The novel Ratmen by Steve Ely was published by Blackheath Books in June 2012 but has so far failed to attract the attention it fully deserves. It’s a compelling book and a fascinating study of extremism and seduction. It will get into your bones and make you reassess your feelings about rats. It’s currently my recommended read. Below is my interview with Steve.
The man (and later the boy) in Ratmen has a very hostile view of rats, what’s your opinion of the ‘nail-clawed nemesis’?
I fear and hate them. Although I know they’re ‘just mammals’. Partly this is due to their sinister appearance — greasy fur, scaly tail, orange incisors, beady black eye, bristling whiskers. Partly it’s their demeanour; a strange combination of the furtive and skulking with the brazen, defiant and flaunting — when I had an infestation in my garden (the origin of Ratmen) I’d see them dining in broad daylight under the bird-feeders, sitting up and cleaning their paws, giving me eye contact through the kitchen window — as well as slinking around under bushes and along fences, darting away at the slightest sound or movement. Partly, it is the baggage of supernatural, mythic and folkloric horror rats carry as plague carriers, hovel infesters, food soilers and bone-biters. Mostly, I think, it is atavistic and instinctive — in the way tame meerkats (for example) that have never experienced an eagle will run for cover when they see an eagle’s shadow on the rocks, whilst completely ignoring the shadows of storks and geese, similarly large birds — the fear is somehow hard-wired into them. I once inadvertently ‘tickled’ a brown rat (not a water vole) when feeling for trout under the overhanging earth-bank of a small South Yorkshire stream. The panic I felt in that instant was almost hysterical. I suppose I intuit that humankind is somehow bound to the rat — maybe as rivals for the Earth. On the other hand, rats are just mammals.
Why don’t you give Man and Boy names?
Several reasons. Firstly, they’re up to no good and I didn’t want to rat them out (pun intended). Secondly, I wanted to avoid any form of characterisation that might facilitate ‘familiarity’ on the reader’s part (I also avoided describing their physical appearance as far as possible) in order to maintain a distance that would make absolutely clear the characters’ representative, everyman status. Thirdly, I wanted to focus exclusively on the developing relationship between the two in the context of the theme; that’s how the ‘plot’ develops and how the themes reveal. To make them real people — maverick loners with complex personal lives, extensive jazz collections and a love of single Malt whisky — would detract. It would also bore and provoke me, as it does when I encounter ‘fully rounded’ characters like that. As the book developed in the writing, I also thought the device added to the conspiratorial metaphysical mystique of the book. Ratmen is more a fable or parable than a modern novel. The methods of characterisation used are those used by the authors of the Hebrew Bible — or Elmore Leonard — everything emerges from what the characters say, think and do.
Although it is third-person, it is limited to the boy’s POV. Were you tempted to write it in first-person at any point?
No. That might have seduced me into the whole inner-life of the boy and I’m not primarily interested in that. Third person gives greater authorial freedom — omniscience, I suppose — even if he strives to efface it. First person voice makes characters into tyrants. (I don’t even use first person pronouns much in my poetry.) In Ted Hughes’s introduction to his ferocious translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, he writes that he aimed for ‘a text […] in its plainest, bluntest form [with characters] more primitive than aboriginals […] a spider people, scuttling among hot stones’. Hughes was interested in the ritual possibilities of his work, which was written to be performed by Peter Brook’s experimental theatre. The Man and the Boy needed a little more flesh on their bones than that, but I was never tempted to let the Boy tell the story, in his voice. That would’ve been too holistic. In Ratmen, the author was content to allow the narrator to tell the story from selected and manipulated aspects of the Boy’s point-of-view — because the boy’s point-of-view — that of the seductee, (my tagline for Ratmen is that it is ‘a parable about the seductions of extremism’) — is instrumentally key to the theme and content of the book.
We learn from the man that there are no rats in the Bible. His explanation for this is very interesting. Do you want to expound a bit more about that?
Biologists tell us that black rats originated in tropical Asia and spread around the world along human trade routes. By the 14th century they were probably in the Holy Land. They arrived in England in 1349, at Melcombe Regis (Weymouth) bringing the Black Death. They were the only rat in Britain until the mid-eighteenth century, when the bigger and more aggressive brown rat arrived. The brown rat was originally a central Asiatic species and like many steppe creatures, is irruptive — they migrate en masse when population pressure becomes intense. There are eighteenth century reports from Russia of armies of rats heading west, swimming rivers. Brown rats too travelled around the world via ships and trade routes. Their arrival in Britain coincided with the three century cold snap (very roughly 1600-1900) that saw ice fairs on the Thames and which all but killed off the tropical black rat, reducing it to a few warehouses in port cities. The brown rat was used to the cold and simply took over. Larger and more aggressive, it almost contributed to the black rat’s demise by forcing it out.
Getting back to the question … I’m certain that there are no rats in the Bible (the word sometimes mistranslated as ‘rat’ is akbar — ‘mouse’). This is almost certainly because there were no rats in the Middle East at the time the Bible was written. The Man sees conspiracy in this. The black rat arrives on the scene (from tropical east Asia? From space? Via the agency of some occult hand? From nowhere?) bringing plague — a deliberate attempt to wipe out the human race. When cold threatens to kill the black rat in Europe — behold, a second front is opened by means of the cold-resistant, bigger, more powerful, more aggressive brown rat — which is just as effective as a plague carrier and more devastating as a spoiler and devourer. Rattus norvegicus is theV2 of the rat arms race.
A rat dies from warfarin by bleeding from its internal organs. The man believes that ebola is ‘rat revenge’. How so?
Warfarin is the most widely used rat poison. It works by thinning the blood (warfarin is also used with human heart patients with hardened arteries and similar problems, to aid circulation) to such an extent that the rat begins to bleed internally, producing symptoms akin to drunkenness (the last warfarin-poisoned rat of my own infestation staggered out from under the shed and wobbled all over the lawn like a wino before I did her in with my rat-stick) before the rat eventually dies. So rats poisoned with warfarin bleed to death from the inside. This is very similar to the way Ebola kills humans — a death from Ebola (as with Hanta, Lassa, Marburg) involves massive internal haemorrhaging and victims are often found with blood seeping from eyes, ears, pores. Rats are likely vectors of Ebola in Western Africa. So Ebola is rat-revenge; poetic justice served cold from our scaly-tailed nemesis. Incidentally, warfarin is becoming increasingly less effective as a rat poison. There are populations of rats all over the world that have developed immunity. One of these is in Yorkshire. Within a few decades it is likely that all rats will be immune to warfarin. In the late 19th century the most effective rat poison on the market was red squill; however, by around 1920, was not able to kill even a week old baby rat, and the poison became obsolete. New, more virulent poisons, such as brodifacoum, and phostoxin have recently been developed to kill rats. Both sides are engaged in the arms race.
Which do you think is the most destructive, man or rat?
Man, without question. Or, more precisely, industrial-capitalist-growth-greedy-ruling class man. Rat are nothing without their aiders and abettors. But I didn’t want to get into that comparison overtly. Gunter Grass has already written that book. I quote him in one of the epigraphs to the book, spoken by a giant, post-apocalyptic she-rat. ‘Wherever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated. (Gunter Grass, The Rat)
On one level the book is about how obsession can infect people. On another level it is about a cosmic battle. What do you want your reader to go away thinking about?
First of all, I want them to want to believe. I want readers to be compelled by the book and want to take it seriously as if it was true — as certain people did/do with other manuals of extremism such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad or The Turner Diaries. As I was writing Ratmen, I was engaging in my own back-garden anti-rat struggle which informed the book as the book informed the struggle. In the heat of obsession and battle I found myself half-believing (or wanting to believe) that the Man’s crazed cosmology was true and I even began to act and speak as if it was. In writing about the seductions of extremism, I had seduced myself. In talking about the seduction of extremism, I’m not talking about brainwashing. To become extreme requires agency. The Boy wanted it, just as I did. In my unpublished poem-sequence Werewolf, I explore similar themes — how could ‘ordinary men’ (to use Christopher Browning’s phrase) willingly and enthusiastically take active roles in committing genocide in Turkey, Nazi Europe and Rwanda, for example? It’s do with fear, ambition and the quest for meaning. Given the right combination of circumstances, many (most? all?) of us would wallow in horrors.
Ratmen become vegetarians because ‘it’s where the logic leads’. Can you explain this?
In the book, the rat becomes a cypher or symbol of predatory, competitive, destructive ‘devil take the hindmost’ capitalism. The Man tells the Boy of the true — caring, naturing — spirit of humankind and how cruelty and selfishness has somehow entered human society and culture via the malign agency of the rat — ‘the spirit of cruelty comes from the rat’. In combating rats, ratmen must reject rapacious capitalist society and the spirit of the rat from which it stems. So they vow not to harm other sentient creatures (except rats), which leads to asceticism and vegetarianism.
The book moves from a social realist world to something more fantastical. Did you always know where the story was going?
Yes. The book arose from the above-mentioned rat infestation in my garden, which saw me spend over two years exterminating rats by trap, poison, air-rifle, drowning and rat-stick. My genodical approach to rats (characterised by urgency, fascination, fear and a minor theme of hysteria), when contrasted to my benign attitude to all other animals — got me thinking. I’d been writing poetry about extremism — US prison gangs, Muslim extremists, murderers, the US racist right and the Militia movement, various conspiracy theories — since 2005, and I’d developed a theory of my own: people drawn to extremism generally fall into two main types.
- Intelligent people (often ‘mathematically’ or instrumentally intelligent, like the 9/11 bombers (largely engineers and techicians), but who are nevertheless not quite mentally flexible enough to develop independent, self-critical reasoning in the regions of value and meaning, or to accept ambiguity as part of the human condition (2 +2 =4 and ‘the truth’ = ‘the truth’). These second-rate intelligences are often attracted to compelling and satisfying narratives/solutions that provide absolute security by ‘giving the answers’, which they accept lock, stock and become ‘true believers’. Muhammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 bombers is a classic example of this type, as to varying degrees, are religious fundamentalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Socialist Workers, certain species of environmentalist and Tea Party types in the US. The Man is of this type.
- Highly intelligent people, who to some extent understand what they’re opting into is questionable, but allow themselves to be seduced because they want to belong/believe due to peculiarities of the their psychology, or to do with fear and ambition. For these types, extremist world-views and actions bring glamour, meaning, purpose, nobility and a sense of superiority. At a deep level they know their extremism is at least questionable, but they commit to it anyway. The Baader-Meinhof Gang and some of Charles Manson’s groupies fall into this type, as does The Boy.
Ratmen is about the process of seduction — how the man seduces and how the boy participates in his own seduction. The denouement is over-the-top, unbelievable (or strangely believable), horror, or science fiction, unlikely and absurd. Yet the highly intelligent, precocious and cultured Boy embraces the absurdity in an awed, profound and humble spirit. From this point he is no longer ‘normal’. He belongs. He believes. His values have been transformed and he is now capable of anything. Jihadi John was once an A* GCSE student in Birmingham. Now he saws people’s heads off on YouTube — the core sacrament of his profound and noble cause — how did that happen? He was seduced, and he wanted to be seduced. It made him whole.
You write both poetry and prose. Which do you prefer? Which do you find the easier?
Poetry, by a mile. When I’m in the zone, I find that I enjoy the process of writing poetry and I actually look forward to composing at my desk. Accordingly, I’m prolific. I’ve written two and a half books of poetry this year and there are ten book-length projects on my to-do list. Often my main issue is to find ways to stop writing poetry, to find time to read, go birdwatching or whatever . I rarely enjoy writing creative prose (as opposed to analytical or expository prose, which I can do quite fluently). For me, it’s a chore to sit down and write a novel, or even a short-story, whacking out 2000 words a day, or whatever. I’ve started six novels and finished only two. I abandon my novels because I become uninterested in them. For example, I started a novel in September which, 14,000 words in, is ‘on hiatus’ because I got to a stage where it was too much of a schlep to write it. In contrast, during the last ten years I’ve consciously started six books of poetry (I always write books of poems, as opposed to stand-alone poems which I then arrange into a ‘collection’) but ended up writing eleven (almost all unpublished as yet). With Ratmen it was different. I was seduced (there’s that word again) by my theme and content and became very enthusiastic about it. I also simplified the plot into episodes to make it easier to write (during the school holidays). My other finished novel (San Benito Brother ) is a fictionalised account of the prison race wars in the California Prison System in the 1970s. It’s twice as long as Ratmen, with an ensemble cast of characters and labyrinthine plotting. Extreme sex, violence racism and drug abuse. I was really into that as well, so I suppose that’s why I managed to finish it. Looking back, in its exploration of extremism, SBB is probably a direct precursor of Ratmen. I suppose I can only write when I’m really interested in something. And most of my obsessions are handled through poetry.
Well let’s hope that SBB gets published soon as I’m eager to read it. In the meantime, you can buy Ratmen here (and I urge you to do so): http://www.blackheathbooks.org.uk/46.html