Back in the old days, in the seventies, before video was available, the citizens of the UK didn’t have proper horror. No Texas Chainsaw for us. No Last House on the Left. We had to make do with the British Nasties, and there were only two people who splattered literature with more gore than you could shake an Eli Roth at, and they were Shaun Hutson and James Herbert. Hutson had some good stories, and some hideously splattery gore, but it was Herbert who was The Guvnor.
The Rats. Babies get eaten. Tramps have their knackers gnawed off. Heroes with big chins discover unspeakable horror in basements. Herbert had it all. He paved the way for British horror. Well, a certain kind of horror, anyway. After Herbert, a bunch of hack writers were commissioned by publishing houses to churn out something ‘Herbert-like’, which means we ended up with shite like Slither by John Halkin. Most of these were awful knock-offs made for a cheap buck, although I do have a certain fond nostalgia for Guy N Smith’s ‘Crabs’ series, which mainly involved big crabs getting shot at by ‘6-inch Bofors’ and scooping up intestines ‘like spaghetti’.
Herbert was visceral. He was nasty. A group of schoolkids are trapped in a school, surrounded by mutant rats, and when the police send the dogs in they all get munched (the dogs, not the kids). An underground station. The rats attack, but a nebbish manages to rescue a couple of women but gets bitten in the process. The end of the chapter reveals, despite his heroism, the disease the rats carry will end his life in agonising pain. Herbert dealt with the brutal, harsh realities of 70’s Britain. King, although an incredible teller of tales, would never match the sheer gut-wrenching bloody horror which Herbert wrote. Herbert wrote pure, screaming nightmares. King wrote chilling tales, but wrapped in the warmth of his writing style. Herbert set out to revolt.
But without the genius of his plots his stories would be nothing. And without a sense of injustice to the oppressed his books would merely be gore fodder. There was a sense of injustice to what he wrote, about the poor and disposed neglected by society. The people who suffer are those with the least, which goes back to Herbert growing up in the slums of London. Society eats down.
If you want horror – full blooded horror – then you will NEVER do better than The Rats. I read people like Ketchum, and Keene, but they are merely dipping their toes in the visceral. Herbert will give you both barrels, right in the mind.