When James Herbert published The Rats in 1974 not only did he have a worldwide best-seller on his hands but he also invented a horror fiction subgenre – let’s call it Creature-thrillers as a nod to the 1950’s/1960’s Creature Feature movies.
Herbert said he thought of the story after watching Todd Browning’s Dracula on the television and being horrified by Renfield’s description of his nightmare involving hordes of rats. The author also recalled the packs of rats he had seen on London’s old bomb sites during his childhood and he brought the feelings of dread the creatures had always inspired in himself to his first novel.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time, I was as naive as that.” James Herbert, talking about writing The Rats.
The book met with a poor critical reception but the first print run sold out within three weeks and the book’s remained in print ever since. For many the book was too graphic and the overall theme too pessimistic but what Herbert did was bring a particular working class form of horror to the table and there was a theme of criticism of a government who were not doing enough for the poorer elements of society. It’s written in a very visceral style and totally enjoyable but it’s so much more than it appears on the surface. And of course the true measure of its success is in the amount of imitations it spawned.
Herbert was very much in the right place and at the right time and almost simultaneously with The Rats, an American writer named Stephen King was getting his first taste of success with Carrie – all of a sudden the horror genre was big business. And of course The Rats was riding on this wave of popularity – there were a slew of imitators – Maggots, Snakes, Cats, Worms, Bats, alligators, frogs and even absurdly Slugs all turned feral and went for the human population.
Guy N. Smith’s Crab series was one of the first to cash in on the success of Herbert’s rodents with Night of the Crabs and in all he wrote six Crabs books but unlike many of the Herbert imitators these books were actually quite good in their own right. Indeed the series still has a cult following and in 2009 the first book was reissued in a deluxe hardcover edition. Guy runs his own book business, Black Hill Books and many of his titles can be bought there and it also carries an extensive range of classic paperbacks in all genres.
Smith would go on to write many more creature thrillers featuring Bats, snaked, alligators and even a variety of creatures in the vastly entertaining, The Abomination but by far his most popular series was and remains, The Crabs.
Another entertaining creature thriller was Spiders by Richard Lewis which actually spawned a sequel, The Web. I read both of these books many years ago and remember enjoying them both immensely and whilst I don’t know what I’d think of them these days I do have fond memories of them.
The reason for these animals going feral was usually some ecological disaster or scientific experiment, although there were one or two examples where the reason was supernatural but for the most part it was bizarre scientific experiments that provoked the horror. In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t really remember any of the books where the reason for the crazed creature outbreak was supernatural.
Eventually the creature thrillers fell out of favour and horror readers went for more sophisticated novels but the genre was reinvented briefly in the 90’s when Shaun Hutson wrote perhaps the most stomach churning series of all, Slugs.This time there was no holds barred and there is even a scene where a guy is sitting on the toilet and one of the killer slugs goes up his arse.
But back to the originator of this little horror sub-genre, James Herbert – there were three follow ups to The Rats. Lair was a great second story and the third book, Domain took up the story of the mutated rodents in the aftermath of a nuclear war and although this is a good premise the book was not as successful in terms of story as the previous two. It sold by the truck-load, though.
These books made up a trilogy but there was another story with the graphic novel, The City which is again set in London after a nuclear war. Though when people talk about the Rats trilogy they mean the three novels proper with the graphic novel considered something of a companion piece.
This article gives just a taster of all the creature thrillers out there – go on give one a try but beware one thing they all share in common is their extremely graphic scenes.
A strong stomach is advised.