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Book Review: Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert

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“Valancourt should be congratulated for bringing this back into print!”

In his introduction to this welcome new edition of Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks, Kim Newman makes the bold claim that it is this book that effectively launched a new era in horror fiction, effectively kick-starting the careers of both Stephen King and James Herbert. Had the book sat quietly on a handful of bookcases – as it was perhaps destined to do – such an idea would appear ridiculous. But a few years after publication a film adaptation appeared and the book was reissued to capitalise on that film’s unexpected success. It was in this form as a mass market paperback and with a brand new title that Kim Newman refers. The book, like the film, was now called Willard. This success was to usher in countless other rampaging animals in print and on celluloid throughout the rest of that decade and beyond.

The story starts with our unnamed narrator sent to get rid of a family of rats by his ailing, yet still domineering, mother in the garden of the house where they both live. Although he carefully makes arrangements to drown them he cannot go through with it. Unknown to his mother, who thinks the rats all dead, he starts to develop a relationship with the rats and sets about training them to perform simple tasks in reward for food. It gradually dawns on him that he might use the rats to get revenge on his bullying boss who runs the company once owned by his late father. What starts as an act of petty vandalism soon escalates to larceny and much worse.

The book is presented as a series of entries in a journal, hence its title. Herein the narrator details his increasingly misanthropic views on humanity at large and his relationship with the increasingly large horde of rats. He concentrates on two rats in particular; the highly intelligent leader he names Socrates and rather devious Ben Suleiman. The first rat he, at first, thinks of as the offspring of Socrates himself, but it soon becomes clear that there is much more going on behind those beady little eyes than even Socrates is capable of.

All but the most severe musophobics will find little to chill the blood within its early pages. The story builds nicely as our much put-upon protagonist recruits an army of rats to get revenge on his hated employer. To begin with the narrator believes that he has been deified by the rats and the novel at times feels like some sort of inversion of Saki’s masterful short story Sredni Vashtar. Though here it is the human as the vengeful and merciless god, not some furry mammal. It is only towards the end that things get very nasty indeed.

After what might have been seen, at the time, as a major and long-awaited breakthrough for its author, Gilbert did not write another book. Based on the talent on display in Ratman’s Notebooks this is a very great shame indeed. Valancourt should be congratulated for once more bringing work such as this back into print.

Ratman’s Notebooks is hard to class as a horror novel in its own right and might not be the most obvious of places to start if you were to map the rise of horror fiction from the start of the seventies. It’s impossible to say whether a world without Ratman might have had any detrimental effect on the success of the likes of Stephen King. But even if what Kim Newman argues remains conjecture, we still have Ratman to thank for Michael Jackson’s hit song Ben.

Now that is a horrific thought.

NEIL WILLIAMS

Introduction by Kim Newman
Published by Valancourt Books
Paperback (169pp)

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1 comment

  1. andrea norwood

    I saw some of the movie Willard but never really knew it was because of a book called Ratman’s Notebooks. Anyway, it’s good, gross and very entertaining!

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