When I read a book, there’s one thing that is more important to me than any other aspect of storytelling. That one thing, is creativity. Originality. The ability to deliver a story that feels unique and different, like something I haven’t seen before.
A lot of readers think that calling a story ‘unique’ has to mean that every single aspect of it is totally new, that no possible influence can be seen at any point, and if this is not the case, then you shouldn’t call the story unique at all. And while a story like that would certainly be exciting to discover, I don’t think that’s what unique has to mean in this context.
For me, a unique story is simply the way I described it above. Something that feels different. Something I haven’t read before.
There are a number of ways a writer can handle this, but there’s one specific method that I always find particularly fascinating, and that is to take an old idea, and subvert it. To take something we have seen before, but twist and change it until it is barely recognisable as that original concept. And right now, there’s one author in particular who comes to mind for this sort of subversion.
Before January 2022, I had never read a book by James Herbert. I’d heard of him, of course. He’s a popular and well renowned horror author from the UK scene. But when I picked up ‘The Rats,’ it was the first time I’d actually sat down and read one of this guy’s stories.
Straight away I was hit by how compelling and easy to read this story was. Not because it’s light and easy going. On the contrary, this book starts with some dark stuff, a man struggling with his lost relationship, and homophobia in the work place… before being eaten alive in an abandoned house in a poorer part of London.
What made it easy to read was the depth yet briskness with which the author delivered characters before they died. And the simple, contemporary prose driving the story onward with just enough detail, but little enough that it retained that excellent pacing.
Moreso, there was clearly something different here.
For one thing, I was surprised a book from the 1970s had such empathic representation for the LGBT+ community. I was also struck by just how British the novel was, even in the beginning. But… there was something more.
Some kind of middle ground, or transitory state, between uniqueness and familiarity.
It might have been that British setting, and the characters such a setting inevitably brought to the table. Or maybe it was the man-eating rodents the book was named after, an idea that has been thrown around media a fair bit.
That last point was only half wrong, and I got halfway through the book before I realised what really gave me this idea.
The author had taken me to a train station, underground. It was quiet, late. People were around, but not many. They were either on a train, or had simply gone on to their destination earlier. But a few remained.
And as they walked around the station, they encountered the book’s primary antagonists. Rats. Larger, blacker than normal black rats. More intelligent and devious, seeming to observe humans rather than flee as they normally would.
And they were swarming on the remaining people in the train station, devouring them whole, before moving onto the next unlikely prey.
Perhaps I should have realised before this point. But authors have a way of hiding their influences when the story is told so well. Either way, I finally realised why the book felt so different, yet so familiar.
I was reading a zombie story.
A zombie story… with no zombies.
This is the kind of subversion I was talking about in the beginning of this essay. The way a talented author can take an older idea, and make it fresh again. Of course, this book was written in the 1970s, so zombie stories had not yet become stale and overused as they have now. But, I was reading the book in the 2020s, where zombie stories are about as fresh as the corpses they’re written about.
As a result of this context, for me, 'The Rats' felt like that fresh subversion. Not of a trope or concept, but of a subgenre. One of my favourite subgenres of horror, and I hadn’t even realised that was what I’d been reading.
But here we were.
Of course, on realising this, the most obvious similarity was, well, obvious. Both 'The Rats' and other zombie stories tell a horror story where the main conflict is created by a large group of biting carnivores who have decided humans are the next meal. Here though, rather than using rotting dead people, animating them through either black magic or mad science, and sending those effigies of death after the main character, there was a simpler solution. The already feared and infamous black rat, of bubonic plague fame. Although, would you believe, there’s actually evidence now that rats weren’t to blame for the Black Death, but human lice. I digress.
There was more than that one similarity between 'The Rats' and so many other zombie stories that have released between then and now (because I’m inevitably reading this older book through a modern lens) so let’s dive a little deeper into the comparisons.
First of all, let’s go back to that train station and talk about setting. While there have been zombie stories with more suburban or even historical settings, zombies are most closely associated with modern day, western urban settings. By acknowledging this fact, James Herbert seems to have cast aside the zombies to employ an antagonistic force even more closely associated with urban settings, the rats.
This urban setting also leads to the other great characteristic of zombie narratives – the large cast of characters. Smartly, instead of writing an epic length novel with hundreds of characters, the author of 'The Rats' has alluded to this scale of impact through interspersed short stories in between the main chapters. This gives us glimpses of other characters, and the impact this horde of man-eating rats has had elsewhere, alongside the central narrative of a school teacher and the aid he is giving to a group of scientists.
Both of these factors, the urban setting and the large cast of characters, encourages what is perhaps the most important element here.
While all horror stories tend to have a strong socio-political element, whether it’s metaphorical or more direct, zombie stories are even more closely tied to social and political discussions because of the inherent political nature of the social collapse that surrounds any zombie story. The way civilisations fall, authorities fall, and the systems we rely on become either unavailable or totally useless, this social element is crucial to a zombie horror story.
The important distinction with 'The Rats' is that, because rats have always been around, and have always been associated with, for example, a lack of hygiene and healthcare, or the degradation and government neglect that leads to derelict, rundown housing, the discussion of societal collapse can come before the situation with these rats becomes apocalyptical.
In this way, the antagonistic force isn’t a result of neglect and degradation, the antagonistic force *is* that neglect and degradation, and the rats that are a manifestation of these evils become both a current problem, and a solvable problem, but without sacrificing the fact that they are, in fact, a problem. They shouldn’t be a problem, because the situations that led to their uprising should never have been allowed to pass. But they were, and they have, and now the problem is flooding into every aspect of the modern (at the time) world, regardless of how far to blame any individual or group was for the problem.
Erm, is it just me, or does "problem" no longer feel like a real word after that paragraph?
Anyway, because of this specific brand of apocalypse the author has concocted, the social element becomes heightened, and comes to the forefront. This really feels like 1970s England (yet also feels distinctly contemporary as well. I wonder why…) and it really feels like a natural progression of the artificial apocalypse that can come about when those in positions of power leave things too late, or do things too cheaply.
Hence the strong social element of 'The Rats' that sits right alongside the most politically compelling zombie stories. Here then, the author delves into homelessness, drug abuse, sexuality, discrimination, poverty, council housing, the rundown area and neglected people that are allowed to suffer in seemingly every town and city.
And I don’t think the fact that these discriminated against characters, or other down on their luck groups of people, being the first and most horrifically devoured characters was an accidental decision in the writing process. Despite its ‘everyman’ protagonist, as well as some dated language use, this is a very socially conscious book.
Additionally, that everyman protagonist is potentially included to act as a kind of reader insert. This is the kind of main character the zombie narrative will often cast as its lead. It’s the other, more minor characters, who we’re left really empathising with, but the lead is a potential magnet for a larger number of readers going in.
Of course, the biggest and most important element that makes 'The Rats' feel like a member of the zombie subgenre is that main event I latched onto to begin with. A horde of man-eating, almost unstoppable monsters who can’t be reasoned with.
Interestingly enough, the author uses this antagonistic force to switch between disturbing, gory horror passages, and also action survival elements, with some humour and romance mixed in there as well. It is a horror drama. An action horror. It’s a similar fusion of genres, and similar ratio of genres, to the formula used in most undead-centric works of fiction.
Just like with genre, it’s all these different components and contexts behind the zombie story that have been taken, and moulded around something else. Or maybe the rats are the thing that have been moulded around this accumulation of components?
The other big thing that makes this all so impressive is that the rats don’t just add superficial differences. They add real qualitative differences to enhance that impression of uniqueness I get from the book. For example, the ways the rats attack and the ways humans attack back. Or the fact they come from and return to certain locations. Or the history between humanity and ratkind, the way our expectations of these animals is turned on its head when they do something unexpected, because we have something to compare it to. Plus, using rats instead of zombies leads to a grounded realism. You can convince people zombies are real, that’s the beauty of suspension of disbelief, and I would never do away with the speculative element of these genres. But at the same time, you don’t need to convince people rats are real, because we already know they’re here. And I think that adds its own interesting element to the story.
At the beginning of this essay, I talked about originality and creativity in art. The way that some people don’t like to use the word ‘unique’ to describe a story, because you can see where its influences lay, you can see which parts may have been used before in other stories.
And I talked about how this doesn’t really matter, that a story can be original and unique without being totally new and fresh in every single way.
In fact, it might feel more fresh and original to take something old and make it feel new than if you were to create something genuinely for the first time in all regards. Maybe it’s because of that semi-familiarity I talked about earlier on? That point of comparison, that realisation of just how subversive a piece is. Perhaps that can enhance the feeling that you’re reading something really different. Or at least that feels really different. And ultimately, that’s what art should be about – the feeling it causes.
So how can you create that feeling of reading a subversive, half-familiar yet half-different work of fiction? Well, taking a look at 'The Rats,' I think there are three main points to keep in mind.
Take a well-known (even if just to you!) idea, trope, or subgenre as a baseline.
Understand the main components that make that thing tick, what really makes it all go together, and makes such a compelling overall work that people like to return to.
Find a new way of expressing those components, of exploring those ideas, that can still allow them all to be fit together, but in a different direction to the norm.
There is a greater discussion here, about originality, and how we can produce it when we write our own stories. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve come up with something that you just know has never been done before in any way? I want to see that story.
But I also want to see subversive stories that reinvent a subgenre, or even a character or monster or setting or idea. Taking something we have seen before, and convincing us we haven’t. Taking something old and making it new. Taking something people think is overdone and proving it has life in it yet.
Saying to your audience with total conviction, “Trust me, you haven’t seen it done like this!”
That’s what I love about art, about storytelling.
And I think here 'The Rats' has shown us one compelling way to reach that goal.