15 lessons a fantasy author learned from reading horror

The Rats

This is not a review of “The Rats” by James Herbert and it contains a lot of spoilers. But if you’re ever in a horror novel these lessons might save your life.

At the behest of my friend and critique partner, Anna Kaling, who is also a talented romance author, I recently read “The Rats” by James Herbert.

It was partly my fault. I did agree to read a book from her favourite genre, horror, and in exchange she read a fantasy novel I chose. Check out how that turned out.

Don’t ask me why a romance author prefers to read horror, but I’ve read some of Anna’s books, and you can barely tell that the author gets her jollies from reading about people being eaten alive by giant rats.

Yes, this post is going to be one huge spoiler for “The Rats”, but it’s really old so if you haven’t read it yet you were probably never going to.

Also, saying that people get eaten alive by giant rats in a horror book called “The Rats” can hardly be classed as a spoiler. Come on.

It starts with an old lady who goes crazy and her basement, though we don’t hear about the basement yet.

Then a down-and-out guy turns into a drunk and moves to London in order to be victim number 1 of the giant rats. That may not have been his intention.

I thought he was the main character. When he was eaten I realised I was wrong.

Lesson number 1: Don’t be one of the first three characters introduced in a horror novel. You will not survive more than one chapter.

We meet several more people. One is the hero, the others have very short life expectancies.

Lesson number 2:Β  Horror stories require a large cast of characters, but most live only a few pages.

Lesson number 3: Every little scuffling noise is man-eating rats coming to get you, and every slight feeling of illness is a flesh-rotting disease that’s going to kill you painfully.

The rats come in different sizes. The biggest ones are the chieftain rats.

Lesson number 4: The bigger a monster is, the smarter and more dangerous it is. Also, the bigger teeth it has.

Some meth heads get eaten and a cop throws up.

Five chapters in, a lot of this book is gruesome, but none of it’s scary. I always thought horror was supposed to be scary. Perhaps the issue is proximity. For me, London (where the rats are rampaging) is so much on the opposite side of the world that if I dug straight down I’d probably emerge within spitting distance of it.

Would giant killer rats in Wellington be any scarier? I don’t know about that, but they would be funnier. It helps that Wellington is something of a joke to start with.**

At almost exactly the 25% mark in the book, one of the few characters who has not yet died learns that the rat problem is bigger than anyone realised, and he’s going to help with the investigation.

This made my structure-loving little heart glow.

Not-dead guy, who happens to be an art teacher, and the investigation-dudes spot the rats heading for an area of flats. The rat-catcher goes after them, confident that he can handle them.

Lesson number 5: Never be confident in your ability to handle anything. You will be the next to die, and not even an old lady with a broom will be able to save you.

The teacher/hero gets out of London for a nice weekend with his girlfriend, because even in horror novels people need down time.

Especially in horror novels.

Lesson number 53: Always take the time to enjoy a nice weekend out of town, because you never know when you’ll be devoured by rats.

We meet another victim, but not for long.

Lesson number 6: Don’t go on the tube. Rats. Tunnel. Just don’t.

I always thought the horror was supposed to increase as you went through the story, but I’m not sure how much higher it can go. Giant, intelligent, man-eating rats that carry a horrific disease and eat their victims alive. Next you’re going to tell me they hand out detentions to people who litter.

We meet some people on a train and head hop so much that I feel sick. Amazingly, they don’t die.

Everyone else on the train does.

Lesson number 7: If head-hopping is going on, to maximise your chances of survival make sure you’re a part of it.

The Rats
Man-eating rats are coming out of the sewers. I know what’s a good idea. A trip on an underground train.

At the 50% mark, the rats lay siege on the school.

Lesson number 8: The bars that stop a school window being broken by stray balls also keep rats out.

Lesson number 9: Windows that are accidentally left open do not keep rats out.

The basement is the weak point. I think it’s a design flaw in these cities that every building has a basement and every basement is connected by a rat highway of sewers. Someone should do something about that.

The men beat the rats at the school. It wasn’t a fair fight. The men had opposable thumbs, fire hoses, and hundreds of years of scientific knowledge of their side.

After the siege at the school, and facing a city overrun by rats, someone comes up with the brilliant idea of bringing in a different species of rat to battle the mega-rats.

Lesson number 10: Ignore every suggestion made by a civil servant.

They decide to use a virus instead, and it’s going to be spread by puppies. What did I tell you about ignoring civil servants?

The puppies are unleashed, rats die, and everyone thinks the problem has been solved (again).

Lesson number 11: At least the first two times you think the problem has been solved it hasn’t, and a lot more people are going to die.

People die at the cinema, people die at the zoo.

Lesson number 12: If rats are attacking your zoo animals, don’t set the man-eating big cats loose. You will be their dinner.

Operation Extirpate begins. Evacuate London. Gas the rats.

And we end up back at the house where the woman went crazy, the source of the problem.

Lesson number 13: When a mad scientist ships a box back from the jungle labelled “soil samples” and you hear a strange scrabbling noise coming from inside, don’t let it into the country. Burn it. Better, nuke it.

In the house, the art teacher goes into the basement, nearly dies, finds the body of a guy who did die, and kills the king rat.

Lesson number 14: Unless you’re the hero, don’t go into the basement.

Lesson number 15: Never mess with an art teacher.

Epilogue: The rats aren’t all dead because people who evacuate can’t follow instructions and the police were too polite to knock down their door. Another king rat is headed for puberty.

I assume the people who got bitten along the way died in flesh-rotting agony.

Bonus lesson: Never trust government-issue protective equipment.

What did I think of this book overall? It was an entertaining read, but there were too many rats and not enough dragons.

** To my fellow Wellingtonians, I’m kidding, obviously. But it is.

How often do you read outside your genre? Is it more often a pleasant surprise or vaguely disappointing?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

38 thoughts on “15 lessons a fantasy author learned from reading horror”

  1. So glad you enjoyed it!

    “The rats aren’t all dead because people who evacuate can’t follow instructions and the police were too polite to knock down their door.” To be fair, it IS set in England. It would be frightfully vulgar to knock down the door of one of Her Majesty’s subjects.

    TBH the main reason I picked this one was to see how you would talk about the scene with Mary and the bottle without swearing. Cleverly side-stepped, you evil clean-mouthed genius.

    I’m writing my corresponding blog as we speak and will link to it here forthwith*.

    *Excuse thy language. I have been reading fantasy.

    1. Oh, you and your devilish plans! I almost made a comment about the guy who was very good in bed getting run over by a tank, but in the end it didn’t fit with my narrative (or the story) so it had to go.

  2. There are different kinds of horror. I lean more towards the supernatural and psychological. Less giant rats, more getting kidnapped by a phantom while you sleep or getting stalked by something unknown and shadowy. Much more terrifying. This kind of horror just makes me laugh, but I like that, too.

    1. I loveeee psychological but not so much supernatural creatures (phantoms etc). I love a good demonic possession or a curse (have you read PROPHECY by Peter James?) or something quirky (LIFE EXPECTANCY, Dean Koontz?) but I think the most effective horror is when it’s something that really could happen to you without needing the supernatural.

    2. That’s a good point. Monsters are much more scary before you see them, and laughing is probably quite a widespread response to horror-horror. I know I laughed.

  3. Very funny. I never knew how important head hopping was to survival. And thank the stars that now I don’t have to read this book! That would have been pure torture (by rats). πŸ˜€

  4. I remember reading that book, years ago. I thought it was very silly. It was one of those books that pad the story out by giving all the life history of every random piece of rat food, I mean, character.

    Additionally, I spent a week working in Wellington in 2003, and thought it was a jolly nice place.

    1. Yes! I too was struck by the need for extensive life histories of the rat food. But as Anna said, the book was short. Without these it might not have even been novel length.

      1. It’s a horror staple – giving characters’ backstories when they appear. I’m not sure if it’s because;

        a) otherwise it’s just a string of faceless people dying, whereas if we get to know them first it has a little more impact or

        b) so you don’t know who’s going to die – the disposal characters have backstories just like the ones who’ll survive, so you can never be all “Well, the author has spent time building Jon’s character so I can relax safe in the knowledge that he’ll live until the en…. Oh, look, a rat is burrowing into Jon’s exposed intestines.”

        1. Hint: EVERYONE is going to die (rounding up only slightly).

          You’re probably right, we have to care about a person before we care much if they die horrifically, though I’m not sure the backstories here made for very sympathetic characters.

        2. It’s a very poor trope that can only be used once – as soon as the first lunch with backstory has been chomped, the reader is wise to it, and won’t fall for it again. and far from caring about them (which is difficult to do anyway since the backstories are nothing but infodumps) the reader winds up not giving a toss about anybody. The trope is not confined to horror, of course, and the savvy reader will see it for what it is: padding.

  5. Oh god! I will read any fantasy books over horror. Maybe if I’m forced to, but I don’t enjoy horror fiction. With that said, you seem to have gathered quite a few lessons from it. Lol This post was worth reading this book. πŸ˜‰

  6. I remember (vaguely) reading all the Rats books as a teenager – Lair and Domain were the other two, if I remember right. I read a LOT of horror as a kid, and recently revisited one by a different author that I remembered as being just amazing.

    It was awful.

    Splatter-gory and the cat got killed. Nope. Thank you for reminding me that I probably shouldn’t revisit James Herbert either…

      1. Well, it’s true that she did recommend you a book which had sperm as main character, which kind of calls her judgement into question.
        However, Kiwi loyalty and all that.

    1. It’s funny how your taste for book changes as you gain life experience. And writing experience. I’ve noticed some books I used to love irritate me now with the clunkiness of the writing. And I will not read a book where the cat gets killed. Though spatter-gory can be funny.

      1. Ah, it’s so disappointing when you find the writing’s not as good as you remembered! It makes me quite hesitant to re-read. Which is probably good, considering the TBR piles of books I haven’t actually read before.

  7. You’re too funny! Sounds like this was HP Lovecraft’s story of “Rats in the Walls” in novel form! That story was one of my favorites of his. I’m not big into horror (though I do enjoy the horror classics of literature) but this story I would be curious to read just to see how close they stuck to the original!

    1. Aw, thank you. πŸ™‚ I haven’t read “Rats in the Walls” – this was more “Rats in the basement, the living room, the kitchen, the school, and the baby’s intestines”, but I suppose a longer story would have to have rats in more places.

      1. Lovecraft’s rats were definitely everywhere in the house! But, eh, not in the intestines..! That’s just… modern horror, I suppose. I would recommend you read his “Rats in the Walls” merely for classic literature purposes, but I would spare you the horror since I gather you’re not keen on the subject! And there’s no shame in that of course, I’m no fan of modern horror and gore myself. Lovecraft’s short story ends on a somber note of the approaching rodent hoard, which for me is easier to live with. The sense of unknowing and personal terror and fear is sometimes a better effect than overt description of the horror πŸ™‚

        1. I know what you mean about the power of the unknown. Gore can be fun (if it’s not happening to you), but an unseen threat is scarier by far. πŸ™‚

  8. I don’t read horror either, but I did earlier this year because I read three thrillers by the same author and wanted more. Turns out everything else he writes leans toward horror. So I picked one and read it. IT WAS AMAZING. AND SCARY! I think the scary factor came in from the fact that it was also a thriller. There were some gory bits, but they didn’t feel gratuitous.

    The book is The River is Dark by Joe Hart. I’ll totally read more by him in the future, though I don’t think I’ll break into the genre as a whole.

    1. That sounds like an interesting book. I might check it out. πŸ™‚ I’m not sure when “horror” turned into “funny” and “thriller” replaced it as “scary”, but it definitely seems to be a thing.

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