Underground Horror

The Rats by James Herbert (1974): The late, prolific, popular horror/thriller writer Herbert gives us his first novel here. Americans often only know Herbert through Stephen King’s section on him in the non-fiction horror survey Danse Macabre. That’s a shame, because King severely underestimated Herbert there while praising him with faint damns as a pulp writer moving towards a more mainstream approach in the late 1970’s.
As with a lot of British writers of horror and horrific science fiction, Herbert shows the mighty influence of John Wyndham in many of his novels, including this one. We regard apocalyptic events from the position of ordinary people who assume roles of importance in the novel. By the end, London (England, natch) comes under attack by a seemingly limitless army of giant rats swarming up from the sewers and subway lines. Think of it as the Return of the Repressed, but with giant, man-eating rats!

However, Herbert is also very much concerned with the plight of the working and lower classes in modern England. This leads to some keenly observed stretches in which those terrible rats attack poor people and others excluded by the traditional power structure, including gays and the mentally ill. The authorities pretty much ignore the terrible fates of these outsiders until the disaster suddenly erupts over everything. As above, so below: by not paying adequate attention to the living conditions of those who are most powerless, the powerful end up facing armageddon.

Ultimately, a schoolteacher from a working class background holds the key to defeating the vast army of giant, hyper-intelligent mutant rats that are the monsters of this particular Herbert novel. The plot moves at a blistering pace, with the disaster fleshed out by the experiences of minor characters other than the protagonist. And the rats — well, the rats are a great antagonist. And as this is just the first novel in what’s generally known as Herbert’s Rat Trilogy (to be followed by Lair and Domain), you can be sure that they’re a formidable foe. There are many horrific set-pieces of terror, the grotesque, the bloody, and the sad. It’s a great, terse horror novel. Highly recommended.

The Fog by James Herbert (1975): The late, prolific, popular horror/thriller writer Herbert throws London under the bus again in his second apocalyptic horror novel. This time around, the horror moves inexorably towards London after being unleashed from the earth by a mysterious, improbable earthquake that devastates a small country town. The monster is…fog! How British is that?

Yes, fog. A growing and seemingly undispersable yellowish cloud of fog prowls the English countryside before heading straight for London. What is it? Where did it come from? Why won’t it disperse? An investigator for the Ministry of Environment, having been literally plunged into events while driving through the village during the earthquake, is our protagonist as the forces of the government try to contain the fog.

Why contain it? Because the fog seems to magnify and unleash the worst personality traits of many of those who breathe it for even a few seconds. Rapes, murders, suicides, mass suicides, cannibalism, a guy getting his Johnson cut off with garden shears, a suddenly homicidal group of Hare Krishnas: this fog is a killing machine.

As with Herbert’s other apocalyptic novels, scenes of horror and pity contrast with scenes of quiet characterization and a couple of graphic sex scenes. He was certainly an inheritor of the pulp tradition early in his novelistic career, but Herbert also looked with a critical eye on how governments treat the under-privileged and the excluded. His flair for the bloodily horrifying, while certainly a pulp staple, also points in some of its more graphically awful moments towards the rise of Splatterpunk. Highly recommended.

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