The horror or fantasy novel which influenced me the most? I grew up in England in the 70’s – when some of the great fantasy and horror novels first appeared. As a teenager, I remember trying to read Stephen King’s The Stand. (But it was just TOO big, with so many characters, and I think I got lost and gave up.) Stephen King was big in college, so I know I read copies of The Shining and Salem’s Lot, which were passed around. A lot of my friends loved Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, but it was just too studied, too clinical to be really scary. And also, these were all American novels, set in America, so that made them a little more distant and, somehow, a lot less scary.
And then, I stumbled across James Herbert’s The Rats. This is the book which genuinely terrified me, it turned me into a lifelong fan and an avid reader.
The premise of The Rats is very simple: mutated giant rats attack London.
I was born and raised in London, England, so I was easily able to identify with the locations in the cities East End, which made reading the book all the more real. The thought of mutated, diseased rats invading the city was incredibly scary.The moment I saw the cover of a huge black rat leering out of the picture, with crazed eyes and huge incisors, I knew I had to have it.
There’s a true saying in Britain “In the City of London you are never more than five feet away from a rat.” That, in itself, should run a chill up your spine, let alone reading a novel that’s infested with oversized Rattus rattus!
I think I must have been around fourteen years old when I first picked up the book at W.H. Smith in Gatwick Airport, England. The moment I saw the cover of a huge black rat leering out of the picture, with crazed eyes and huge incisors, I knew I had to have it.
We were on our way for a two week family vacation and my mother, always excited to see me read, had given me money to buy any book I wanted. When she asked what book I had purchased, I told her it was a novel by James Herbert. Given the title, Rats and the author, Herbert, she assumed I’d bought a novel by the well-known English author and veterinarian, James Herriot, whose series of humorous and gentle novels were set in the idyllic countryside of Yorkshire. If there were rats in James Herriot’s novels, they were the fluffy, gentle type, who nibbled on a slice of apple; James Herbert’s rats gnawed on your face!
I never let on to my mother that I was reading horror.
The Rats was so very cleverly crafted. They were intense, graphic descriptions of death, mutilation and a little erotica thrown in for good measure: what more does a teenager want?
At sixteen and just about to end the school term, we had just finished our GCSE ‘O’ levels exams (American Diploma) and had a free reading period. I brought my much beloved, battered and well-thumbed copy to college with me. I was already half way through the book when my teacher asked me what I was reading. Clearly it was a mistake to show her the cover. I watched her read the opening paragraphs, saw her eyes widen and knew I was in trouble. Deemed as inappropriate, my beloved copy was confiscated! Two days later, I bought another copy.
Over the years I’ve devoured all of James Herbert’s novels and it’s interesting to see how his writing evolved and matured. Although he never lost his visceral punch, he shifted into more psychological and scary stories, but decades later I still return to his first book and the two sequels, Lair and Domain. I’ve lost count on how many times I have read them.
James Herbert had a wonderfully unique and straightforward style. He had worked for an advertising agency and I am sure that honed his ability to get his message across and tell the story without any long exposition. Here were characters you could completely relate to and Herbert always left you wanting to turn the page. Because the writing in The Rats was so straightforward and clear, it sparked that thought which every aspiring writer recognizes: I could do that. That’s how we all start. Kudos to James Herbert who certainly encouraged my passion for writing horror.
For me, that is the greatest compliment one could ever give any author.
And, just for the record: The Rats was rejected by five publishers before it finally found a home. It sold 100,000 copies in three weeks – and these were the days long before social media.
Would I ever consider having a rat as a pet? Yes, absolutely, just a long as they are not the variety, size and crazed as depicted in the novel The Rats.
Sadly, James Herbert, OBE died 2013 aged 69. He had just published his 23rd novel, Ash. I have it here on the shelf above my desk.