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Literature / The Rats

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It was only when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures with their razor sharp teeth and the taste for human blood began to be realised by a panic-stricken city. For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now for the first time – suddenly, shockingly, horribly – the balance of power had shifted…

This is the premise of James Herbert's 1974 Nightmare Fuel novel, which began with the oft-repeated observation that in London nobody is ever more than twenty feet away from a rat. Herbert wondered what might happen if in a city of eight million people, twenty million or so rats were to develop a dim awareness that they not only outnumbered people but could find unity in strength. His rats mutate, become larger, fiercer, more intelligent, and can transmit a deadly necrotic plague into the bargain. And London is suddenly in trouble.

Criticized for its graphically explicit nature, both in terms of sex and violence,note  and seen by others as a political satire on the fact that thirty years after the end of World War II, Britain's capital city STILL had slums and uninhabitable bomb-sites which were breeding rats and disease, the book sold out within three weeks and went direct to its first of many reprints.

The novel received a film adaptation in 1982 as Deadly Eyes. There have been three sequels; Lair, Domain and The City, the last of which is a graphic novel.

This horror story spawned an uncontrollable swarming horde of tropes, including:-

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Domain takes place "in the not-too-distant future", according to the opening narration.
  • Badass Teacher: Harris from the first book. He survives many attacks from the rats whereas nearly everyone else gets killed immediately, and only suffers serious injuries in the climatic battle.
  • Brain Food: The mutant rats have a particular fondness for this particular part of their victims.
  • Breather Episode: Chapter 8 is Harris and his girlfriend's weekend break in the country.
  • Bury Your Gays: The first victim of the rats is an alcoholic vagrant whose downfall began when he had an affair with a much younger man, which was enough to ruin him in the climate of the seventies. This trope is averted, though, as his story is presented as a tragedy.
  • Crapsack World: London is this to several of the introduced characters, especially the mis-used Irish tramp who as a girl came to the city with bright hopes, but who degenerates into sexual abuse and alcoholism. Becoming one of the first victims of the rats is almost a blessed relief. It gets infinitely worse in Domain after the nuclear attack.
  • Death of a Child: The rats just see children as an easy meal, and one of the first victims of the rats is an infant girl and her dog.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Lair is set in the Epping Forest at the edge of London.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: King's Way Telephone Exchange, which doubles as a telecommunications hub and a government shelter, and features its own powerplant (along with backup generators), and its own water source. According to one official, walking the entire complex takes over an hour.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Domain begins with five nuclear warheads destroying London and killing millions of people.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The original novel ends with one female rat having survived the last purge after being locked in a basement, and gives birth to a new brood, including a new, white, two-headed alpha rat. And similarly, Lair ends with the scarred rat leading a small band back into the city from the forest.
  • Enemy Civil War: The rats are quite capable of turning on each other.
  • Eye Scream:
    • As the rats prefer eating peoples' brains (see above), their favorite mode of attack is to chew their way to the "tasty candy center" of a victim's skull through the eyes.
    • In Domain, Dealey is blinded when he accidentally stares into the flash of a nuclear detonation. While he survives (and it turns out to be temporary after a Time Skip), several other victims of the bomb are described as having their eyes fried when the nuke reaches them, though none of them live long enough to notice it.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Unlike the other panicking citizens of London shown during the opening narration of Domain, one of them, a prostitute working out of a high-class hotel, doesn't bother to even try to run, just standing by the window and smoking a last cigarette as she waits for the end. This is in stark contrast to her three clients behind her, who are scrambling to get dressed and try to reach safety, even if they won't even have time to get to the elevator before the nuke hits.
  • From Bad to Worse: You'd think things can't really get worse than a nuclear war, but Domain proves that wrong. The people who survived the initial blasts have to quickly flee the buildings they took shelter in, because most of them were heavily damaged and are now collapsing on top of them. Then they have to find new shelter, because of the radioactive fallout that's about to come down. And if they thought to seek shelter underground? That's when the rats show up...
  • Humans Are Flawed: There is no hero who saves the day. Practically all the human characters are depicted as fairly flawed, seedy, unattractive, even repulsive, people who are wholly ineffectual against the peril.
  • Nuclear Mutant: The original mutant rats came about as a result of nuclear testing on the islands around New Guinea.
  • Post-Peak Oil: The setting implies to be in the early stages of this at the start of Domain, with rising gas prices, embargoes and price gouging by the Arab states similar to the 70's, and Russia invading Iran to seize the oil fields. This is what eventually escalates into World War 3.
  • Rat King: The alpha of the killer rats stalking London is a white, hairless and obese rat with two heads.
  • Recurring Character: Ratkill's Stephen Howard is the only character to appear in both The Rats and Lair.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Foskins in the first book. After being disgraced and fired for his failure to end the threat of the rats, he attempts to redeem himself by locating the rats' lair. He does so, but when he does find it, he's set upon and killed by the rat leader's guards, although he takes two with him, and it's through following him that Harris finds the nest and kills the rats' leader, ending the threat for the time being.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: The mutant rats are three or four times normal size.
  • Sinister Subway: At one point, a huge swarm of rats flood out of a subway tunnel and attack the commuters on the platform, leading to dozens of fatalities.
  • Skewed Priorities: Played for Black Comedy in Domain as the nuclear attack unfolds. One man stops for gas, and the station manager even comes back to charge him for it, though in the latter case it's because denial set in and he decided it was a false alarm. In the subway, one railway worker tries telling two of the characters they can't be in the Workers Only area, even after seeing a panicked mob of survivors trample his supervisor to death, because he was trying to make them stand in orderly queues!
  • Swarm of Rats: The rats hunt in supersized packs so as to be sure of bringing down a human.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: A zoologist named William Schiller, who found the original mutant rats during a visit to New Guinea, and brought them back to Britain. While experimenting, he crossbred the mutants with common black rats, accidentally creating the monstrous super rats, who eventually turn on him and kill him.
  • The Virus: This particular breed of rat transmits a dangerous disease in their bite that kills any survivor they've bitten within 24 hours, though this disappears after an attempt is made to exterminate them with a different virus. After they adapt and become immune to it, they also lose the toxicity of their bite.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute?: the book would not have had the same impact had the animal stars been rabbits, hamsters or kittens.