It’s been quite awhile since I last posted a short story here. This particular one is likely to be the opening story of a ‘Rat’ themed collection of such stories I’m planning to publish later in the year; only a first draft so still lots of tweaks to do before publication.
Now I must say, horror wouldn’t normally be my first port of call when it comes to writing. Why then a collection of blood and gore filled rodent horror stories? Well, though not normally a fan of the horror genre I still remember just how impressed and fascinated I was when I first read James Herbert’s Rats trilogy; for me that was horror in its purest form – no demons or recanting spells on some altar in the woods at midnight, but real flesh and blood creatures.
I would say 99% of the population have an irrational but inbuilt revulsion of rats despite most of us rarely being more than a few a hundred feet or so from the nearest one no matter how out of sight we think they might be so what better theme for the budding horror writer?
Now to write a full length rat themed novel, I just don’t think it’s possible to improve on James Herbert’s original format and nor would I want to try, but short stories, that’s a different matter – the short story genre allows the writer to explore any number of ideas while still sticking to a central theme if they want, which is precisely what I’m planning to do in my upcoming collection … I hope you enjoy this initial ‘taster’ …
Dark Eyes …
“Bloody rats!” Jack roared, partly in anger but mostly from a mixture of fear and loathing of the vile vermin, mesmerised almost as one the size of a small cat scurried across his path. Several more darted about in all directions, almost tripping him up in the process before making their escape through the half-open barn door. But the sheer number of them though, perhaps he should be the one making his escape, Jack thought, watching one lone rat turn and just for a moment, stop and look up at him before turning again to run and join his many brothers and sisters. Jack would later swear he could see hate-filled pure evil in those darkened eyes, but for now, his only concern was for his family and the farm.
He’d tried all the usual rodent poisons, legal or otherwise. Sarah, Jack’s wife hadn’t been too happy with the ‘otherwise.’ Being brought up in a town she still had many of the townsfolk views towards animals and nature, that they and it were all just lovely – David Attenborough and the BBC had a lot to answer for!
Jack loved her to bits but had to bite his tongue knowing she still held the belief that those tasty eggs and rashers of bacon they wolfed down most mornings were made and packaged in a supermarket warehouse with not a single animal playing their part in the process.
It was no surprise to Jack when she insisted there must be more humane ways of dealing with their local rat problem, ones that didn’t include poisoning, gas, or any other solution she saw as the farmer’s equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. In the end of course, Sarah’s objections had been irrelevant given that nothing had worked; either the rats were getting smarter or they were becoming immune to the common over-used over the counter remedies, much like bacteria had become resistant to the over-use of antibiotics. Media reports of mutant strains of giant super rats had been around for years, but the more sensible explanations for such reports didn’t sell newspapers anywhere near as effectively, hence the former becoming the more firmly fixed in the public’s mind.
Jack’s own efforts trying to kill them in sufficiently large numbers had so far proved useless. It was time to try something different; he remembered having read somewhere that rats were cannibals, or at least prone to it sometimes for reasons he didn’t remember. It was that single memory that had given him the idea: what if he could use that otherwise repugnant trait to reduce the excess number of rats with a few really ravenous cannibalistic ones? Letting the little bastards reduce their own numbers held a certain appeal to him. First though he would have to capture a few, well, about a dozen or so in fact.
Like before when he had tried laying poisoned bait for them, ineffectively as it turned out, he left more of the same only this time instead laced with ground-up sleeping pills … Nothing poisonous or fatal or owt that Sarah could reasonably object to, just something he hoped would knock them out long enough to carry out the next phase of his plan. Sure enough the following morning, that part of Jack’s plan had worked – there lying scattered about the barn were about twenty sleeping rats, eight of which he immediately finished off with a pitchfork. The remaining twelve he strung up upside down by their tails from one of the rafters, carefully spaced so that each rat was just within swinging distance of the next. After a few hours they started to regain consciousness. At first they just frantically jerked and swung from side to side, probably due to a combination of fear, confusion, and indeed anger at their mistreatment, and with rats relying mostly on their tails for their sense of balance, being strung up like that would certainly have led to panic and disorientation.
As the hours and then days passed, that anger and panic became something quite different, an almost frenzied need for food and water. With no other source of nourishment to hand it soon became a matter of dog eat dog, or rather ‘rat eat rat’ in this case – they had no choice but to feed in the only way fate had left them.
Feeding off one’s own kind was nothing unique either in history or to the poor creatures Jack had hanging from the rafters. Rats had often eaten one another to survive but when it occurred naturally it would usually be the old and weak after dying a natural death, and even then only as nature’s way of combating famine or over-crowding.
Three days later just four of the original twelve remained alive, only the strongest and most vicious having survived by swinging and clawing away at the living and then lifeless mutilated bodies of the weaker adjacent ones …
Despite their now thinner and wretched state, Jack was more than a little afraid as he approached them. It was a sight he hoped never to see again yet felt powerless to turn away from, watching the four remaining live ones hiss and spit the closer he got. One was bigger than the other three by quite a margin, and judging from the way it was still thrashing about, much stronger too … then he realised … It was the same one that had looked up at him, the one with the dark hate-filled eyes. Jack shuddered. They knew he was the one responsible for what had been done to them and it was his blood and flesh they could now smell, had a taste for … if fear really did have an odour Jack knew he must have absolutely reeked of it.
He thought for a moment. His gut feeling was it might be best to abandon the scheme, to put the wretched creatures out of their misery there and then … a few whacks with a shovel at their weakened bodies and that would be it. But apart from removing the hissing hate-filled ones in front of him what would that solve? He’d still be left with the original problem, of what to do about the others, the ones still out there?
Jack wanted – no – had to be rid of them if his farm was to survive, he decided, resolving to stick to the original plan. He had to close his eyes first, long enough to break the rats’ hold on his gaze, enabling him to look away before shuffling through the hay to open the barn door in readiness for their escape. On the way back he grabbed hold of a field-scythe.
Standing several feet back from their still hanging bodies he took a lunging swing at the thin wires hanging from the rafters and from which all the rats were still suspended, four of them still hissing and spitting their hatred for their human tormentor – to the rats or anyone who might have been watching, Jack would have cut an impressive image as the grim reaper at that moment.
Each of them fell to the floor with a thud the instant the razor sharp edge of the scythe sliced the space between the rafters and the ends from which the rats’ tails were tied, their impacts cushioned by the hay strewn about the barn. Jack edged back a little, watching them from a dozen or so feet away. He’d expected the live ones to immediately make a lightning dash for the open barn door. They didn’t. Instead, they turned their attention to the bodies of their lifeless companions, immediately embarking on a further feeding frenzy – all except Dark Eyes that was – his attention was clearly focused on Jack, practically standing on its hind legs, watching, defiantly daring him to approach. Jack instinctively strengthened his grip on the wooden length of the scythe, not taking his gaze from Dark Eyes’ direction for fear of attack.
Yes, Jack was afraid. He didn’t know why but he absolutely knew in that one single moment his plan had gone horribly wrong … having had to claw, bite, and slash at the living moving flesh of their siblings, having to watch and listen to their pitiful cries and struggles … it had changed them, turned them into something horribly different.
Jack knew he’d unleashed something in their nature of which nothing good could come out of.
Within a few weeks there were definitely a lot fewer rats about the farm as evidenced by the noticeably visible reduction in rat droppings and simply not seeing or hearing much of them. To Jack and Sarah it was becoming a case of out of sight, out of mind, and so Jack had largely forgotten the momentary horror he’d felt when allowing Dark Eyes and his companions to run from the barn. In fact he felt quietly pleased with himself, pleased that his original plan was obviously working, honestly believing the overwhelming fear he’d experienced was a brief irrational moment brought on by the surreal sight of the rats tearing and feeding on the torn flesh of their dead companions.
For most people, such a sight would have been etched in the mind forever. Not for Jack though, he was a farmer and well used to witnessing nature’s brutal cruelty, undeceived by the picture postcard image of tranquillity nature usually showed the town-dwelling tourists.
It was just as well Jack was used to such things for it was a sight he’d be reminded of time and time again over the coming months …
Much of the county had enjoyed quite a respite from their rat problem, best part of three months now but for Jack and his immediate neighbours there were signs of its return. Rat droppings around the farm were back to and even higher than their previous levels before the barn incident. The occasional sight of a lone rat darting across a yard had increased to several sightings a day of three or four at a time.
Sarah was again complaining of seeing even more of them scurrying about now – but not like before, they were no longer immediately running for the nearest bolt hole at the sight of a human or one of the dogs. In the coming weeks their numbers continued to increase to the point where they were confident enough in their greater numbers not to run or scurry away at all, slowing their agile stealth to more of an arrogant stroll. Most disturbing though was the sheer variety of rats, all mixing and seemingly friendly, the larger brown rats and the smaller black variety, and every shade of colour in-between roaming together in huge packs, only separating when their respective skills and different instincts made it an advantage to do so.
More of the livestock were being attacked and exhibiting rat bites to their extremities, and worse, their attackers were showing less and less fear of their human predators.
At first Jack tried to rationalise it as blip, some unexplained spike in the rats’ breeding cycle and activities – that’s what his neighbours thought, though in their case they truly believed that, why shouldn’t they? Jack on the other hand, he could easily have answered that last question, he just didn’t want to, didn’t want to admit to himself and especially not to his neighbours that he was probably responsible, not only for the ‘blip’ but for something worse to come … much worse.
With his wife and two young children still on the farm despite his urging them to go and stay with relatives in the city, Jack was at his wits’ end. Not even various industrial strength poisons had had the slightest success in stemming the growing rat problem – he’d long since abandoned any pretence of trying to deal with them humanely as his wife had wanted – it was no longer his fear of the worst case scenario being Sarah or one of the kids suffering a single rat bite, the sort of minor incident that were it a nip from an urban fox on the streets of London, would be making headline news, his worries had escalated to fearing for their very lives; already his worst fears from that morning in the barn were coming true – several neighbouring farms were reporting seeing large packs of the vile rodents swarming across their land, and more recently, garbled stories of large-scale attacks on livestock just like the ones on his own animals. Initially, Jack had tried to dismiss them as nothing more than the cider-fuelled wild ramblings of a lot of old codgers …
“I tell ya’s all again,” the grizzled old farmer Pete Myers was saying from his usual place at the bar in the village pub, “they’re getting out of control and sommat’s got t’be done I tell ya.”
A few of the other local farmers were listening intently, rolling their eyes and nodding their agreement while Old Pete retold the story of his mutilated half-eaten sheep:
“Was like nothing I ever saw I tell ya, torn t’shreds it was but not like how you’d expect it t’look if some dog’d done it. No, it was bloodied all over, like a thousand little claws and teeth had been scratching and biting away at it over a long time … and then there were all them rat droppings around it. What more proof d’yer need than that I ask ya?”
Jack had listened as closely as the others to Old Pete’s gory ramblings, still hoping things weren’t as bad as the old boy was making out. He was far from convinced though so chose not to add his own thoughts to the discussion. Jack knew that if he admitted his own secret fears and told them about Dark Eyes and what he’d done it would put him right at the centre of the problem, no doubt making him the scapegoat for every subsequent attack – and since the majority of the nearby farmers owned at least one variety of shotgun the last thing he needed was having to deal with his neighbours’ hostility.
Jack didn’t have to wait long before he was again reminded of the urgency and very real danger he’d put his family in. The very next day, Jack was just finishing his midday meal back at the farmhouse when he heard a knock at the door:
“Come on in, Jack’s in the kitchen having a bite to eat.” Sarah told Bill, their postman, “go right through.”
“Hello Jack. Is there somewhere we can speak … privately like? Bill asked, lowering his voice so’s not to be overheard by Sarah who was pottering about outside.
“Sure. Come through to the sitting room.”
“I found your dog, Rufus, just off the roadside on my way back to the village, just beyond that far-side field of yours the other side of the stream.”
“Found him? What do you mean, is he hurt or … ?”
“He’s dead, Jack. I can’t describe it but it’s another attack, like the one Old Pete was raving on about in the pub last night … I didn’t have anything I could carry him in, and really, you need to come and see for yourself.”
Bill hadn’t exaggerated, Rufus had been attacked aright. Viciously. Little was left of the Bull-Terrier cross’s body apart from some skin and fur hanging off the skeleton. Other than that most of the flesh and innards had been ripped out and stripped to the bone.
It did look as if Rufus had put up one hell of a fight though, Jack thought judging from the twenty or so bodies of torn and battered dead rats scattered within a few feet of where Bill had found Rufus, not that that surprised him, terriers of all sorts had been specially bred as vermin hunters the past couple of hundred years.
Were it not for everything that was going on and the usual rat droppings near what little was left of Rufus’s body Jack would have wondered what could have done such a thing, to have literally torn a strong healthy dog to shreds and either eaten or carried away most of the carcass. But Jack knew already, knew exactly what it was, what had done this.
It had been his intention to quietly bury the dog away from the farm somewhere, and not tell Sarah about Rufus at all. Instead, he brought him back, and once the kids were safely tucked up in bed, threw the mutilated remains across the kitchen table for her to see – perhaps now she would also see sense and take herself and the kids to her sisters as he’d pleaded weeks ago.
In the brief time Sarah was able to stand the sight of the remains of Rufus’s body, she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the kitchen floor.
“Do you see now, Sarah? That’s what I’m talking about. You have to take the kids away -before something worse happens!” Jack screamed at her …
“Or would you prefer to wait until it’s John or Lizzie lying there instead of Rufus?” He added just to emphasise the point.
She packed the things they’d need that very night …
Many of the local farmers were seriously considering selling up to any of the multi-national commercial farms, a couple already had, and more ‘For Sale’ signs were springing up every day. Jack had already decided he’d be adding his own farm to the list no matter how much of a loss he had to swallow in the process just as soon as the estate agents opened again on the Monday after the weekend.
That Monday never came for Jack. Despite his decision to sell up, in his anger and frustration, no doubt amplified by the half bottle of Scotch he’d downed, Jack had started blasting away at any and every rat he saw.
A shotgun is hardly the most practical weapon for killing rats but the ones he hit were blown into a thousand bits, sending their flesh and blood in as many directions.
Dark Eyes himself had nearly fallen victim to the drunken Jack’s alcohol-fuelled rage when one random shot shattered a window frame of one of the out-buildings in which many rats had taken refuge from the harsh weather.
Large splinters of shattered glass and wood had been sent flying, several of which had lodged in many of the rat’s bodies, killing some and injuring several more.
Dark Eyes and all the rats reverted to their natural behaviours, running to whatever hiding places they could find, anywhere away from the blast range of Jack’s shotgun. If Jack had been thinking clearly at the time he would have realised it was his one opportunity to escape the farm while the rats were still in a state of shock and panic from being shot at. Instead, he chose to lock himself inside to sleep off his drunken stupor.
Jack awoke with the hangover from hell. He vaguely remembered having blasted away at some of the out-buildings where he knew more of the rats had taken up residence. He was aware the neighbouring farms were having problems of their own but he was anxious to know if any of them had suffered quite the same levels of attack. Perhaps they needed to pool their resources to fight them, even if it meant admitting his own role in creating the current situation? Yes, time to come clean he decided …
It looked as though Jack’s new-found honesty had come too late – the land-line had gone dead and with that the internet too. He tried his mobile, desperate to contact someone, anyone who might help, but the bad weather was still interfering with reception.
There had been no TV bulletins of farms being attacked but he guessed such reports would take time to filter through to the local news networks; perhaps the radio might have received some calls, maybe from someone whose land-line or mobile was still working. He hurried to the kitchen where the Roberts Rambler radio had pride of place on one of the worktops. He was grateful now he’d not given in to Sarah’s urging to replace it with a newer DAB model with all the internet radio channels on it, a fat lot of use they’d be now he thought.
He fiddled with the tuner to position the radio station slider to a frequency where he knew one of the local radio stations broadcast from … and to his surprise, and horror, they had received calls, lots of them …
“… drivers on the B237 have reported having to slow down or even swerve to avoid large swarms of rats … yes, that’s right, that’s the word people are using to describe their numbers… so far there’s been no reports of any accidents as such but the Highways Authority have said they’ll despatch patrols to the area to look into it …”
Swarming across fields was enough of a worry but for the rats to have the numbers and confidence to be openly crossing major roads, that was bad. So far their spread and hence the number of attacks had partly been contained within the boundaries of a few major roads and fast flowing streams though that still provided a damned large area and number of potential targets for their attacks. Such was the swiftness of their spread across the local area no one had yet spotted the attacks had originated and seemed to radiate out from Jack’s farm, partly due to Jack having kept mostly quiet about his own troubles, reporting just enough to be consistent with the experiences of the immediate neighbours. All that was irrelevant though, the battle for his farm had been lost, it was just a question if he could win the battle for his life now.
Jack gazed out of one of the living room windows, assessing whether he could make a run for it. Not a chance, he realised, hundreds, maybe thousands of the little bastards had swamped the farm, like a guerilla army abandoning its hit and run tactics to attack openly
Ideally it would have been best for Jack to jump in his Land Rover and drive as quickly and far away as possible. It was a tempting idea and he would have done too – it was in clear sight, tantalisingly close not more than twenty yards away out in the yard – perhaps if he donned his wellington boots, put on several thick layers of clothing, and ran to the car at full pelt he might just have been able to get to it and drive off without being dragged to the ground or too many of the little buggers entering the car with him. But no, he could see they had already used their razor-like teeth and claws to shred the heavy duty off road tyres into so many scraps of rubber, leaving the metal rims of the wheels supporting the three-tonne vehicle digging firmly into the soft ground.
Seeing his only possible means of escape completely sabotaged he knew he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
They were all around now, biting, scratching, clawing at every barricade designed to keep them out, and not just from the outside … He could hear them under the floorboards in those few parts of the house where wood and other more modern building methods and materials had been used instead of the more traditional stone for the area.
Jack was sure they were following his every move and footstep, inside the partitioned walls of the interior of the stone built farmhouse, and the cellars too had already fallen to their onslaught, now filled with dozens, if not hundreds of them – perhaps thousands more were waiting in reserve in the surrounding countryside for all Jack knew, unable not to imagine every worst case scenario his mind could conjure.
Listening to the sound of the rats in the basement and foundations getting louder and louder, it would have been natural for Jack to take refuge upstairs in a desperate attempt to put some distance between himself and the noise of the onslaught below but those same scratching noises that filled the air downstairs could also be heard above; a violent thunder storm had been raging for the past hour, pelting the farmhouse with heavy rain, driving ever more rats to seek refuge inside the farm buildings, including the farmhouse in which Jack was now trapped, a prisoner in his own home.
The sound of the rain hitting the roof had effectively masked the noise of their activities but the smaller black rats, or roof rats as they were often called, had returned and made themselves a cosy home in the roof and attic area immediately above. Most of them had disappeared from the main living areas following their temporary reduction in numbers a few months back. That had been a real bonus, especially for Sarah who despite a more tolerant attitude was still loath to sharing a home with them. But now they were back, having multiplied at least ten-fold since the beginning of the storm, way more than had ever lived there before Jack’s unfortunate idea to try setting the rats against each other, with more and more climbing into the attic and roof spaces with each passing minute now.
The slightly larger brown rats, of which Dark Eyes was a particularly vile and gruesome prime specimen, were natural burrowers, easily digging their way beneath and into the foundations of most buildings, particularly rural farms like Jack’s, and were making frightening progress. Had it not been for most of the main body of the farmhouse being built of stone, the rats would almost certainly have broken through the weaker parts of the farmhouse defenses and barricades
He was thankful that at least Sarah and the kids were now far away in the city. It was ironic thinking that they were safer there amid all the inner city crime and violence that drove most people to leave the cities in favour of the perceived safety and tranquillity of the countryside. Right now he would gladly have swapped his current situation for something as relatively normal and mundane as the drugs and gun swamped streets of a London or Los Angeles.
The electric lights flickered and then went out. It was still early evening but being February the daylight was already fading, and with the thick storm clouds overhead, Jack knew he’d soon be in near darkness. He hoped, prayed even that it was nothing more than some domestic miniature circuit breaker tripping despite knowing how unlikely that was having had the family quarters of the farm completely rewired recently. It was an irrelevancy though, the fuse box was located in the basement, deep in the heart of what was very much enemy territory now. All he could do was wait for the inevitable …
From those first initial litters, the new Dark Eyed strain quickly dominated their less aggressive cousins, feeding off the flesh of the weaker ones while infecting the rest with their own flesh cravings. Any sign of inter-species rivalry and fighting among the many different types of rat had gone; they were almost hive-like in their unity, and it would only be a matter of months before every new littler would have a preference for flesh – alive or dead – rather than scavenging among the discarded left-overs of the human two-legs.
That would have suited Jack just fine had it only been rat flesh they craved like the ones in the barn but he had miscalculated – this new strain was different. It wasn’t each other’s flesh these rats craved, it was the flesh of completely different species altogether, particularly the soft succulent type to be found on the two-legs, the ones reeking of fear with neither claws, teeth or talons to defend themselves.
The Dark Eyed ones would only feed on other rats that didn’t share their same appetites for human and other species’ flesh, and with each new litter, the dominance of the flesh-hungry Dark Eyes was spreading exponentially … Jack’s and the neighbouring farms and villages would be just the beginning …
No sooner had the first one managed to gnaw through one of the small areas of floorboards and the heavy wooden planks Jack had nailed down over them he knew it was over, that they’d soon be swarming through whatever little opening they could find.
Already some were coming through the toilet bowl upstairs having swum through the sewers, and even as he watched those first few appearing up through the floor, more were now literally dropping down threw holes they had gnawed through the upstairs flooring and soft plasterboard ceilings. Within minutes hundreds more were dragging him to the floor. He made a token effort to fight them off but he knew it to be in vain. Surprisingly though once he was down they paused in their biting and attack. He lay there motionless, that his until he saw Dark Eyes crawl up onto his chest. Not so surprisingly it was then that he lost control of his bowels and bladder. The rats barely seemed to notice.
Dark Eyes wasn’t inclined to showing the two-legs mercy, remembering what it had done to them in the barn, forcing him and his siblings to tear the flesh from each other in order to eat and live – he wasn’t to know they had Jack to thank for their newly developed hunger and success, that without Jack’s cruel and nasty little plan for decimating their numbers the new aggressive strain of flesh-eaters might never have risen to ascendency, not that it would made a difference; the two-legs were as repulsive and alien to Dark Eyes as he and all his kind were to all the two-legged hairless ones, creatures that apart from their larger size looked like the pink and wrinkly hairless newborns of his kind, weak and helpless till the emergence of their first infant teeth and claws. He looked again into the two-legs’ eyes. Jack looked back only this time he was the one having to look up. Dark Eyes was again standing on its hind legs from his position on Jack’s bloodied chest. There was a time when Dark Eyes’ instinct would have compelled him to strike immediately at his now helpless prey but Dark Eyes was intelligent, more so than most others of his kind. He took a moment to savour his imminent revenge on the human tormentor, knowing this was to be the first of many such victories over the hated two-legs. With a twitch of his tail, it was the sign to Dark Eyes’ rat soldier army to resume their feast of the-legs flesh. It was fortunate Jack was the only human on the farm, the scream that briefly escaped his mouth before a thousand rat bites tore the flesh from his throat was a sound no human being would ever be able to forget
A month later, Dark Eyes looked up from his position in the drain beside the abandoned farmhouse, his attention caught by the sight and smell of the bare skin of all the new humans going about their business. Many two-legs in their moving metal boxes had turned up for reasons beyond the rat’s understanding.
A local state of emergency had been declared and the army called in. But Dark Eyes welcomed their arrival. The warm blood and soft tender flesh of the many new two-legs would nourish all the new and future little ones in the days, months, and indeed years to come …