Lair is the sequel to The Rats, British horror writer James Herbert’s debut novel. Lair was published in 1979, five years after its predecessor and Herbert’s sixth book overall. The old cover art of Lair is too adorable not to show you!
It takes place four years after “the Outbreak,” the coined term for the infestation that led to hundreds dead in London and eventual evacuation to exterminate the filth.
Carrying on from the epilogue, several rats survived the onslaught, and though they are much fewer in number, they escape from their hiding place to wait, hide, and breed until their thirst for human flesh brings them to the surface again.
*Note: this review contains some spoilers.
“The mutant white rat had grown and mated, creating offspring in its own image. They dominated the others, the dark-furred ones, who foraged for food and brought it back to the lair.
Now the dark rats were restless, tormented by a craving they could not satisfy. But the white slug-like thing that ruled them knew. Its two heads weaved to and fro and a stickiness drooled from its mouth as it remembered the taste of human flesh . . .”
Unlike in The Rats, Lair takes place in Epping Forest, a large wood on the outskirts of London. It takes longer for the vermin to attack this time; there are many “close calls” and sightings, building up the tension for the first third of the novel. Always, I wondered whether a new scene would lead to an unfortunate death or a lucky escape.
One aspect I really liked about the first instalment is Herbert’s quick introduction to the backstories and lives of the characters, whether or not they fall victim to the rats. Whether suggested by his editor or on his own, it’s unclear, but it seemed like many of the victims were not very nice people and therefore it was less upsetting and more fun reading about their deaths or encounters with ruined corpses. A couple cheating on their spouses. A pervert who likes to flash young women. A grumpy farmer who doesn’t trust the law.
Harris, the main character from book one, is briefly mentioned, but we’re introduced to a new MC: Ratkill employee called Lucas Pender, our hero of Lair. Their struggle to track down and eliminate the rats in Epping Forest is real. The rats are stronger, smarter, and more deadly than ever before, often outsmarting their mortal enemies even though the humans know not to underestimate them.
Some scenes had me on the edge of my seat. Would they escape? Would the protective suits, which worked so well in the past, hold against the onslaught of vicious teeth? Would they finally destroy the creatures or had the rats hidden too well?
Herbert introduced political aspects to the novel, suggesting the economic consequences of an infestation in Epping Forest, an area that is home to hundreds of people and a green belt area that London politicians would dearly love to seize. The hesitation of the forest’s protectors exacerbates the situation despite Pender’s early warnings, giving the story a very real edge. How many times in the real world has common sense been abandoned for the sake of money and control?
The story was all about action and not much character development. I wasn’t aware Whittaker had a beard until almost the end of the book. If there was any description of Pender, I missed it; I imagined him as a normal-looking white bloke with darkish hair. I wasn’t keen on the love scene, but that’s personal preference; I tend to skip over over-the-top descriptions of sex and it didn’t feel it really had a place in a sci-fi horror. I appreciate that it might have been a respite from the gore, however, and it didn’t ruin the story for me.
All in all, Lair was pretty good. The shock value had worn off after recently reading The Rats, of course – there are only so many ways you can describe someone getting torn apart and eaten to death – but Herbert handled it well, offering fresh environments and more tension with creative new ways for the rats to attack and take their victims by surprise.
The ending was great. We finally find out the location of the rats’ lair and there was plenty of excitement. I can’t say much else without giving it all away!
If you haven’t read The Rats yet, it’s a great classic horror. I’ll probably wait a while to read the final in the trilogy, Domain, so perhaps the gory scenes can be shocking and scary again. That being said, Lair had plenty of tension to make up for it, and it’ll be interesting to see where Domain takes the story of these mutant rats that just won’t die! Lair was a fun read, and I give it four stars out of five.