James Herbert| New English Library | 1974 | 181 pages
Mr. Harris, an East End schoolteacher who witnesses an early attack by flesh-eating rats, is drawn into an alliance with beleaguered health officials against a large-scale infestation of mutated rodents.
Surfacing from the canals in East London, a new strain of deadly black rats emerges with a taste for human flesh. Mobilized by the Health Department for his early insights and his knowledge of the local area, Harris chases his rodent prey through the city streets, searching for the source of the outbreak and the solution to stopping the deadly attacks.
Structured as a series of ever-escalating violent set pieces, the story progresses through attacks on individuals, homeless encampments, train stations, and an extended siege and assault of a primary school. Showing little fear of their human targets, the swarming black rats inflict much squirm-inducing brutality to the flesh of their victims. No one is safe from the ruthless carnage, from pets (a given) to small children and babies.
Short background stories, ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages, sketch out the victims, before they ultimately are shredded and eaten by the hordes of hungry rats. Although this attention to detail humanizes characters that could have simply been cookie-cutter fodder, their ultimate fate is predetermined.
The blighted neighborhood most impacted by the infestation is reflected in many of the character sketches. Suffering from abuse, abandonment, or economic inequality, the soon-to-be victims are all case studies in the castoff social strata of society. However, any potential emotional investment in their survival is scuttled by their typically quick demises—by tiny claws and curving yellow teeth.
A quick and gruesome Man-versus-Nature tale, The Rats lacks the atomic radiation boogeyman employed by so many monster-run-amok tales that came before it, but the climax does lead Harris to a twitchy, repulsive discovery at its core.