Well, I was in the mood for an old horror novel. And, although I’d started searching through my older books for a copy of James Herbert’s “Sepulchre” that I vaguely remembered seeing during a previous search, I instead chanced across my copy of Herbert’s 1979 novel “Lair” and decided to re-read it.
This is mostly because although I really enjoyed re-reading Herbert’s “The Rats” a couple of months ago and I am still too scared to re-read the final novel in the trilogy, “Domain” (I read that novel about seventeen years ago and I… still… remember it vividly), I didn’t remember that much about the second novel “Lair” other than my younger self didn’t really find it as impressive as “The Rats”. So, I was curious about what I’d think of it these days.
Although “Lair” is the second novel in a trilogy, it still works as a self-contained story. Not only are there recaps for some of the events of “The Rats”, but I imagine that some plot events will actually be scarier if you don’t already know what sort of thing to expect.
So, let’s take a look at “Lair”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a brief description of several giant mutant rats surviving the events of the previous book thanks to someone not following the government’s advice. Four years later, a farmer in Epping Forest notices that his pet cats have been attacked by something.
Meanwhile, a family is taking a short holiday nearby and one of their children spots what looks like a stray dog in the bushes – but it flees before she can take a close look. In another part of the forest, one of the wardens suddenly finds that his horse bolts in terror at some unseen creature. When the exhausted steed comes to a halt, the warden sees a white deer. A bad omen.
Meanwhile, at the offices of Ratkill, Lucas Pender arrives for work. Following the outbreak in London four years earlier, the company is flush with both private and government funding and has been researching a number of new poisons, ultrasonic technologies and protective suits. And, following new legislation brought in after the outbreak, all possible rat sightings must be reported. So, when Pender arrives at work, it isn’t long before he is sent to Epping Forest to investigate….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a much better book than I remembered 🙂 Although it is overshadowed by both the fame of the first “Rats” book and the deeply unsettling and unforgettable bleakness of the third book, it is still one hell of a good horror novel. Not only is the novel’s pacing even better than “The Rats” but it is also a much more extreme, dramatic and suspenseful horror novel too 🙂 In short, if “The Rats” established the early beginnings of the splatterpunk genre, this novel finishes the blueprint that would later be followed by many 1980s authors, whilst also adding some excellent thriller elements too.
So, naturally, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a mixture of suspenseful horror, monster horror, ominous horror, disaster horror, sexual horror, fast-paced horror, character-based horror, claustrophobic horror and, of course, gory horror. Unlike “The Rats”, this novel is very much a splatterpunk novel – with a level of uncompromising, grisly, gross-out gore that almost approaches that of the 1980s horror authors who were inspired by Herbert’s novels.
This novel also makes expert use of pacing to increase both the horror and impact of the story’s events. Although I usually wait until later in my reviews to talk about pacing, I need to mention it here because it is an integral part of what makes “Lair” such a compelling horror novel.
In short, the first third or so of the novel is spent building suspense. You know that something horrible is going to happen, and each near-miss or possible rat sighting just ramps up the tension even more. Then, when the novel explodes in a horrific frenzy of fast-paced danger, violence and hungry rats, it almost feels like a relief from the nail-biting suspense and, well, I won’t spoil the later parts. But, I cannot praise this efficiently short (244 pages) novel’s pacing highly enough 🙂
Like with “The Rats”, this novel also contains quite a few thriller elements too. Although it maintains some of the realistic “disaster movie” elements from it’s predecessor (eg: crisis planning meetings, political drama etc..), this novel’s thriller elements feel a lot more fast-paced, spectacular and action-packed than those in “The Rats”. In addition to all of the suspense that I mentioned earlier, the novel also contains a really good mixture between frantic, claustrophobic close-quarters fights for survival and larger-scale pitched battles with the giant rats too. Seriously, this novel is a brilliant example of how to mix the horror and thriller genres well 🙂
In terms of the novel’s characters, they are fairly good. In the classic splatterpunk fashion, several of the background characters actually get slightly better and more detailed characterisation than the main characters do. This is mainly done to both add a sense of scale to the novel and to create a grim atmosphere (since not all of these detailed characters survive).
Still, the novel’s two main characters – Lucas Pender and a teacher/tour guide called Jenny Hanmer – get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re the typical “understated hero” and “sidekick/love interest” stock characters that you’d expect in a horror/thriller novel of this vintage. Likewise, although the novel’s police and military characters don’t get a giant amount of characterisation, they have the kind of quiet, understated bravery that makes you care about what happens to them.
In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 As you’d expect from a horror novel of this vintage, the third-person narration is fairly descriptive and slightly formal but still “matter of fact” enough to be easily readable. Not only does this add a lot of extra atmosphere to the novel, but it also means that the novel can also move at a fairly decent pace too – with the novel’s “slightly formal, but matter of fact” writing style both adding gravitas to the fast-paced moments whilst also flowing well enough to keep the slower moments compellingly suspenseful too. Seriously, it’s a really good all-purpose writing style.
In terms of how this forty-one year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well 🙂 Not only is it still atmospheric, compelling and readable – but both the rural setting and the quality of the writing also lend it a slightly timeless quality too. This is one of those novels that mostly feels enjoyably “retro” rather than dated. Not to mention that the total lack of smartphones etc… also allows some scenes to contain a lot more suspense than they would do in a modern novel. Even so, the scenes involving one rather creepy background character would probably be written in a different way (eg: with less focus on his perspective, thoughts etc..) in a more modern novel, and the same is probably true for a brief reference to domestic violence during one scene involving the local farmer too.
All in all, this is a really compelling horror thriller novel 🙂 Like all good sequels, it takes what made the original great and turns it up to eleven. Yes, it’s less famous than “The Rats” and less scary than “Domain”, but it would be a mistake to overlook this novel. If you aren’t easily shocked and you like your retro horror novels to include a few fast-paced thriller elements too, then this one is well worth reading 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.