The revenge of the rats...
The refuse-collectors’ strike of autumn 1970 was an early indication of the inability of the Heath government to manage industrial relations, but it also provoked other, more atavistic fears, as Graham Don, a lecturer in environmental health at London University, pointed out: ‘If the failure to collect rubbish goes on for any length of time there will be a build-up in the rat population. At the moment, we are retreating and the rats are advancing…’
This reminder of the struggle for co-existence between humanity and its oldest urban enemy, the rat, was guaranteed to send a shiver through society. It was also the main reason for the government taking the unusual step of using soldiers to deal with the effects of a strike, when the army was sent into Tower Hamlets to clear the rubbish that had become a health hazard. Similar measures were called for in 1975 when an unofficial strike in Glasgow resulted in even worse conditions: ‘In some places the piles of rotting garbage rise as high as 20ft,’ reported the press. ‘More than 50,000 tons of uncollected refuse are now polluting Glasgow.’ When the troops were eventually called upon, it took them over a month to clear the streets, working in terrible conditions: ‘The biggest hazard the soldiers face is the swarms of rats at every temporary rubbish dump.’
In between these two strikes, the animal in question had made a sensational reappearance in popular culture with James Herbert’s first book, The Rats, in 1974. For some years British horror fiction, which had once driven the evolution of the novel, had been in danger of dying through neglect, reduced to little more than Dennis Wheatley’s effete tales of Satanism among the upper classes. Herbert reversed that decline with a proletarian prose-style that combined episodic narrative with an unflinching eye for visceral violence.
The first chapter set out his stall, introducing us to a middle-aged salesman named Henry Guilfoyle who falls in love with a younger colleague and is hounded out of his job by homophobic bullying. Six years, and six pages, later he has become an alcoholic vagrant in the East End of London, which is where he finds himself attacked by a pack of huge rats: ‘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 any more – the rats had already eaten his eyes.’ The unfortunate Guilfoyle was the first of many characters to make such brief appearances in the work of Herbert and his imitators, introduced as narrative cannon-fodder and destined to be dead by the chapter-end.
The success of The Rats – and it was hugely successful, particularly among secondary schoolchildren, who passed it on from hand to hand with salivating enthusiasm, so that its readership massively outnumbered even its sales figures – inspired publishers to take horror fiction seriously again. It also inspired a host of lesser writers to take up the causes of other animals that could turn against humanity, from slugs and maggots to pigs and pike, with Guy N. Smith’s series of killer crab novels proving the most durable entry in the field. None, however, could match the original, partly because Herbert was a much better writer than his successors, and partly because rats have more resonance than jellyfish could ever achieve.
At the time of the novel’s publication, Herbert was working in advertising as an art director, but he had grown up in the East End (next to Petticoat Lane market, where the troops had been sent to clear refuse in 1970) and knew well the bombsites and wastelands that were ‘invisible to the authorities’. The story was, he said, set in ‘the London I lived in’ and it brought to British horror a distinctively urban dimension. Mutated animals had been a staple of the movies for decades, but Herbert’s creatures were of a different order altogether. These rats came clawing out of the pages of Dickens and Dracula, dragging with them folk-memories of Pied Pipers and plagues; reeking of urban decay, they descended on a recidivist society that had lied with its promises of a better life. ..
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008