Lair (James Herbert)

Even rats relocate to the country. Epping Forest in this case…I have a weakness for stories where animals or insects turn on humans. This is Part 2 of his Rat trilogy of books and it still holds up well nearly 40 years later. Along with Stephen King, Herbert was an innovator and modernizer of the horror novel. Its no coincidence the pair published their first book the same year, just on different sides of the pond. But there is a character in Lair that might be an insight into James Herbert’s real dark side – what if he had not become a success as a writer? Might he have turned into the gym teacher character I’ll bring up later in this review?

It’s very similar to the first book–set in the woods (where the rats have fled since they now associate London with mass death), where they have set up a new rat HQ (basically same spooky ruined mansion as the first one), with 2 headed albino monstrosities as ruler, with special rat guards, and a growing rat revolution. The rebel rat broods almost as much as the hero. It’s improved by the hero, in a way, over the first book. Instead of an art teacher, we have an actual rat expert on the scene, avenging his family’s death from one of the many thousands killed in the first book and throwing himself into the world of extermination.

The woman in this novel, instead of a fashion designer, is a park ranger/ecologist, who has cloistered herself in the rat infested woods to get over falling for a married man. She is a little on the passive/weak side. Female readers may dislike the way he’s portrayed women in this book. They weep a lot and are there mainly for the sex scenes. Just like its predecessor there’s also the same blundering stupid government officials who are too slow to act (why?!). Idiots who don’t report seeing rats because they don’t want to be bothered, but somehow it didn’t feel quite as political – or in the moment – as the first book. Perhaps because it was more localized and on a smaller scale than the first one.  Also, I was happy to see comeuppance every time a fool had to be reminded to wear protective gear in fighting the rats.

This novel, while it had as many characters as the first one, and stronger in some ways, was weaker in other respects. There is no scene as hard – hitting as the train sequence in the first book for example. Lair is full of characters who live for all of three pages before meeting a dire fate of Tooth and Claw. But each one gets just enough back story and personality that you care just enough to cringe when they meet their inevitable end. This feature isn’t exactly uncommon in horror fiction, but James Herbert does it especially well. As for the gym teacher character, he sneaks off into the woods during his lunch breaks. Why? To indecently expose himself to unsuspecting hikers. Herbert keeps this character going for so long that you can’t help but feel the author identified very strongly with him. An alter ego? Plus, there are extremely lengthy sex scenes that he seems to be enjoying way too much!

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