The second book in James Herbert’s ‘Rats’ series of stories, Lair was released in 1979. Whereas The Rats was set amongst the streets of London, Lair moves the action to a more tranquil location – Epping Forest.
It has been a couple of years since the chaos that was caused by the outbreak of mutant rats. Although believed to have been destroyed, no chances are taken and pest-control companies work alongside the government to investigate any potential sightings or problems.
One such pest control company stands atop the rest called Ratkill, run by Stephen Howard. Who many may remember as the star of the first book. Here though, he takes a much minor role and instead the lead is given to a man called Lucas Pender.
Pender is sent to investigate some odd events occurring in and around Epping Forest. Signs that the mutant black rats may not be completely eradicated. What seems like a straight-forward investigation turns into something far bigger. As it is discovered that the surviving rats of the London incident left the city and made Epping Forest their home. Where they have been breeding and building back their confidence. Now, with the numbers and the old hunger for human flesh returning, the war is about to begin again.
The development of Herbert’s writing between The Rats and Lair is obvious from the start. While as viscerally descriptive and frantic as always (this is a violent horror), this time around he masterfully creates tension in his words. There are segments where you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat. Gripping the pages tightly as the story is built and built to a bloody conclusion.
That side of things is an improvement over The Rats. However, well defined characters aren’t the legendary author’s strongest point and Lair has its fair share of duds. The main character of Lucas Pender is a grower, his initial cold and empty shell making more sense as the book goes on, but the love interest of Jenny is a massive miss.
She’s an utter wet blanket, falls for Pender so quickly even though they have little chemistry and is involved in a cringe-inducing sex scene. It all comes across so forced, made even worse by a head-scratching love-triangle subplot too.
You will remember these characters but not necessarily for the right reasons.
We also have a trope that may not have been as tired as it is now back in 1979. The ‘Jaws’ trope. You know, the one where the greedy mayor insists upon opening up the beaches regardless of the previous shark attacks or warnings that it is too risky? We get the same thing here but surrounding the evacuation and closure of Epping Forest. Sure, it tries to sell the difficulty of such an event but misses one crucial point and that is the black rat event is public knowledge.
This isn’t hearsay or rumours. Hundreds of people died at the hands of the mutant monsters and the scars run deep. If people are told they’re to leave their homes because of a potential invasion of these creatures, they’re likely to do it.
It’s this sort of thing that just stops Lair being a great book unfortunately. However, if you want drip-fed tension, buckets of gore and frantic violence, Lair will provide.
Lair (James Herbert)
The Final Score - 7/10