No. 208 – Rats

Prog 524’s (1987) Brendan McCarthy cover* for the Judge Dredd story Pit Rat** (progs 523–524), written by John Wagner and Alan Grant and drawn by Brett Ewins (1955–2015) v The Rats† (New English Library, 1974) by James Herbert OBE (1943–2013)

The first of a tetralogy of horror stories charting the spread of carnivorous, mutant rats that attack and devour humans in groups, The Rats was followed by Lair (New English Library) in 1979, Domain (Hodder & Stoughton) in 1984, and the graphic novel The City (Macmillan), illustrated by Ian Miller, in 1994.

Giant rampaging mutant rats is a modern twist on an age-old musophobic theme dating at least as far back as The Black Death (1347–1353), when the spread of the bacterium Yersinia pestis in an oriental rat flea infestation of black rats originating in Central Asia resulted in the most devastating pandemic in human history, killing an estimated 200 million people.

Employed in part by Herbert as a metaphor for the degeneration of London’s suburbs‡, mutant rats have long been a staple of Judge Dredd stories and are employed in a similar vein, as harbingers of destruction and embodiments of pestilence, intelligent and malign; whether adapting to soar on Cursed Earth thermals and swoop en masse upon quarry, or cast as the venomous accomplice of the skeletal Fink Angel, for whom crippling poison was the prefered means to homicide.

Rats are indeed fairly intelligent animals – although not quite as intelligent as many believe – posessing basic problem solving abilities, and displaying a high degree of social intelligence such as food sharing and even freeing other rats from traps. They do make good pets, and have done so since at least the 19th century, presenting no more of a health risk than cats or dogs, and capable of learning tricks.

*The tagline “Like a Rat out of Hell!” may be a nod to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (Cleveland International/Epic, 1977), or then again, it’s also just an expression and maybe we’ve been at this too long
**Rentakill, the prizefighting rat in Pit Rat, is named after British pest control company Rentokil (now Rentokil Initial)
†Giant mutant rats in horror fiction are certainly not to be attributed to Herbert alone: Stephen King also deserves a mention for having a memorable go at the subject in his popular short story Graveyard Shift (Cavalier, 1970), collected in Night Shift (Doubleday, 1978) and released as Graveyard Shift (Paramount Pictures) in 1990
‡Much sophistication has been generously attributed to Herbert’s work in kindly hindsight, but basically a James Herbert novel was about as low as a schoolboy could go in the ’80s without having it confiscated, being deemed as it was, perilously close to pornography