Domain by James Herbert

I read James Herbert regularly as a teenager, and hardly ever after that. My one regret between then and now is that I never read Domain, partly because it was the third book in a trilogy of which I had read the first two (The Rats and Lair), and partly because the book belongs to my favourite sub-genre: post apocalypse.

Domain was written in the 1980s and is set in the same political climate, where it seemed that nuclear war might really happen. I can remember the vague anxiety associated with the time, even though I was a child. Back then, it always seemed like World War III would be a battle between the USA and Russia. How times change. The book is set in London and gets straight down to business with five nuclear missiles decimating the city. Most people above ground perish in the inital blast. For those more fortunate, the most convenient haven is the nearest tube station – get as far underground as possible before the nuclear fallout arrives. Unfortunately, there’s another threat lurking below: rats. Not regular rats, but a mutant strain throught to have been wiped out in the previous book. Instead, they have been hiding underground, breeding. Some of these rats are as big as dogs. And they’re as mean as rabid dogs. The people who took refuge don’t stand a chance.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Steve Culver, a helicopter pilot, who is lucky enough to find himself in the company of a Government executive, a man called Dealey, when the bombs fall. Dealey is, unfortunately, blinded by the flash, and he needs Culver’s help to get to a secret Government fallout shelter that he knows about. From there, the story follows one survival escapade after another: battling the rats, battling floodwaters, battling rats in the floodwaters, battling people-gone-bad, battling more rats, etc. I started off enjoying the novel, but after a while I started to get the impression that there really wasn’t much of a story to tell. Towards the end, I was truly sickened by tunnel after door after tunnel after door.

I felt further frustrated by Herbert’s manner of storytelling. He’s quite verbose, tossing in unnecessary words and being vaguely repetitious:

He hacked their pink bodies, ignoring their faint cries, striking, pummelling, crushing their tiny bones, making sure each one was dead, beating any small movement from them, shredding them from existence, sundering them of all form, of any shape.

What is intended as dramatic is padded out to such a degree that all I can feel whilst reading it is tired and impatient. The story is further padded out with lines of dialogue between the characters that often serve no purpose except to slow everything down and bulk up the page-count. Many of the characters themselves are cardboard cut-outs. In one scene, there were several survivors travelling, and four of the men felt completely interchangeable to me; it didn’t matter who spoke. With the exception of Culver and Dealey, I couldn’t tell the difference between the men.

It’s not all bad. The novel does have its moments. From the sublime …

Ignore the old woman sitting on the floor rocking her blood-covered head backwards and forwards. Forget about the kid clinging to his mother, yelling for her to take out the horrible pieces of glass from his hands. Don’t look at the man leaning against the wall vomiting black blood. Help one and you had to help eveybody. Help everybody and you were finished. Just help yourself.

“Those people this morning didn’t look desparate. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves.”
“Let’s just say we’ve been knocked back a few thousand years to a time when other tribes are the enemy and certain breeds of animal are dangerous. We got through it then, we’ll do it again.”

To the ridiculous …

Sharon opened the door a fraction, just enough for her slim body to slide through, the tips of her breasts brushing against the edge.

As a teenager, I might have detected a degree of eroticism in the above paragraph. Now it reads like pure cheese to me. Sharon, a survivor among a group holed up inside a cinema, is heading to the toilet in the middle of the night. Every time Herbert deviates from the central group of survivors, you know he’s simply setting up a predicable scene where he gets to revel in death and destruction. Predictably enough, a horny bloke follows the girl, intent on raping her, and the rats break in and eat them both.

I recall generally enjoying Herbert’s novels as a teenager, but always feeling there was something a little cold about them in comparison to the likes of Stephen King. Almost two decades later, I can now put some words to those feelings. I think Herbert is purely a career writer, uninterested in creating art, just looking to earn a wage. I think he has an idea about what he thinks his target audience wants, and he simply aims to fill the gap. That’s why most of the books I’ve read by him have a typical and unnecessary sex scene. That’s why there’s so much gratuitous violence and gore. That’s why the characters are like puppets moved along a stage. Herbert’s books are product rather than art.

My frustration with this book boils down to this: I’m not as easy to please as I was when I was a teenager. Well, now that I’ve read the book that I always regretted not reading, I can finally put the ghost of James Herbert to rest.