infect them. [...] We inject a group of animals--dogs, cats--what about Brown rats?--with a virus, something highly infectious, deadly to rats--our bio-chemists could easily come up with one--set them loose at certain points that Mr. Harris could show us--that section of the canal, for instance--the infected animals are attacked by the Black rats, they themselves are infected, they spread it amongst their own kind. They destroy themselves! (Herbert 1989a: 127)
As a matter of fact, after a week it turned out the scientists had already had the virus for many years, having inherited it from the Germans who, during the World War II, had devised it to kill all the English livestock without harming the population. Meanwhile, according to the governmental sources, an antidote was found to protect the animals either by simply injecting it or by mixing it in their food or water; and, eventually they were working on another serum in case the employed one would fail. But, as usual, not everything went as planned. The men assigned to put the puppy baits near the canal and under a near-by bridge were attacked by rats, their tough protective clothes barely saving their lives. Fortunately for the scientists, one giant rat was captured in spite of the attack of the other rodents which were trying to help it escape. Soon, the vermin came out of their hidden places to die on the streets. However, some erratic attacks in which a soldier was bitten, led to the discovery of a side-effect of the virus, the soldier's survival being attributed to a reaction to the disease carried by the rats from the virus infecting them. Surprisingly, the tests on various animals revealed the fact that they died not from the disease caused by the rats bittings, but from the man-made virus the vermin were subjected to. The scientists came up with a serum derived from the virus to be used as an antidote for the rat-bites which made the disease non-mortal. All went well for some time. Until the attack on a cinema full of people, a zoo, and a hospital made the government decide the state of emergency, the evacuation of London, and the start of the "Operation Extirpate." The rats, now obviously immune to the virus, were becoming stronger and stronger, "almost as if they had a burning desire for revenge, and they wreaked havoc, not just in East London, but all over the city, leaving a trail of bloody slaughter wherever they emerged from their lairs" (Herbert 1989a: 163). During one of the emergency meetings at the Ministry of Defence, Harris had the brilliant idea of employing a deadly gas to destroy the vermin; for this, the rodents had to be lured into huge open enclosures by using ultrasonic sounds beams set up in different parts of the metropolis, the right pitch of the high-frequency waves being easily determined after tests on the captive black rats. These were revealed to be the sort of rats which had been smuggled into England by Professor William Bartlett Schiller, who had spent several years in New Guinea and the surrounding islands investigating reports of abnormal, mutant animals seen by the locals, animals having possibly come from an island where nuclear tests had been carried out. And every clue led to the canal area, to the old lock-keeper house, the place where Foskins and Harris then went, the first to his death, the latter on his way to a gruesome discovery in the cellar Schiller must have had kept his mutant monsters. Succeeding to stay alive after being attacked by two rats even larger and heavier than he ones he had encountered before, Harris met a creature he could only have dreamt in his worst nightmare:
In some ways, it resembled a rat, a huge rat, bigger, much bigger than the others. Its head was pointed, its body long, though obese, and he could see a long, thick tail curling forward, from behind. But there the resemblance ended.
Its whole body seemed to pulse spasmodically; it was almost hairless, a few grey threads clinging sparsely; it was completely white, or perhaps grey-pink, impossible to tell in the poor light, and its veins showed through obscenely, throbbing in time with the body movement. It reminded Harris of a huge, dismembered, bloodshot eye. [...]
He looked into the sightless eyes. There were no pupils, just yellow, gleaming slits. The head waved from side to side, seemingly sniffing the air, the only way he could locate him. The stench from the creature was foul, putrid--almost poisonous. A shape at the side of its large head puzzled Harris. Resisting his revulsion, he took a step closer, realising the creature was crippled by its own obesity.
The lump was almost as big as the head next to it and it, too, waved to and fro in the air. He peered closer, holding the torch nearer to it and saw what looked like a mouth!
God! It had two heads.
Harris staggered back with a cry of horror. The second head had no eyes at all, but it had a mouth and stumps of teeth. No ears--but a pointed nose that twitched and sniffed.
The obscene creature's mewing became louder as it thrashed ponderously around its straw crib. But it was unable to move. It sensed the danger and it knew it was helpless. The giant rats Harris and Foskins had fought had been its guards. Guards to the king. But now they were dead, and it was unprotected. Vulnerable. [...]
He lunged forward and the sightless creature tried to back away. But its gluttony and reliance on its subject creatures defeated it. It was too heavy, it was too old, it was too helpless.
The body popped like a huge balloon filled with dark red blood. Harris became drenched in the thick, sticky fluid, but he hacked away at the pulsating flesh. [...] He hacked at the heads, killing the two brains that had dominated its fellow creatures. [...] He plunged the axe deep into the creature's sagging back in one final thrust. (Herbert 1989a: 185-187)
But, unfortunately, this was not the end of it all because, after being trapped in the basement for five days, a rat gave birth to its litter, all gorging themselves on the food left there by the owner of the house. And
[t]hey grew larger and sturdier day by day, almost dark brown, almost black hairs beginning to grow on their bodies. Except for one. Only a few white hairs sprouted on its pink, almost white body. It seemed to dominate the others which brought it food and kept its body warm with their own. A curious lump seemed to be growing on its broad lop-sided shoulder, next to its head. (Herbert 1989a: 189)
Lair; or, the return of the black rats
Four years after the government officials had thought that everything was safe for the people of the metropolis, some Black rats, somehow resistant to the poisoned gas, made an unexpected appearance in the Epping Forest, East London, its Conservation Centre, and the neighbourhood farms. In spite of evidence (small groups seen by children, a stout killed), Edward Whitney-Evans, the Superintendent of the Epping Forest, refused the request of Lucas Pender, of the Ratkill Company, to quarantine the area and decided to cover-up everything with the help of his old chum Anthony Thornton from the Ministry of Agriculture. The reason was, of course, both the money constantly coming yearly from some private London funds, and the governmental bureaucracy. But the incredible intelligent new Black rats, totally credible in their evolution, mutation, and vampiric tendencies (Cole 1992: 103), made their next daring move by attacking a man and a woman in the woods, some campers, the farmer Ken Woollard, and, finally, the Reverend Jonathan Matthews of the Church of the Holy Innocents, the vicar who acidentally stumbled upon them when the vermin were digging and eating a recently-buried corpse from a coffin in the graveyard. A crisis committee was called up, among its members being Thornston, Robert Shipway, Private Secretary for the Ministry of Defence, the Director-General of the Forestry Commission, Stephen Howard, Director of Research at the Ratkill Company, Mike Lehmann, Chief Biologist at the Ratkill Company laboratory, Whitney-Evans, Eric Dugdale of the Safety Inspectorate, Army Major Cormack, and Lucas Pender. After debating what the ultrasonic sound machines could or could not do to the new vermin, a biologist declared that
the giant Black is no ordinary rodent: it's a mutation, its genes are different. They're not just bigger and stronger, they also have a high degree of intelligence. They'd need it, to have remained hidden these past few years. Of course, the fact that rats are nocturnal has helped; but what puzzles me is why there's been no evidence of them until now. Even more puzzling and, I may say, more ominous: why now?
My guess is that after the mass destruction of their breed, the survivors developed an even stronger fear of man, which was passed on to the following generations. We already know of their abnormal brainpower. I'd say this has advanced with the new generations, too. They've kept out of sight, foraged in places safe to them, left little evidence of their presence. (Herbert 1989b: 127)
The first problem was that nobody could give a precise number of the rats after four years, simply because, as Lehmann pointed out
the life-span of a rat is from fifteen months to two-and-a-half years; the female can have five to eight litters a year with as many as twelve new-born in each litter. She's ready again for mating within hours of giving birth, and the young ones reach their reproductive stage after only three months. (Herbert 1989b:127)
The second problem, maybe more important in Lehmann's opinion, was that
they've gone literally underground. I believe they're in the sewer network beneath the forest; that's where we ll look for them. The perverse thing is that the normal Black rat, or Ship rat as it's sometimes known, is arboreal--it can climb trees, high buildings; the mutant has been forced to live below ground. It could explain why they dug up the corpse at the church: theyVe learned to be burrowers. (Herbert 1989b: 127)
And the third problem, still unsolved by scientists, was the way the vermin could be killed. One method would employ rodenticides such as sodium fluoroacetate, fluorcacetamide, zinc phosphide, norbormide, arsenious oxide, oe alpha-chloralose; however, it seemed that the rats had a built-in instinct against anything strange to them, "something called neophobia--new object avoidance" (Herbert 1989b: 128) which could make it difficult for the creatures to accept any new food put anywhere as baits especially if they could feel some ill-effects, in which case they would not touch it again. Another method would use anticoagulants such as Warfarin, coumatetralyl and chlorophacinone, all of them producing a reaction in the rodents' blood system by clotting the blood when vessels were broken; thus, the rats would die of haemorrhages at the slighest scratches. The third, and the best method, would be the use of deadly gas to destroy the ugly mutant Black rat, so accurately described by Howard as having
over two feet in length--more than three, counting the tail; long, pointed head with deadly sharp teeth--the incisors are particularly large; ears pink, naked, pointed. The fur is actually dark brown, but mottled with specks of black that give it the appearance, from a distance, of being completely black. It's much like the normal Black rat apart from its size, the main difference being its large brain and strangely humped back--powerful hindquarters. Its claws are lethal. (Herbert 1989b: 130)
Lucas Pender described the new generation of vermin in more frightening terms:
At the time of the Outbreak the mutant rat was motivated by the desire for human flesh. The new breed may also have decided it would no longer be dominated by man, or fear him as it had in the past. It decided to strike back.
They possessed a new brain-power and soon they had the essential ingredient which gives any army the confidence to become the aggressor: the power of numbers. Perhaps that was the real turning-point for them. [...] They are a mutant strain: their reproductive capabilities may be different to that of a normal rodent. We know from the few groups left after the Outbreak that their reproductive system had been impaired either by the ultrasonic soundwaves or their mutant genes, so it may well have become an inherent thing. [...] The old bloodlust has returned. Their strength in numbers may have triggered it off, or the taste of fresh animal flesh may have awoken an old memory, a desire that's been lying dormant for years. And if that's the case, the attacks are going to get worse. Remember, they've now tasted living, human flesh. (Herbert 1989b:131-132)
And Pender was right, the Command Centre --the ex-Conservation Centre--, a Police Training Camp and a nearby mobile home site on Lippits Hill were the targets, more than one hundred people being killed. The attacks were led by a giant rat with a peculiar white scar running the length of its skull, parts of the victims being carried in an underground lair to become the feed for the hideous two-headed creature living there. The number of rats, as estimated by Pender, was about a thousand, their building-up having been gradual because compared to the normal vermin world they could be considered giants, mutants "as big as elephants" (Herbert 1989b: 163), capable both of surviving on practically anything (small animals from the countryside, food scavenged from houses or farms) without getting much attention, and of attacking people by falling from the trees of the Epping Forest--in this case, the army squad led by Captain Mather and Pender, their steel-lined suits not being resistant enough against the razor-sharp teeth. After the underground tunnels had been sealed out as best as possible, cyanide gas was pumped in to destroy something that looked like aliens to the human world; some rats which managed to escape through an undetected opening were killed by bullets and flame-throwers. And everybody thought the ordeal was over. Unfortunately, it was no quite so easy because, as Howard told Pender in a private meeting, there might have been two kinds of mutant rats in the neighbourhood. That was why the sewers had to be searched again by Pender and Mather. Nothing to report. Not until Pender, now with the tutor Vic Whittaker, arrived at the abandoned and ruined estate of Seymour Hall to find pigs dead all over the stable yard--and some rats feeding out of the almost emptied bodies. And, more coming from the nearest field and tree copse, they attacked the two men whose only escape solution was to enter the ruined manor, just to find out that its floors "seemed alive with the creatures, those at the base of the wall on their haunches, stretching their bodies upwards, leaping and tumbling back when their claws could not gain purchase, the sounds of their strident screeching echoed around the immense, stone cavern, rebounding off the walls, magnifying the noise" (Herbert 1989b: 221). Led by the giant rat with a white marking on its pointed head and enormous, yellowed incisors, the vermin stopped at nothing to get to the two men, including climbing all over the walls. During the fight, Pender and Whittaker crashed downwards, getting themselves to an underground chamber, a place full of human skulls and body fragments, a place where rats "were all crouched, their bodies quivering, eyes staring, slightly bulged," with their ears stiffened as though "picking up a sound too high in pitch" (Herbert 1989b: 226) for Pender to hear. Then, they attacked, and Whittaker had no chance at all; but, strangely, two giants rats or better said guards, drove all the rodents back, and an astonished Pender saw the reason as from the darkness some huge, bloated freak creatures the extreme mutants--shuffled into the dim light:
They were almost hairless, just a few white wisps clinging sparsely to their obese, grey-pink bodies. Their long pointed heads and thick, scaled tails gave them some identification with the vermin they were derived from, but there the resemblance ended. Their swollen bodies, almost too heavy for their legs to carry, were covered in a network of blue, throbbing veins. Some were hunch-backed, their spines twisted upwards to a high peak, descending towards their haunches in a sharp swoop. Several had long, curling tusks; incisors deformed from lack of use. Two or three had shrivelled limbs projecting from various parts of their bodies, hanging uselessly, a few with twisted claws attached. (Herbert 1989b: 229)
And Pender suddenly understood that the Seymour Hall was the lair of the "monsters who governed the more numerous black-furred mutants, controlling them, using them as hunters" (Herbert 1989b: 229), the same monsters he and Charles Denison, the forest keeper, thought to be just pigs when seeing them from a distance:
The animals seen from a distance wandering in the grounds were thought to have been pigs, and it was assumed that pigs would have been slaughtered by the Black rats if they were in the vicinity! But the pigs were already dead, killed earlier by the rats and used as a food supply, the cold weather preventing the corpses from rotting completely. (Herbert 1989b: 230)
And while Pender was debating whether the slaughter of the pigs was a cunny action of the rats, he almost passed out when he saw one the giant rat guard decapitating Wittaker's body and bringing it as an offering for one of his masters:
The two-headed beast shuffled forward and the head without the tusks plunged into the open wound, digging deep, then withdrawing, dragging out the meaty, veined substance with its teeth, blood and watery slime oozing from the emptied skull. The monster dropped its prize onto the dirt, then both heads attacked the brain at once, ripping it apart and swallowing the meat and tissue. (Herbert 1989b:231)
Unexpectly, the giant rat with the white scar suddenly killed one of the guards, thus unleashing the attack of the smaller rats on the grey-pink mutants, except on the dominant one, the intended prey of the giant Black:
The Black rat lunged, ignoring the harmless tusked head, striking for the throat of the blind dead, dodging beneath the sharp incisors. It bit deep and the two heads screeched their agony. And fear.
Others joined the Black rat, pouncing on the obese hairless body and tearing into it. It seemed to Pender to shrink in size, almost like a punctured balloon, but he realised the mutant was sinking to the ground, blood pouring from the ripped veins. Its piteous mewling increased and the head that was blind suddenly slumped sideways, its neck almost severed by the Black rat.
The tusked head tried to pull away, rising in the air, but unable to move far because of its collapsed body. The Black rat bit out an eye before turning its attention towards the throat.
Pender felt no pity for the beast as it wailed in agony. Its remaining eye became glazed as the scarred Black rat tugged at its throat, and the head began to tremble, finally slumping to the ground. The monster died, helpless in its own obesity, no longer able to dominate its lower subjects. Bloodlust was the instigating traitor in their ranks. They had served the creature, brought it food, protected the lair; but now they were beaten and the desire that had exploded within them could no longer be quenched. They turned on their leader in rage and its obscene body became their food. (Herbert 1989b: 234-235)
And after Pender succeeded to get away from the underground room, the long-ruined mansion was grounded by the concentrated fire of the army striking unit led by Captain Mather. No rodent could survive the attack, or, so everybody thought. But, deep in the Epping Forest, the white scarred Black rat led his small group of followers for a new hiding place, somewhere in the City of London, to the
Domain; or, the end of an (impossible evolution
Set against the macrocosm of a ruined world, Domain was in fact "the microcosm of the small group of survivors that focuses our suspension of disbelief" (Cole 1992: 104). Now, the conflict between humans and rats, which had become further mutated, took place in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on London, thus the devastated landscape becoming one of the book's main concern, as Ramsey Campbell rightly considered (cf. Gilbert 1992: 107). The scene was a post-atomic London, a grim, merciless and chaotic hell, a physical and spiritual wasteland. (Cole 1992: 103)
In one of his interviews, Herbert pointed out an interesting aspect:
I found out that rats are immune to radiation--in fact they thrive on it--and that got me clicking. I started researching nuclear war and the bunkers under London. I read books, I interviewed people, I went and looked, (apud Cole 1992: 104)
As the action of this volume took place after a nuclear attack on London, one could consider it more properly a science fiction apocalyptic novel --such as Death of a World 0. Jefferson Farjeon, 1948), The Last Day (Richard Matheson, 1953), On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957)--than a horror one. The attack had been unexpected and the sirens warning about the missiles did not do much to allow the people to take cover against the apocalypse to come:
The first bomb exploded just a few thousand feet above Hyde Park, its energy release, in the forms of radiation, light, heat, sound and blast, the equivalent of one million tons of TNT. [...]
Within two thousandths of a second after the initial blinding flash of light, the explosion had become a small searing ball of vapour with a temperature of eighteen million degrees fahrenheit, a newborn minisun of no material substance.
The luminous fireball immediately began to expand, the air around it heated by compression and quickly losing its power as a shield against the ultraviolet radiation. The rapid growing fiery nucleus pushed at the torrid air, producing a spherical acoustic shock-front which began to travel faster than its creator, masking the fireball's full fury.
As the shock-front spread, its progenitor followed, quickly dispersing a third of its total energy. The fireball grew larger, almost half a mile in diameter, leaving behind a vacuum and beginning to lose its luminosity. It started to spin inwards, rising st an incredible speed, forming a ring of smoke which carried debris and fission-produced radioactive isotopes.
Dust was sucked from the earth as the swirling vortex reached upwards, dust that became contaminated by the deadly, man-activated rays, rising high into the skies, later to settle on the destroyed city as lethal fallout.
The angry cloud with its stem of white heat was more than six miles high and still rising, banishing the noonday sun, when the next missile denotated its warhead.
Three more megaton bombs were soon to follow. (Herbert 1991: 6)
As Steve Culver, a helicopter pilot, tried to recover after the shock, and to help a blind man, he looked around and could not trust his own eyes:
The familiar London landscape, with its tall buildings both old and new, its skyscraper towers, the ancient church steeples, its old, instantly recognisable landmarks, no longer existed. Fires raged everywhere. [...] The skies overhead were black, a vast turbulent cloud hanging low over the city. A spiralling column, the hated symbol of the holocaust, climbed into the cloud, a white stem full of unnatural forces. (Herbert 1991:29)
The blind man, Alex Dealey, who proved in the next few hours to be a rather important member of the Ministry of Defence, with accurate knowledge of the official and governmental emergency shelters built up under the entire London, led Culver to a secret place, officially called the Kingsway Telephone Exchange. This was in fact a nuclear bunker in which a few officials and scientists--among them Howard Farraday, doctor Clare Reynolds, Alistair Bryce, a senior Civil Defence officer--had already had time to retreat to. Here, Reynolds made a fearful assumption concerning the vermin who could be found outside the shelter:
Dealey, Culver and Miss Garner were attacked by rats outside this shelter. It appears they were particularly large and, to say the least, unusually ferocius. They had attacked and were devouring survivors who had taken shelter in the tunnels. [...] Certain forms of life are highly resistant to radiation. Insects are, for instance, And so, too, are rats. [...] If these creatures are descendants of the Black rats that terrorised London just a few years ago--and from their size, I'd say they were--then not only will they be resistant to radiation, but they'll thrive on it. (Herbert 1991:77)
And the radioactive rain which was pouring all over the destroyed city did nothing to improve the situation as the rats coming out of tunnels, sewers, conduits or simply dark holes broke out into the light, no longer fearing the humans:
They crept upwards, stealthily, sniffing the air, puzzled at the relentless drumming sound, emerging into the rain that drenched their bristle-furred bodies. The brightness dazzled their sharp eyes at first, even though it was muted an unnatural grey, and they were timid, fearful, in their movement, still hiding from human eyes, still apprehensive of their age-old adversary.
They moved out from the dark places and stole among the ruins of the city, rain-streaked black beasts, many in number, eager for sustenance. Hunting for flesh. Seeking warm blood. (Herbert 1991: 117)
And they attacked the people sheltering in a cinema, they ate the bodies sprawled on the stairways of a tube station; then many of them died as the members of the reconnaisance team sent out from the nuclear bunker could see for themselves:
The black rat was huge, almost two feet in length. Its scaly curved tail offered at least another eighteen inches. Its fur was stiffened, dull and dry with death, its massive haunches still hunched as though the rodent was ready to leap. But there was no life in the evil yellow eyes, no dampness in the mouth and incisors. Yet still it emanated a deadliness, a lethal malevolence that made three of the men shudder and back away, even though its neck was twisted at an awkward angle, its skull indented unnaturally. (Herbert 1991: 140)
And another unexpected and rather unpleasant meetings of the team members were with rabid dogs and, respectively, radiated human survivors
shuffling shapes emerging from the shadows, most of them crawling, some stooped and bent, stumbling as if with age, a whining coming from them that was more frightening than piteous. In that moment of abject fear, it was hard to think of these unsteady, shambling figures as fellow humans, wretches who had had no time to shelter properly from the disaster and its disease-carrying aftermath, for they came at the three survivors like lepers escaping their colony, like hunched demons rising from unhallowed earth, like the undead reaching out to embrace and initiate the living. (Herbert 1991: 154-155)
And as if there were not enough gruesome images, the heads of many of the corpses laying on the escalators and inside the tube station were missing. And while, unexpectly, both the underground tunnels and the bunker were flooded, the rodents made their deadly appearance again, as
these strange mutants had adapted to sewer life in a way he would not have thought possible, the foul waters, whether sluggish with slime or rushing with rainfall, holding no fears for them, just another part of their underworld environment. (Herbert 1991:235)
And the attacks never stopped in the city, the vermin eating anything, be it the food stored by the government in their strategic reserves, wiring and electric cables from the generators or various machineries to be found on the shelters which had unknowingly been built right on top of the Black rats nets. Meanwhile, many rodents were found dead without any visible signs of lesions or bullet holes. Dealey made an educated guess, speaking about some kind of illness, probably pneumonic plague, transmitted to the animals by their own disease-carrying fleas. Among the seemingly dead creatures, some were still alive and they tried to attack the survivors, some of them being somewhat restrained, in Culver's words, by "hate," as "they hate us as much as we hate them; maybe more--they're the ones who've always had to hide" (Herbert 1991: 360). In addition to hiding, they would feed on human brains, this being the ultimate reason for so many headless human corpses. These seemed to be extremely mutant vermin, essentially of the same strain as the Black rats, but grotesquely different in their genetic transformation:
The bloated creature barely resembled a rat. Its head was almost sunk into the obese body, long withered tusks emerging from the slack jaw. [...] There was a pinkishness to the fine, stretched skin, a smattering of wispy white hair its only covering. Dark veins streaked its body, blood vessels that had hardened and stood embossed from the skin. The twisted spin rose to a peak over its rear haunches; the tail curved round like a lash, its surface hard with scales. There were other projections about its body, these resembling malformed limbs, superfluous and hideous in shape. The slanted eyes glinted under the torch glare, but there was no life in them. (Herbert 1991:382-383)
And the still alive creatures emitted a mewling sound, sometimes similar to a child's:
As Fairbank stepped over an inert pink form, the creature raised its sinister, pointed head, toothless jaws attempting to snap at his ankle. The engineer stamped down hard and felt bones crunch beneath his foot.
The mewling increased in pitch, became an intense swell of squealing, of helpless ululation ... infantile wailing ...
Childish crying.... (Herbert 1991: 384)
And, thus, by following that weird crying sound, Culver and Fairbank discovered the Mother Creature's nest:
The creature screeched, the sound of a hurt, terrified child, and attempting to lift her obese body, tried to protect herself, her two jaws snapping ineffectively, her useless limbs thrashing the ground, trampling and scattering the tiny offspring that had suckled at her breasts. [...] In a paroxysm of agony, she rose up, exposing her sickening, fleshy underbelly, several of her brood still clinging to the many breasts that dangled there. (Herbert 1991: 387)
In spite of the bullets with which Fairbank riddled the creature and of the axe with which Culver was striking her
Still she moved, still she writhed, falling again, but incredibly shuffling her way towards the two men. [...] The massive, throbbing body began to come apart, the rising curved spine shattering into splinters, bursting outwards like shrapnel; flesh ruptured and parts pulverised as bullets tore through; one barely-raised claw was shredded to pulp. Yet still it advanced.
The pointed head, its incisors like curled tusks, the eyes white, sightless, weaved in front of them; a strange stump protruded from her shoulder next to the head, an opening within it which could only have been another mouth, spitting blood-specked drool. [...]
The pointed skull before him split cleanly in two, grey-pink substance inside falling loose, liquid from the opened throat jetting out.
The piercing screech came from the stump next to the cloven head, the toothless jaws wide with the creature's pain, her scaly purple tongue stabbing frenziedly at the air.
Culver struck again, cutting through this other skull, the axe head sinking into the shoulder, into the body itself.
The squirming abomination suddenly went rigid, became frozen just for a few moments. Then slowly, agonizingly slowly, it began to slump, nerve ends twitching, torn, bloated body quivering. (Herbert 1991:387-388)
Culver did not stop after the Mother Creature's death; he could not have as, for good reasons, he need to kill all her offspring too:
He attacked the litter, the smaller, more obscene--much more obscene--creatures that the monster had given birth to. He hacked their pink bodies, ignoring their faint cries, striking, pummelling, crushing their tiny bones, making sure each one was dead, beating any small movement from them, shredding them from existence, sundering them of all form, of any shape. (Herbert 1991:388)
And, even after being saved by the team of a Puma army helicopter, Culve could not help but think about the entire tragedy he was part of about
The slaying of a weakened master-species by a centuries-repressed creature that could only inhabit the dark underworld; mankind's natural, sneaking enemy, who had always possessed cunning, but now that cunning--and their power--enhanced by an unnatural cause. He thought of the giant, black-furred rats with their deadly weapons, their teeth, their claws, their strngth. And again, their cunning. He thought of the even-more-loathsome, bloated, slug-like creatures, brethren to and leaders of the Black monsters of the same hideous spawn. And he thought of the Mother Creature. (Herbert 1991:418)
Suddenly, Culver was hit by an terrible discovery and its implications on the small, newborn creatures resembling
human ... human! ... embryos. They had claws, the beginnings of scaly tails, the same wicked, slanting eyes and the humped backs. But their skulls were more like the skulls of man, their features were those of grotesque, freakish humans. Their arms, their legs, were not those of animals. And their brains, seen clearly through their tissue-thin craniums and transparent skins, were too large to belong to a rat. (Herbert 1991:419)
This was the moment when the former helicopter pilot wondered about the way mankind had been created:
Had mankind been created in the same way, through an explosion of radiation, genes changed in a way that caused them to evolve into walking, thinking, upright creatures? Another dreadfully funny notion: had mankind evolved not from the ape, as the theorists, those wretched interpreters of it all, thought? Had mankind ... had mankind evolved from these other foul creatures? And had that same course of evolution been unleashed once again? (Herbert 1991:419)
Meanwhile, some rats after escaping by swimming to the Embankment and roaming the almost empty London, returned to their underworld tunnels, their free territory, to "the new world that was to become their domain" (Herbert 1991: 421), a domain so complex that it could not have been described in only one book:
I don't think any one stands up on its own, but when you put the three together you understand what the whole series was about. It was me saying that we have this system. These rats which were symbolic of the system were created by the very establishment that created nuclear arms, and these mutant rats were bred from that. This system happened to be the government of the day. (apud Gilbert 1992b: 193-194)
James Herbert and his other "heroes"
James Herbert did not continue the Rats saga, although the graphic novel The City could be considered as such. Instead, he wrote about a poisonous fog which induced madness and subsequent death to the people who inhaled it (The Fog, 1975)--a paradigm of the modern technology, a mutant mycoplasma similar to the deadly clouds from The Sheep Look Up (John Brunner, 1972) ghosts (The Survivor, 1976; Haunted, 1988; The Ghosts of Sleath, 1994), ex-Nazis, occult forces and intelligent services (The Spear, 1978), eternal evil (The Dark, 1980), terrorist organizations (The Jonah, 1981), demonic forces (Shrine, 1983), monstruous creatures (Moon, 1985), mad sectarians (The Magic Cottage, 1986), psychic existence and mythology (Sepulchre, 1987), apocalyptic earthquakes, deadly volcanic eruptions and powerful hailstorms (Portent, 1992), psycho killers (Nobody True, 2003). But he once again imagined a war-torn London, one in which two distinct human groups lived, the dying people, affected by the biological warfare started by the 1945 German V2 rockets attack, and, respectively, the healthy and safe ones which happened to have AB negative blood type ('48, 1996).
In 2010 James Herbert was made Grand Master of Horror by the World Horror Convention, held between March 25-28 at Brighton, Sussex. Later that year he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature.
The author the Rats trilogy died on March 29, 2013, in Woodmancote, Henfield, Sussex.
Novels: The Rats, 1974 / Deadly Eyes, 1983; The Fog, 1975; The Survivor, 1976; Fluke, 1977; The Spear, 1978; Lair, 1979; The Dark, 1980; The Jonah, 1981; Shrine, 1983; Domain, 1984; Moon, 1985; The Magic Cottage, 1986; Sepulchre, 1987; Haunted, 1988; Creed, 1990; Portent, 1992; The Ghosts of Sleath, 1994; '48, 1996; Others, 1999; Once, 2001; Nobody True, 2003; The Secret of Crickley Hall, 2006; Ash, 2012.
Novel series: Rats: The Rats, 1974 / Deadly Eyes, 1983; Lair, 1979; Domain, 1984.
Graphic novel: The City, illustrated by Ian Miller, lettered by Judy Balchin, 1994.
Filmography--Screening: Deadly Eyes / The Rats, Canada, 1982, producers. Jeffrey Schechtman, Paul Kahnert, Charles Eglee, J. Gordon Arnold, director: Robert Clouse, writing credits: Charles Eglee, Lonon Smith, cinematography: Rene Verzier, film editing: Ron Wisman, special effects: Mike Kavanagh, Mark Molin, Ron Wisman, Malivoire Productions Inc., make-up: Allan A. Apone, Kathleen Graham, Ken Myers, Kathie Clark, Larry Carr, Suzanne Moreau, Kathy Shorkey, Michael Mills, Frank Carrisosa, Douglas J. White, Makeup Effects Labs, art director: Ninkey Dalton, music: Anthony Guefen, cast: Sam Groom, Sara Botsford, Scatman Crothers, Cec Linder, Lisa Langlois, Lesleh Donaldson, James B. Douglas, Lee-Max Walton, Joseph Kelly, Kevin Foxx, Jon Wise, Wendy Bushell, Dora Dainton, Roger Dunn.
Critical studies: Stephen Jones, editor, James Herbert: By Horror Haunted, 1992; Craig Cabell, Devil in the Dark, 2003, revised edition 2013.
Ashley M (1992) Castaway. James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
ColeA (1992) Season of the rat .James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Gaiman N (1992) The craft. James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Gilbert J (1992a) Horror of "The Rats". James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Gilbert J (1992b) Haunted by success. James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Herbert J (1989a) The Rats. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Herbert J (1989b) Lair. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Herbert J (1991) Domain. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Jones S (1992) A category to himself. James Herbert: by horror haunted. Jones S, ed. London: New English Library, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
King S (1986) Danse macabre. New York: Berkley Books.
Lovecraft HP (2008) The complete fiction. Joshi ST, ed. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Winter DE (1990) James Herbert. Faces of fear. Encounters with the creators of modern horror. London: Pan Books.
Gheorghe Asachi Technical University
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org