The City by James Herbert is a mixed bag for many readers, who have read all of the Rats books this graphic novel offers nothing new, but for new readers it’s quite interesting if vague. For me, this is where I started reading James Herbert’s work on The Rats, and after reading the trilogy and discussing all of the books, I now return to the last book that ends this series.
I want to discuss what I would change for this graphic novel that would give it more purpose, and a finality to end the saga. This isn’t to disrespect James Herbert’s work on The City as I’ve enjoyed reading it for its unique visual journey into the nightmare world of The Rats. However, I would like to offer my criticism not out of knowing what would make it perfect or how my opinion is right, but to offer alternative ideas and suggestions that could improve the story.
In The City, we meet our protagonist named David who is a lone survivor by the name of ‘The Traveller’, who search’s for his wife and daughter in the warped post apocalyptic nightmarish city of London. Now ruled by the Black Rats, David search’s for his family whilst slaughtering the rats.
When he finds his family his daughter is nothing but a carcass and his wife has gone, too far lost in her delusion. When he discovers that she is nursing a White baby rat, he ensures the vermin is destroyed and sadly mercy kills his wife.
Then suddenly he has a new mission in which he kills the Mother creature who’s nest is in St Paul’s Cathedral. After he kills the beast, he leaves London to walk the wasteland alone.
The Character lacks any connections to the previous books and we don’t really get to know David in the story. His mission doesn’t really pull you in and make you sympathise with him, his story is a mystery. A mystery character can be written well in some stories with some hints here and there about their past, but David just feels vague with nothing to make you question where he came from.
How does he know where the Mother Creature hibernate? Who does he work for? How did he know his family might be alive? Was he an ex military man? How did he survive the nuclear apocalypse?
I have two alternative suggestions that could make The City a good send off to the franchise, and to bring the story full circle.
1. Have Luke Pender be the protagonist of the story, he was the main protagonist in the second book, Lair. He knows about the Rats and their ugly hierarchy during his time as a investigator for Ratkill. Have the story briefly explain his life after Lair, his marriage and how he left behind Ratkill and his vengeance went for the Black Rats. Then go into the apocalypse and how he and his wife were lucky to be in one of the safer areas that weren’t attacked before sees-fire. Skip a few years in the future and show Pender as a lone traveller who is now back with Ratkill. After his wife was killed by the returning horrors of the Black Rats, Pender seeks revenge for her death and kill the Mother Creature.
2. Second suggestion would be that Harris would be the main protagonist due to him being the first person alive to have witnessed the beginning of the Black Rats first outbreak. Although he has no military background or combat expertise, he did survive several rat attacks through the first book, The Rats. Last we know of Harris in the series was that he survived the attack in the nest and reported to HQ (Ratkill) of what he saw. After that there’s nothing, his story just ends in the series and not even if he survived the nuclear fallout years later. Having him as the protagonist in The City would make the story feel like a full circle, a finality to the series as Harris returns to London to face a old enemy one last time.
Post Domain story with reference to Culver and how society has fallen
Domain ends with Culver and two other survivors leave London by the military, who saved them during a gruelling battle on a boat against the rats. We’re told that there are some areas that weren’t affected by the fallout, chaotic but fairly ordered mostly. The story ends on a cliffhanger of sorts as the rats are still active in their goal to take over the world. By the time The City arrives we see humanity at the whims of the rats as society is completely destroyed.
Maybe explain post Domain what happened to Culver and the others. Was it China that dropped the nuclear bombs? Did they do a second wave of attacks months later? How did the rats took over?
There’s a lot to explain in just a single graphic novel with barely 70 or so pages, so it’ll either have to be a short 2-4 page explanation or a prequel story. Or alternatively, just show how the rats finally dominated the country, as in Domain they’ve just about took over London after the fallout.
The Ratkill as a Guerrilla task force
By the time the third book come around Ratkill had completely disappeared, no mention of the group nor of Howard. Domain’s story was a few decades (10-20 years) after the events of Lair, roughly in the 80’s or 90’s. It was almost as if this book wasn’t connected to the last two when reading the first few chapters, until later on we get exposition on previous events on the Black Rats.
During The City we see unknown groups of people who help the Traveler during his mission in London, they seem to be from an established group who knew who David was. Could they be from Ratkill, surviving inspectors who now work as a task force to take down nests? Or are they a retaliation group who were in one of the many safe nuclear bunkers?
It would be a nice nod to either Domain or the trilogy to include Ratkill as an existing group, who are fighting an eternal war against the rats.
That’s all I can suggest for how I would change The City to make it more meaningful. It’s not to say that my ideas are perfect as I’m not the master of this fictional world, James Herbert is the only one who can ultimately write The Rats franchise. But unfortunately, he sadly passed away early this decade, so I doubt anyone could continue the franchise as good as James’s work
The City was released in the 1990’s, about two decades after his first book, The Rats, was published. The City was James Herbert’s last work on The Rats franchise as a fourth sequel in the rats saga. He had changed since his early days of writing as he moved away from violent and graphic horror into more complex horror.
In a way, James Herbert was moving on from his most famous fictional franchise and wanted to create new stories rather than milking his best work. Besides, by the time Domain came out the horror was becoming too familiar and less frightening.
How can you make a graphic novel end a well beloved horror series, and meet expectations? The answer is not that simple, and because James hasn’t done a graphic novel before or since, it’s understandable that The City would feel mediocre.
But then again looking back on The City, I have this strange nostalgia now that I’ve read all of the books. Seeing the Black Rats, the post fallout remains of London, the White Rats and the Mother Creature all being illustrated actually makes us see how horrendous and evil these things are.
I think the book was never meant to be the next best thing but rather a visual story to thank the fans for supporting decades of fiction by James Herbert. Instead of writing a fourth book, a visual story was made for us, the reader, to witness the horror for one last time. To see the mutant rats for the first time as they glare at us with their evil, cunning red eyes.
The Black Rats ultimately won the battle and dominated the earth, as humanity annihilates itself by nuclear fallout. Then we get to see what we created by accident decades ago (from atomic bombs ironically) destroy our species.
The final page of the traveller walking across the crimson red horizon after leaving London is the story’s end. Unlike previous books there’s no epilogue about surviving rats nor another White Rat mutant, just the main protagonist waking away as a broken man who’s lost everything in his life. He only has revenge against the rats as something to live for.
I hope you have enjoyed this post, and I hope this final post on my thoughts on The Rats saga was enjoyable. I’ve been really inspired to write several posts on The Rats series after reading all the books, and I’ve done few post covering my thoughts on each book.
It’s been a pleasure to have found James Herbert’s fiction and The Rats franchise, it’s helped me to start reading more Horror book genre now. It’s a shame that James Herbert isn’t mentioned much in media and bookshops today, hardly much of his books are in my local Waterstones (only second hand shops have his books).
However, I hope that I’ve helped spread the word about James Herbert to a new generation of book readers. Hopefully we can still pass on the tales of horror of The Rats for decades onwards.
Until next time,