King rat

 

From horrornews.net

 

Another slightly-updated reposting for Halloween…  I originally wrote this in 2013, just after James Herbert’s death.

 

It’s fair to say that, back in the 1970s, the English novelist James Herbert increased literacy levels substantially among young males who otherwise wouldn’t have opened a book in their entire lives.  Not that Herbert, who died in 2013, ever got any thanks from Britain’s educators.  His X-rated novels of apocalyptic horror in the shabbier parts of 1970s London were the sort of items you furtively traded with your mates in school playgrounds, away from the prying and prudish eyes of teachers.

 

I was 13 when I bought a copy of Herbert’s second novel The Fog (1975), drawn by an irresistible reviewer’s comment on its back cover: “For goodness sake don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair!”  An accompanying quote from the book itself was good too:  “Out of the yellowish fog a man appeared.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead and his lips were frozen in a smile.  In his hands he carried the severed, still bleeding head of his wife.”  A few mornings later, sitting in my form class at school, I passed the book to the boy sitting next to me and instructed him to read a chapter that’d I’d read the previous evening.  This was a chapter in which a group of boys at a posh boarding school go murderously insane and start beating and torturing their teachers to death.

 

I’d actually felt sick after reading that chapter, though by the next morning I was fortified and ready for more.  Anyway, I spent the next five minutes smugly watching my classmate as the colour drained from his face.  A final exclamation of disgust – “Yeee-uuuck!” – indicated that he’d reached the chapter’s last sentence.  That would’ve been the bit where the snotty deputy headmaster gets castrated with a pair of hedge-clippers.

 

I should say at this point that it wasn’t just teenage boys who were into Herbert’s novels.  For I remember a girl in my class called Alex Stassino who once, admirably, grossed out her female friends by reading aloud the description of the mass suicide at the start of Herbert’s 1980s novel The Dark.

 

© New English Library

 

Herbert’s first book was The Rats in 1974.  Despite a hostile review in the Observer by a young Martin Amis, who considered the violence in its pages “enough to make a rodent retch… and enough to make any human pitch the book aside,” the Great British public bought it in droves.  (Before The Rats’ publication, Herbert had worked at the same advertising agency as Amis’s chum Salman Rushdie.)   Though rats certainly weren’t new in horror fiction and films, and even though, like all his work, it was essentially pulp fiction, Herbert’s novel had two major selling-points.

 

Firstly, as the son of a fruit seller in London’s East End and someone who’d grown up around the corner from Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Herbert clearly had first-hand experience of the character-types and the localities in his book.  The story reeked of gritty and seedy authenticity as the rats – a strain of giant, mutant flesh-eaters – swarmed around disused canals, derelict buildings and plots of waste ground, preying on winos, down-and-outs, grubby comprehensive school kids and Jamaican immigrants working in the London tube.  I should say that, later in the book, they graduated to eating middle-class people too.  Secondly, Herbert’s approach to horror was a different one from that used by earlier British horror writers, such as the gentlemanly and clubbable Algernon Blackwood or Dennis Wheatley.  Unlike them, he left nothing to the imagination.

 

The Rats was followed by The Fog, which recounts what happens when a vaporous and madness-inducing chemical weapon leaks out of a laboratory and floats around southern England.  By the way, I remember how in 1982, after I’d left school, I was backpacking and hitchhiking around central and northern Europe in the company of a similar-aged guy called Andy, who was from Stevenage.  At one point, Andy-from-Stevenage and I got into a furious argument about The Fog.  By then we’d spent whole days waiting around entry roads onto various Autobahns without getting lifts and we’d managed to argue furiously about everything under the sun.  Andy-from-Stevenage’s beef with The Fog was that it was silly.  Especially silly, he reckoned, was the bit in it where an airline pilot goes murderously insane and, to get revenge on his wife’s lover, flies his passenger-filled jet-plane off course and smack-bang into a London skyscraper where that lover works.

 

“Jet-planes flying into skyscrapers,” raged Andy-from-Stevenage, “that’s too far-fetched!  That’d never happen in real life!”

 

© New English Library

 

In 1976, Herbert penned his first novel of the paranormal, The Survivor.  This had supernatural forces unleashed in the Berkshire town of Windsor after a devastating plane-crash there.  One set-piece in the novel describes nearby Eton College, the real-life alma mater of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, succumbing to a demonically-orchestrated fire.  Along with the gory boarding-school episode in The Fog, this suggests that working-class Herbert had a low opinion of England’s private-education system.

 

Meanwhile, The Spear (1978) was an updating of those old Dennis Wheatley occult thrillers like The Haunting of Toby Jugg and They Used Dark Forces, where the Nazis dabbled in black magic to help their war effort.  For topicality, Herbert threw the Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.  Between The Survivor and The Spear, he wrote Fluke, an atypical fantasy story narrated by a dog suffering from troubling flashbacks to a previous life in which he’d been a man.  Eventually, he meets a wise badger who explains to him that, basically, the Buddhists had got it right.  Even Fluke contains streaks of grotty Herbert realism, though, with his canine characters spending their time hanging around London junkyards, eating garbage and getting down-and-dirty with on-heat bitches.

 

Herbert was not initially popular among traditional British horror writers and fans, no doubt because he upset cosy and middle-class notions of what horror should be about.  For somebody steeped in classic British tales of the uncanny like Charles Dickens’ The Signalman (1866) or M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad (1904), being subjected to the gnawed-off faces and exploding heads of The Rats and The Fog was probably akin to how bearded, cerebral fans of progressive-rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes felt in 1977, when they first heard Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols played loud.

 

© New English Library

 

It didn’t help Herbert’s image that his books’ success spawned a wave of badly-written and even bloodier imitators.  In his wake, a whole paperback sub-genre became known in the book trade as ‘nasties’.  This was years before the term was used in relation to films, as in Britain’s ‘video-nasty’ hysteria of the early 1980s.  Among the writers cashing in were Shaun Hutson, whose breakthrough novel was Slugs (1982).  This began with the yummy line: “The slug’s eye stalks waved slowly as it moved towards the crimson lump on which several of its companions were already feeding.”  There was also Guy N Smith, who was both a tweedy pipe-smoking countryside game expert and a schlock-horror writer.  When he wasn’t writing novels about giant carnivorous crabs – Night of the Crabs (1976), Killer Crabs (1978), Crabs on the Rampage (1981) – he was penning non-fiction tomes like Ferreting and Trapping for Amateur Gamekeepers (1976) and Moles and their Control (1980). Actually, I love the idea of Guy N. Smith (who, alas, passed away from Covid-19 at the end of last year) even if I never cared much for his books.

 

It wasn’t until 1981, when Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, his non-fiction study of the horror genre, that Herbert finally got some respect in the field.  In Danse Macabre, King said approvingly of Herbert that he “does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.”

 

Around the early 1980s I lost interest in James Herbert, largely, I’m sure, because I was no longer a sensation-hungry teenager.  The Dark (1980) seemed merely a supernatural retread of The Fog, while Lair (1979) was a perfunctory sequel to The Rats.  I have to say, though, that his third Rats novel, Doman (1984), which was set in a near-future London after it’d been decimated by a nuclear attack, was about the bleakest and most gruelling thing I’d ever read.  Even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the human survivors of the holocaust didn’t have to contend with giant carnivorous rodents.  And during the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert’s books became increasingly concerned with supernatural themes and lacked the lethal edge of his earlier eco-horror ones.  That said, people whose opinions I respect say that Creed (1990) and The Others (1999) are good.

 

Those 1970s novels could’ve become great films.  Indeed, they appeared during a time when directors like Gary Sherman, who made 1972’s Deathline, and Pete Walker, who made 1974’s Frightmare, were moving British horror movies away from the realm of gothic costume dramas and making them more contemporary, nihilistic and graphic, just as Herbert was doing in fiction.  But soon afterwards, the British film industry all-but-disappeared down the plughole.  John Hough, who’d directed the well-regarded Twins of Evil (1972) and Legend of Hell House (1973), hoped to make a film of The Dark, with a script by the famous horror-movie starlet Ingrid Pitt (who was a good friend of Herbert’s), but the project came to nothing.  The Rats and Fluke were eventually filmed in 1982 and 1995, but in North America, losing the working-class London ambience that’d made the books distinctive.  The Survivor was filmed in 1981 in Australia and thus it didn’t work either.

 

© New English Library

 

Ironically, the film with the strongest flavour of his books isn’t a James Herbert adaptation at all.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) – at least during its first half, when Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris are stalked through a deserted London by victims of a ‘rage’-inducing virus – feels like The Fog without the fog.  And during the scene in the tunnel, where Murphy, Harris and Brendan Gleason encounter a tide of scuttling rats, it’s obvious which 1970s horror paperback Boyle and his scriptwriter Alex Garland are tapping into.

 

Incredibly, considering the unsavoury things that went on in his books, the establishment saw fit to honour Herbert shortly before his death by giving him the Order of the British Empire.  Perhaps somebody in the Royal Family had accidentally left a copy of The Fog on the Queen’s chair.  And perhaps the Queen had enjoyed the bit with the hedge-clippers.

 

A while back, I read a James Herbert novel for the first time in decades.  This was after I read a piece by the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, in which Brooker suggested that Herbert’s novel ’48 (1996) was better than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  He was joking, of course, but knowing Brooker I suspect he was only half-joking.  My curiosity piqued, I tracked down a copy of ’48, which is set in a parallel universe in the year 1948, after London has been devastated by a ‘blood plague’ unleashed by Hitler in the final days of World War II.  A tiny band of uninfected survivors are pursued around the empty, crumbling city by a larger band of infected and vampire-like survivors, who believe that by consuming the uninfected ones’ blood they can rid themselves of the plague before it kills them.  The bad guys are led by a former associate of Oswald Mosley and style themselves on Mosley’s blackshirts.

 

Reading like a cross between Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an Alastair Maclean war novel, I was surprised at how enjoyable ’48 turned out to be.  Admittedly, Herbert’s meat-and-two-veg prose style would never win any literary awards.  But it was hectically paced, it had just enough character development to maintain one’s interest in the players, its descriptions of a devastated 1940s London were convincing and it made shameless use of the city’s landmarks – Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge – when staging its action set-pieces.

 

It would, incidentally, make a pretty good film.  Are you reading this, Danny Boyle?

 

© HarperPrism

Hope for the best, expect the worst

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

“Hope for the best, expect the worst,” is a maxim that crops up regularly in Angela Carter’s exuberant 1991 novel Wise Children.  The novel’s two main characters, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, keep repeating this to themselves so that they remain grounded and their heads stay screwed on while they negotiate the highs and lows, the euphoria and tragedy, of life during eight decades of the 20th century.

 

It’s also a maxim I think is worth bearing in mind as we approach the American presidential election on November 3rd, little more than a fortnight away.  Yes, I know the polls indicate Joe Biden has a solid and stable lead over the current, revolting incumbent of the White House.  But of course four years ago Hillary Clinton was supposed to have a similarly commanding lead over the Orange Hideousness and we know what happened then.

 

One thing I suspect is overlooked in these polls is what is known in the UK as the Shy Tory factor.  Wikipedia describes this phenomenon as “so-called ‘shy Tories’… voting Conservative after telling pollsters they would not.”  Presumably, they lie to the pollsters because they’re too embarrassed to admit they intend to vote for a chancer like Boris Johnson.  As a result, “the share of the electoral vote won by the Conservative Party” is “significantly higher than the equivalent share in opinion polls.”

 

And I imagine you’d feel embarrassed too if you admitted to a pollster that you were going to vote for a crooked, racist, narcissistic, tax-dodging, pussy-grabbing, pig-ignorant malignity like Trump who shrugs off the deaths of 220,000-and-counting American citizens from Covid-19 with the glib platitude, “It is what it is.”  Thus, I have a horrible suspicion that the Shy Trumper factor will confound the pollsters’ predictions come November 3rd.

 

And that’s before we consider the USA’s idiotic electoral college system, which means that one vote cast in the least populous state, Wyoming, carries three-to-four times the influence of one vote cast in the most populous state, California, and Trump only has to edge it in a few crucial swing states to win.  Like his hapless predecessor Clinton, Biden could very well win the popular vote and still lose.

 

Also, there’s the sad fact that voter suppression has been rife.  This has been done quietly through the gerrymandering, trimming of voter rolls and removal of polling stations by Republican administrations in various states, and noisily through Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of ballots submitted by mail.  All have been designed to reduce the numbers of voters likely to vote Democrat.

 

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if voting on the day itself is disrupted by Trump-supporting fascist gangs and militias such as the Proud Boys, whom he recently instructed on TV to ‘stand by’.  And it’s certain that in the aftermath of an election result that, ostensibly, he loses, he and his lickspittle Republican enablers will use every trick and machination in the legislative book to have votes nullified and overturned so that he manages to grasp that all-important number of 270 electoral college votes.

 

So with Trump back in the White House for another four years, how bad will it be?  Very bad, I’d say.  I expect the USA to become at least a semi-totalitarian state where announcing yourself as a dissident – a Democrat, a liberal, a Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ activist – becomes increasingly risky.  Perhaps Trump’s official state apparatus won’t arrest or hurt you, but his unofficial army of gun-toting admirers, the white supremacists, militiamen and QAnon-obsessed conspiracy-theory fruit-loops, will take the law into their own hands and go after you themselves.  And should any of his right-wing terrorist fanboys be caught in the act of snuffing out his critics, I sure Trump will bend over backwards to ensure they are treated leniently.  Witness how quick he was to defend the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, the delusional 17-year-old who gunned down two protestors during anti-police demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

 

Leniency will also be shown to bad-apple cops and right-wing goons who rough up another group whom Trump despises, journalists working for mainstream and liberal news outlets.  During the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, police emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric were already assaulting and harassing reporters and camera crews.  And not long ago, Trump expressed his delight that Ali Velshi, an anchor with MSNBC, was hit by a police rubber bullet while reporting on a protest in Minneapolis.  “Wasn’t it beautiful sight?” he crowed at a rally.  “It’s called law and order.”

 

Elsewhere, expect a nationwide ban on abortion.  I’m sure, though, that Trump’s wealthy elite will be quietly allowed to purchase super-expensive drugs to combat Covid-19 that have been developed with human cells taken from aborted embryos.  The Affordable Health Care Act, hated by Trump because it was an Obama initiative, will go and won’t be replaced.  Environmental protections, already trashed, will be trashed further.  The forests on the west coast will continue to burn and the White House will react only with schadenfreude because everyone in the fire-zone votes Democrat anyway.

 

Science will be denigrated and ridiculed.  The evangelical Christians who loyally vote for Trump, even he obviously despises them, and even though a less Christian specimen of humanity than Trump is difficult to find, will be rewarded by having science removed from school syllabi, textbooks and museums in favour of their own primitive doctrines about how the world was created and how it functions.

 

Hundreds of thousands more Americans will die from Covid-19 while Trump, flaunting his supposedly macho disdain for mask wearing and social distancing, will continue to blame China, the WHO and Democrat state governors.  People of colour will continue to be murdered by the police, protests against these murders will continue to take place, police will continue to attack protestors, militiamen and looters will continue to take advantage of the chaos, and American cities will become ever-more dystopian.

 

Interviewed recently in the Observer, Martin Amis observed, “This election is going to be a referendum on the American character, not on Trump’s performance.”  As such, it’s tempting to dismiss a second Trump win as an America-only problem.  If Americans are dumb and immoral enough to vote for this nightmare, then it’s on them.  They own it.  Unfortunately, a second Trump presidency will impact hugely on the rest of the world too, via his hostility towards NATO, the EU and the Iran nuclear deal, and his disorientating mood-swings regarding China, and his penchant for being a lapdog to authoritarian dictators while insulting and belittling the leaders of long-term democracies (especially if they’re women).

 

Of course, the biggest and most disastrous impact of four more years of Trump, who’s pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, will be on the environment.  His refusal to take man-made climate change seriously may well scupper any chance humanity has of lessening its worst effects.   Trump doesn’t care about the millions – billions? – of people who could lose not just their livelihoods but their lives as average temperatures rise, huge areas become uncultivatable and possibly uninhabitable, rainfall patterns change disastrously, coasts disappear under rising sea levels and climate refugees take to the road in vast numbers.  Those are the problems of the little people, the losers, the suckers, and Trump only likes WINNERS.

 

I fear that already we’ve passed a tipping point and our species is inevitably facing catastrophe, that the damage we’ve wrought on our planet’s climate is now embedded in the system and will lead from one devastating consequence to another.  But if we haven’t already reached that tipping point, it’s likely that we will have by 2024 or whenever it is that Trump leaves the White House.  (Though don’t be surprised if by 2024 he and his minions in the US Senate and Supreme Court have re-engineered the constitution to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.)  By the way, Trump’s re-election will only goad the Brazilian fascist Bolsonara further in his efforts to torch the Amazon rainforest.

 

And yet, I believe that when future historians look back on this period and wonder how humanity managed to trigger such an ecological, political, economic and social horror show, they won’t finger Trump as the main culprit for all this.  No, the title of Most Villainous Human Being on the Planet in 2020 will surely be awarded to Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire has been instrumental in preparing the way for and then enabling Trump – just as it’s done for climate-change denialism, Brexit and most other things that suck in the modern world.  A Trump re-election will be largely due to Murdoch’s Fox News, a sealed-off bubble and echo-chamber for millions of American right-wingers who only want to hear their views confirmed, never challenged.

 

Future historians?  That’s me suggesting humanity has a future, where there’ll be historians.  Evidence, I’m afraid, that I’m hoping for the best rather than expecting the worst.

 

© Reuters / Jessica Rinaldi