IMG_20200619_125120By James Herbert

The unthinkable has happened. World War Three has broken out and nuclear missiles have exploded over London. Millions are killed, and pilot Steve Culver might have been one of them, except he fortuitously crosses paths with man from the ministry Alex Dealey, who’s on his way to a government shelter and, along with fellow survivor Kate, they battle through the underground to some semblance of safety, but for the survivors there’s more to worry about than radioactive fallout. Humanity thought they’d vanquished the mutant black rats, but they were merely hiding. Now they sense humanity is vulnerable, and claw their way out of the dark to claim London as their domain!

Given I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and given my predilection as a teenager for both James Herbert novels and apocalyptic fiction, it’s perhaps no great surprise that this 1984 novel was a firm favourite from my very first read, and I’ve read it many times since (as you can no doubt tell from the photo) though not for years.

The final, and in my opinion best, Rats novel (though there is a 1993 graphic novel) this sees Herbert go all out by killing millions in the opening chapters, and his evocation of nuclear annihilation and a ruined London is superbly done, playing on his usual trick of providing potted biographies for characters, just enough for us to empathise with them before killing them off. There’ll be rat related deaths aplenty later, but early doors the main causes of death aren’t teeth, it’s heat and the shockwaves burning up bodies and demolishing buildings.

He shifts to a second act focusing on the emotional impact of survival. Those in the shelter may be safe, but they’re still traumatised. Suicide is prevalent, and so is the risk of mutiny. Some don’t see why Dealey should be in charge just because he held a position of minor authority before the world ended.

There’s a grim recon mission to the surface featuring a wince inducing encounter with a rabid dog, but soon the survivors are faced with a triple whammy of threats; insurrection, flooding and rats!

This is a high concept novel. Bringing back the rats after a dull second outing and partnering them up with nuclear war, a subject on everyone’s minds in the 1980s. Herbert is disparaging towards authority in this, and the fate that befalls the main government shelter suitably ironic, yet much like his hero, he can’t quite bring himself to choose a side. Culver’s a standard Herbert stand-in; a loner in jeans and a leather jacket, a reluctant hero. A nonconformist who has little time for Dealey, yet seems equally sniffy about the potential mutineers. Dealey is a two-dimensional civil servant, a man who’s fallen back on bureaucracy because that’s all he has left. Herbert suggests Kate’s a strong female character, but really she’s just a damsel in distress for Culver to rescue and fall in love with. It’s a shame Herbert dispenses with a far more interesting female character early on.

A product of its time, women don’t far well, and whilst nowhere near as bad as I’d expected, persons of colour aren’t portrayed too glowingly either, aside from Jackson, who Herbert feels the need to constantly remind us is black which seems to be his only defining character trait, but he isn’t alone here and many people in the vignettes are more fleshed out that some of the recurring characters!

From a great concept the book goes downhill in the final third There’s the fairly predictable apocalyptic trope of the outlaw gang, and by the time we get to the finale there are just too few characters left to make for a final bloodbath, and it has to be said, there’s only so many rat attacks you can read before they all blur into one, and several of the grim interludes Herbert peppers the book with are a trifle samey. That said some other (non-rat related) interludes are nicely done.

He also annoys me by having characters use automatic weapons that appear to carry a ludicrous number of bullets!

A product of it’s time, this is still a very enjoyable read and definitely one of Hebert’s better books. It’s a trifle long and some of the underground scenes, especially late on, drag, but still a damn fine example of 80s’ post-apocalyptic fiction, and still a heck of a concept.

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