The Hamelin Plague

The Hamelin Plague by A. Bertram ChandlerThe Hamelin Plague
Monarch Books, 1963
Price I paid: 75¢

It began with a few small items in the newspapersdead dogs and cats, a mutilated child, a series of unexplained fires. Then, suddenly, it exploded into a full-sized catastrophe.

Huge mutants—half rat, half man—began to take over the world, stealing children for slaves and destroying whole cities and their populations.

Only a few people escaped, among them Tim Barrett, his wife, Jane, and a handful of survivors. Alone on the high seas in a small ship, they set off to find the island where Dr. Theodore Piper had been experimenting with a sonic death ray.

They knew Dr. Piper was their only hope for personal and world survivalif he was still alive…if the King Rats hadn’t forced him to serve their evil purpose…and if he could find a way to stop the spreading horror of invasion.

This book will go down as one that was far better than it had any right to be. I mean, what kind of a plot is it where giant rats get smart and start killing people? At first glance, it’s ridiculous and silly. It remains so at second and third glances. At no point before reading this book did I ever go “Hmm, this seems like an interesting premise.”

Plenty of the books I’ve read have ended up with reviews that, summed up, say “Good premise, poorly executed.” I think that The Hamelin Plague could be the first to earn the review of “Stupid premise, well executed.” Consider me surprised.

Not that it was perfect, mind you. But it was better than I’d anticipated.

This book actually reminded me of Doomsday Wing, which would not normally be a good thing. In a way it was like somebody had taken that former book and rewritten it to be less terrible but keeping some of the elements that were, at best, harmless.

Both books feature military-esque men as protagonists. The Hamelin Plague‘s Tim Barrett isn’t full-on military like the guy from Doomsday Wing, but he’s pretty close. He’s a merchant shipman, I think the third officer. It’s not a bad life. The pay’s good, he gets a lot of fresh air, and his wife hates him.

And here we have the other element of commonality between these two books, a feature that maybe I’m just reading too much into? This make two books with British authors to feature protagonists whose duties carry them far from home for extended periods and have wife troubles. Is this a thing? Is this a trope I should be aware of? Or is it a coincidence?

Thing is, it’s an interesting device because it makes so much sense. I don’t know for certain since most of my knowledge of the military comes from, well, science fiction novels and a smattering of The History Channel when it’s not UFO Ley Lines of the Third Reich. At any given time, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a platoon and a regiment. But still, it seems like the military is just the sort of thing that would put a lot of stress on a marriage.

In the case of this book, it seems to be a combination of Tim being away for extended periods and some backstory that we’re only given glimpses of. That’s one of the strong points of the novel. We’re not given a bunch of exposition that goes “Okay, let me tell you about the time…” or “As you know, Jane, things just haven’t been the same since we…” There was none of that. All we got was a brief mention, in dialog, that the marriage has been on the rocks since “the baby.” There was no baby in this book. What we got was a broad, and likely tragic, hint. And that’s good writing.

Tim Barrett, like I’ve said, works on a merchant ship. The author, A. Bertram Chandler, has also spent a lot of time on ships. I learned this from the About The Author section as well as the Internet, but I wouldn’t have needed either of those to figure it out for myself. The man knows ships. He can go into great detail about them and use the slang that sailors know and we, the readers, can hope to figure out. I was able to decipher “fo’c’s’le” but I had to look up “bo’s’n.” It’s not often that I get frustrated with a science fiction book for using actual terms that I can’t figure out, as opposed to ones that were just made up on the spot.

At the beginning of the book there are some hints that something is up. Tim is home for a brief visit while his wife doesn’t want to sleep with him and just nags all the time. The time is the present day and civilization is crumbling. There are all sorts of unexplained fires and animals are getting attacked by rats. Sometimes children and old people are getting attacked by rats, too. Rats seem to be on the forefront of everybody’s mind.

At this point in the story it’s just an element in the background that nobody seems to pay any mind. Chandler does a good job of making his characters fairly realistic, and this is an example of that. Bad things are happening, but they aren’t happening at this particular moment in this particular place, so they’re not really an issue.

I should mention that Tim and Jane live in Sydney, Australia. It doesn’t make much of a difference, but I love Australians (except for their draconian censorship laws, “draconian” only in that they’re slightly more strict than in America), so here’s a shout-out.

Tim returns to his ship, the Katana, after after an unfulfilling visit to his wife. This is when all hell starts to break loose. Fires get out of control. Cities are consumed. The world is ending. Tim runs off to find his wife. He navigates the dying city of Sydney just long enough to receive a message from the ship saying that Jane is there looking for him. Relieved, he heads back.

He finds that he’s one of only a few members of the ship to make it back. Everybody else is either dead or stayed behind. They’ve also taken on some new members, such as a retired Royal Navy Admiral named Keane and his niece, Pamela (never Pam). Admiral Keane and Tim butt heads for a while over who is in command of the ship, but they approach a grudging respect after some adventures. Tim and Pamela are attracted to each other, much to the chagrin of Jane, who just huddles up and sleeps all day every day, waking up long enough to berate Tim for abandoning her. She’s a real shrew, but the thing is, she’s actually easier to sympathize with than I expected. We get hints of tragedy that led her down this road, and there actually seems to be some recognition that her further unhappiness is her own fault. Even when it seems that Tim is starting to fall for Pamela, it’s her fault for pushing him away, and I think she recognizes that, even if it was never outright said.

That being established, Tim comes off pretty good in this book for never cheating on his wife. That makes it a much more interesting story. He was tempted, sorely tempted, by someone who was not some kind of outright hussy or evil temptress. Pamela was a good character, and probably a better match for Tim than his wife, but he stayed loyal.

“But what about the rats?” I hear you asking. Well, they’re in the background of the plot for most of the book. This is a “How People React to Armageddon” type novel, so we don’t get to see much of what the rats are doing outside of radio broadcasts and smoke coming off the mainland. Did I mention that they decided the safest course of action is to cast off and see if they can find somewhere that’s not covered in rats? I feel like that was important. Sorry.

Admiral Keane and Pamela remember that there was this guy they both used to know, a professor named Dr. Piper. As in the Pied Piper. Ugh.

This “coincidence” doesn’t go unnoticed or un-commented upon by the characters. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. It’s just about the worst thing in the book, but I tolerated it.

Dr. Piper was working on some sort of death ray. He lives alone on an island and everybody figures that if anybody can save the world from these rats, it’s him and his death ray. I’ve heard dumber arguments, but not often.

We finally meet Dr. Piper and it turns out that his death ray is really more of a Deus Ex Machina device. At first he’s all “It barely works, watch this” and sure enough it doesn’t even kill the rat he’s pointing it at. Then somebody realizes that all the other rats in the lab are going nuts. Somebody else notices that the rats on the island are also going nuts. They’re all heading toward the death ray. Wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that this weapon somehow, and without any reason given, attracts rats rather than killing them. There’s a feeling of despair for, oh, a half a page before somebody realizes that this is what they need.

Somebody mentions “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” because of course, and then there’s the bit where somebody goes “What if that was real!?!”

I hate that literary device. Never use it.

Anyway, I guess it turns out that it was real and the device is a new incarnation of the flute the actual Pied Piper used and so everybody figures if you put the sonic rat attractor on a ship and then turn it on it’ll make all the rats within some distance run into the ocean and drown. Hooray.

I sound like I’m really down on this book but really it’s all coming to me in retrospect. I still quite like it, even if some after-reading-it-logic is kicking in and making me disdainful.

The other thing I’ve not mentioned about this book, a bit that’s important, is why the rats are doing what they’re doing. It’s not just that there are a lot of them and they’re causing chaos. It turns out that there are now smart rats. They look like a monkey mated with a rat—maybe one did—but the thing is they’re really smart and they are able to control all the other rats. It’s never established just how smart they are, but there’s a lot of suggestion that they are telepathically controlling their lesser brethren.

The smart rats are kidnapping human children and using them as slaves. This only comes up in the last, oh, twenty pages of the book. Tim and the folks sail past an island where it seems the rats are using these child slaves for some reason that wasn’t explained. Tim says that it sucks, but there’s really nothing they can do, at which point the women on the ship (uh-oh) get all womanly (yup) and decide to stage a mutiny and save the children. Instinct or something like that. Pamela is the only one unaffected, because the other mutineers tied her up and threw her in a cabin as their first act of mutiny.

This group does include Tim’s wife. Things go badly for them all and Jane is the only survivor once Tim shows up to save the day for real. They and some of the children make it back to the ship. Tim and Jane have a moment where it looks like their relationship might actually be saved, but it’s sort of up in the air, I guess.

The day is saved when they spot another boat. This one is Royal Navy and it also has the remnants of the entire Australian government on board. Tim and Dr. Piper are able to explain how the device works, the Prime Minister and his scientist pals get to work on building a bunch more, and then they all sail off into the sunset.


Like, Tim comments on how trite it is as it happens.

And then the book ends.

I wish there were a reason I could give to you as to why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. It was competently written, for the most part, but that doesn’t explain it. It had a certain style, a voice, a personality, and that’s what gave it its oomph. As far as plot goes it was really bleh, but the characters, the setting, and the situation all came together to make a fully readable and enjoyable whole.

I think it’s a good lesson for all writers and would-be writers. You might struggle and focus on coming up with some plot or idea that’s totally new and original, but if you don’t focus on the fiddly bits enough to make it actually interesting and fun to read, it’s going to be a bomb. You’re much better off writing a totally trite and unoriginal work really well than the other way around. This might be a controversial statement, but this is what I have come to believe after reading lots of books with original premises that fell flat on their faces.

Now, obviously, the goal should be originality and good writing, but if you have to pick one or the other, go with the latter.

Unless you want to be a bestseller, of course. In that case, go for hacky writing and unoriginal plot and then you’ll be in the big money. And that’s great! That’s how the publishers get the money to put out books that want to read, like this one.

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