Mother says there are rats in the rockery.
‘You’ll have to do something about them,’ she says, ‘or they’ll over-run the whole place.’
Ratman’s Notebooks was published in 1968 and was one of only four books that Stephen Gilbert wrote before he stopped writing altogether. The fact that it is still in print is probably due to the fact that it was the basis for the successful horror film Willard, which appeared in 1971 starring Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine and again in 2003 starring Crispin Glover. Whether it paved the way for other writers such as Stephen King and James Herbert to venture into the realm of rampaging animal horror, as Kim Newmann in his introduction suggests, is both unlikely and highly plausible at the same time.
Ratman’s Notebooks is a novel in the form of journal entries, starting when the unnamed narrator – or Ratman – is sent by his domineering mother to get rid of a rat infestation in the garden of their disintegrating house. Ratman is an alienated and lonely man – bullied both at home by his mother and at work by his boss, Mr Jones, who has taken over the business once owned by Ratman’s father. Instead of killing the rats, he develops an unnerving relationship with them. He feeds them and trains them to perform simple tasks. As his mental state deteriorates, he comes up with the idea of using his little army of rats to get revenge on Mr Jones through a series of petty disturbances. But it soon becomes apparent that these minor attacks on the man he hates aren’t satisfying enough and as his financial situation deteriorates, his campaign soon escalates to robbery and murder.
I…flung open the two doors of the car nearest the pavement. ‘Out!’ I ordered. Rats came pouring out. I could see them by the inside light of the car. They were like a brown river. They made a soft continuous thudding, a sort of murmur, as they jumped down on to the pavement. ‘Stop!’ I said. They stopped. I had enough rats by this time – two-fifty, three hundred.
You won’t need to be a musophobe to be creeped out by Ratman’s Notebooks. As the narrator’s relationship with his gang of rats deepens, his relationships in the outside world deteriorate. His difficult financial situation and his regular humiliations at work mean that he garners all his self-worth from his rats and what he sees as their deification of him. A kind of inverse anthropomorphism takes place and as the rats become more human to the narrator, he becomes more rat-like in his behaviour. He becomes unnaturally attached to one rat, Socrates, while becomes increasingly scared of another rat whom he calls Ben. The story builds well, hinting at Ratman’s misanthropy and shame, all the while painting a picture of a very damaged man. As Ratman’s campaign against those who have wronged him escalates, Gilbert still allows him some humanity, showing a man pushed to the limit by his own failings and by outside forces he cannot control.
Northern Ireland hasn’t produced a great deal of horror writers and Ratman’s Notebooks doesn’t feel like horror in the true sense of the word – although if you have a fear of rats, you will most definitely disagree! Instead, Gilbert uses the tropes of the genre, to create a fascinating exploration of a mind in free-fall, with echoes of works such as The Wasp Factory or The Butcher Boy.
About the Author
Stephen Gilbert was born in County Down, Northern Ireland and was educated in England and Scotland before leaving school without passing any exams. He returned to Belfast, where he worked briefly as a journalist before joining his father’s tea and seed business. In 1931, just before his nineteenth birthday, Gilbert met novelist Forrest Reid, by that time in his mid-fifties. Reid’s numerous novels reflect his lifelong fascination with teenage boys, and he was quickly drawn to Gilbert; the two commenced a sometimes turbulent friendship that lasted until Reid’s death in 1947. Reid acted as mentor to Gilbert, who had literary aspirations, and ultimately depicted an idealized version of their relationship in the novel Brian Westby (1934).
Gilbert’s first novel, The Landslide (1943), a fantasy involving prehistoric creatures which appear in a remote part of Ireland after being uncovered by a landslide, appeared to generally positive reviews and was dedicated to Reid. A realistic novel, Bombardier (1944), followed, based on Gilbert’s experiences in the Second World War. Gilbert’s third novel, Monkeyface (1948), concerns what seems to be an ape, called “Bimbo,” discovered in South America and brought back to Belfast, where it learns to talk. The Burnaby Experiments appeared in 1952, five years after Reid’s death, and is a thinly disguised portrayal of their relationship from Gilbert’s point of view and a belated response to Brian Westby. His final novel, Ratman’s Notebooks (1968) would become his most famous, being twice filmed as Willard (1971; 2003).
Gilbert married his wife Kathleen Stevenson in 1945; the two had four children, and Gilbert devoted most of his time from the 1950s onward to family life and his seed business. He died in Northern Ireland in 2010 at age 97.
Stephen Gilbert’s Obituary in the Independent
Interesting reviews here of both the book Ratman’s Notebooks and the two film adaptations.
Details of the Stephen Gilbert Archive, which is held at Queen’s University, Belfast.
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