Friday, October 25, 2013

Rats and Bats and the Third World War

Domain by James Herbert (1985): Technically, this is the third novel in Herbert's Rat Trilogy, following The Rats and Lair. But you don't need to have read the previous novels to enjoy this one -- I haven't, and there's nothing difficult to follow here.

Herbert's really great at excruciating physical horror. Domain hits the reader with two horrors for the price of one: nuclear strikes on London, England, followed by the rise of giant mutant rats from London's sewer systems. Come for the nuclear apocalypse, stay for the rats!

And boy, these rats are bad news. After an intense and detailed description of the nuclear devastation of London, Herbert follows some of the survivors into the sewers as they head towards a governmental bomb shelter disguised as a subterranean telephone relay station. Will order be restored? Hey, where did all these giant, super-intelligent rats come from?

If you enjoy scenes of visceral horror, rats, and nuclear war, then this novel is for you. It's one of the two or three strongest Herbert novels I've read. The science gets wonky at times, but hey, giant rats! Recommended.

 

Nightwing by Martin Cruz Smith (1977): This early Cruz novel, written before Gorky Park made him a break-out star, is a terse, thrilling account of the present-day descent of a colony of Mexican vampire bats onto the New Mexico region inhabited by the Hopi.

An Ahab-like bat researcher and a somewhat aimless, hopeless Hopi Deputy will ultimately be the only people who can save the area before, as the researcher notes, the United States is forced to remove New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona from the map.

The novel combines compelling exposition (yes, compelling exposition) on Hopi mythology, vampire bats, and Black Plague transmission with a tense, exciting disaster narrative. There's more than one ecological narrative at work here: the bats have been chased out of their natural habitat, and this makes them much, much more dangerous than they were before, while the quest to contain them, and the plague they carry, is fatally compromised by the attempts of a Navajo leader to sell oil rights to portions of Navajo and Hopi land.

Smith creates winning, sympathetic characters under pressure, and also manages the difficult feat of positing a rational, natural apocalypse which may or may not also have supernatural origins. The portrait of the Hopi people is fascinating throughout. So too the vampire bats, a predator with no fear of humanity, and with an awful lot of similarities to humanity: they come, and they strip an area bare of life both through their predation and through the diseases they carry, diseases that don't affect them because bats have the strangest mammalian immune systems on the planet.

Bats in their entirety are the most successful mammal on the planet besides humanity. Here, Smith turns them into a natural force worse than any hurricane or earthquake. They make for a terrifying antagonist, rendered in full horror but with full honors to their biological distinctiveness. When Charles Darwin first saw a vampire bat feed, he was left speechless. One feels that way for awhile after the explosive, somewhat hallucinatory finale of this novel. Highly recommended.

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