Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

King of the Rats

Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

King of the Rats

Article excerpt

Rat-infested childhood slum

James Herbert was born on April 8, 1943 in the bomb-devastated East End of London, the third son of Herbert and Kitty Herbert, street traders selling fruit and vegetables. The family lived at the back of Petticoat Lane, Whitechapel, a slum area full of rats:

What we lived in was a slum. It was a very narrow street, cobble-stoned, only gas lighting in those days. Two doors from our house was a little alleyway where Jack the Ripper cut up one of his victims. Behind us were stables where they [his parents] used to keep their fruit and veg, and it was all alive with rats. We had two monster cats to keep the rats down. We moved into this slum because it was due for clearance, and we thought we would get a nice council flat. Well, they didn't knock it down until fourteen years later. (Winter 1990: 122)

The childhood in the creepy old house was not a happy one, the young Herbert being by himself almost all the time:

The house we lived in was creepy. I was left alone a lot as a kid. My brothers would be out, my parents would be in a pub, and so I would be there alone, sitting and painting. It was a very narrow, tall house, three floors with a cellar where the coal was kept. [...] At times I would be sitting there and the house would creak around me. It was very old; I mean, it was collapsing into itself. It would creak, which is scary enough if you are a kid. You're there on your own, and you're on a sinister street anyway, and you know there's rats at the top of the street, old stables behind you, and then, the lights would go out. [....] And there were all sorts of things in this cellar. A lot of rats. I mean, it must have had my imagination riotting--it was all getting ingrained down there, it must have been. (Winter 1990: 123-124)

Thus, the combination of the rat-infested neighbourhood, the powerful image of the thousand rats staring up at Renfield in Tod Browning's classic screening of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, and Herbert's job as an art director, led to his first novel, The Rats, a narrative work characterized by detailed graphic horror.

The street I lived in was over-run by rats. Big ones --monster rats. I mean, my cat actually came home bald once; he has been in a fight with a rat. And I used to watch them out the window. We always had a window open in the summer, and one day, the cat jumped in with a big rat in its mouth, so that obviously stuck with me. [...]

I switched on the TV and Dracula with Bela Lugosi was on--where the madman, the one who eats spiders, said he had this dream, this vision of a thousand rats looking up at him, staring at him, with red eyes. And for me, as an art director, that was very visual. I could see myself looking out the window, and a thousand rats staring up at me. And it all clicked. (Winter 1990: 126-127)

The Rats depicted London under siege by monstruous, flesh-eating rats, their origin unknown, rats which, in the author's conception, were a personification of the inefficient political and economic system in the 1950s England, which failed to improve even a little the people's life by clearing down the slums; the vermin were also a means of revolt against the essentially rotten post-war English society. (Cole 1992: 101)

The whole idea was a kind of allegory of one man against a system, and this is what I do with nearly all my books. It is one man against the system. Now it's a system that we all know, that we have all come up against, whether it's political or the tax man or your boss. It's a system that's eternal and you are up against it all the time. [...] The rats represented that big system, which is not necessary evil--but to me, it is, because it's invulnerable, we can't actually beat it. And that's why The Rats was open-ended: the hero won his individual battle, but the system still marched on. It still won. He didn't get rid of it. It still went on. (Winter 1990: 127)

The Rats was often considered an extremely brutal and cynical horror--thriller mixture, one in which Herbert "ripped in to his material with no regard for moral or social sacred cows. …

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