Toward the end of the main course, Tony looked behind me and said, "Oh, look. There's a large rat in the corner." I did not look. I also did not care to be nibbled by an Asian rat. With as much subtlety as I could muster, I raised my legs and eased them onto the seat of an empty chair at our table. The conversation continued Tony eloquent, me distracted until, over desert, he glanced beyond me again. "The rat?" I asked apprehensively. "No," Tony said brightly. "His bigger brother."
I hate rats. I say that easily, and have said it for decades, as millions would, without much reflection. I hold many maverick opinions, but in this one I have confidence that the world agrees with me. Hatred is an apparently natural human reaction to these creeping, creepy vermin.
Why? Why the gonadal clutch at the sight of a rat? Perhaps because rats spread disease, poison food, inflict harm. Perhaps it is the rat's ugly disposition, his relentlessness, his avidity to devour anything, including his fellows: "were he not a cannibal," William Faulkner wrote in "The Reivers," "he would long since have inherited the earth." Perhaps it is the educated surmise that in large cities the rat population equals or exceeds the human. I have the notion of a subversive, subterranean army, in numbers that can be reduced but never eliminated, with a voracious appetite matched by their cunning, liable to strike at any time and for no reason. Rats are nature's tiny terrorists.
And they give me the willies. Always have, since as a kid I read Henry Kuttner's short story, "The Graveyard Rats," and perused Hans Zinsser's quirky study of the Black Plague, "Rats, Lice and History" (I concentrated on the rat chapters). Still do. I shudder at the memory of rat visions I never experienced but only heard about: like my wife's visit in the 70s to an exterminator's shop in Les Halles, with the largest rats hung in the window as mink stoles might be at a furrier's; or our friend Davie Lerner's tale of lifting the lid of his basement toilet and finding a rat attempting to scale the porcelain sides.
Nor can I forget the story told by a one-time acquaintance who in the late 60s had been the assistant manager of Broadway's De Mille Theatre, where a nest of rats lurked. One afternoon, he recalled with much amusement, he led a birthday contingent of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' children and their friends to the theater's most rodent-infested section...
Rats in films have a special immediacy for me. I wonder if they are crawling through the movie house as well as on-screen. (Why did William Castle, the old entrepreneur of many in-theater shock gimmicks, never make a rat movie and let some of his critters loose in the Bijou?) When the feral crap-classic "Willard" came out in 1971, I was obliged to review it, but the sight of those rampaging rodents, even as they devoured Ernest Borgnine's hairy carcass, stoked now-and-then nightmares.
I confess there's nothing logical about my fear and loathing of the world's Bens and Templetons. I have never been directly menaced by a rat never found one staring at me on my pillow as I awoke, or leaping out of a trash can as I opened it, or marshaling his brethren into a teeming back-alley street gang. I also know that whatever their shock value, I'm bigger; they can't step on me. ("You ever wonder how it would be," a character in Stephen King's "Graveyard Shift" muses, "if we was little and they were big ") I know too that they are as likely to scurry away from me as I am to freeze at their sight.
That is, I think I know. I am reminded of the conversation of two policeman in "Ben," the 1972 sequel to the original "Willard," as they approach a house full of malevolent rats. "Give them a chance and they'll always run away from you," one cop says complacently, and the other replies, "I know that, and you know that, but do they know that?"
All of which makes a delicious ordeal of my current assignment: to connect my abhorrence of rats with some comments on the new remake of "Willard." I offer this column to you, dear reader, as a microcosm of horror, and a diversion from the greater atrocity unfolding on your TV screens this week.
Our prime text is "The Rat: A Perverse Miscellany," written and designed by Barbara Hodgson, and recommended unreservedly to ratophobes and ratophiles alike. (Are there rat lovers? Oh, yes. Check the websites. One of them has a photo of a rat suckling at a woman's breast. And may I say, for all of us, "Jeeesh!"?)
In Hodgson's handsome paperback handsome, that is, to those who don't mind hundreds of rodents pictured around the margins of the text you will find rat facts and myths from around the world. You will visit the Jain temple at Deshnoke, its floor carpeted with rats revered by the locals, and Alberta, Canada, which prides itself on being the world's only rat-free province. (Did Tom Green never try infesting the place?) You will learn of such extermination devices as the Ratapault: "heaves its victims as far as 15 metres into a waiting bucket."
Ratteurateurs will rejoice in Hodgson's compendium of rat lit, from the 20th century masters such as Lawrence Durrell, Georges Bataille, Gunter Grass, H.P. Lovecraft (whose "The Rats in the Walls" is the finest depiction I know of rat-anxiety) and Jerzy Kosinski (whose "The Painted Bird" includes an especially gruesome devouring by rats) back to the earliest English use of the word "No-one can rest, with rats out at night" in William Langland's "Piers Plowman." The year was 1378.
Two years earlier (July 22, 1376, the legend goes), in a town near Hanover, Germany, the millennium's most famous rat story was hatched. Hamelin was overrun by a nuisance of pestilential proportions. Robert Browning would later describe the situation in inspired doggerel, suitable for consumption by (and scaring of) children:
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats....
?Anything like the sound of a rat
Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!'
Like Heaven's surrogate, a stranger appears in their midst, to promise the miserly burghers to rid the town of rats for 1000 guilders. The Mayor and the Corporation agree, or say they do. The Pied Piper is as good as he word: he plays a few shrill notes, and every rat dives suicidally into the River Weser. Finally, though, the Browning version of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is a fable not of rats' evil but of man's venality. The Mayor refuses to pay the Piper. And the Verminator, like Pan or Peter Pan, leads the town's children away from their irresponsible parents into a mountain, gone forever.