Book name: Domain
Author: James Herbert
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Publication Date: 1984
Star Rating: 4/5
Domain is the final book in a trilogy that features killer rats decimating the population of London and beyond.
In the first book, (you can read my review here), the rats become mutants after being exposed to nuclear radiation on the other side of the world.
They are secretly brought to London and escape, causing widespread deaths after they get a taste for human flesh.
In the second book, the rats escape from London to Epping Forest and attack people there causing further destruction.
How to end the trilogy on a high note?
James Herbert returns to the theme of nuclear radiation that underpinned the first book.
He taps into our deep-seated fears of nuclear apocalypse by beginning Domain with the outbreak of a nuclear war.
International tensions have been rising for months. The government is well prepared. But most people are too busy to realise just how dangerous the situation has become.
The nuclear attack comes right out of nowhere. James Herbert’s focus remains on central London.
We see a garage owner, a grandmother, a sex worker and a young policeman die as the first bomb explodes.
Most people’s response to the attack is to get down into the underground tunnels of the Tube.
This would be a profoundly sensible response to an unimaginably terrible attack were it not for the presence of the mutant rats in the tunnels.
Buildings collapse after the initial explosions. Five nuclear bombs in all strike London. All this takes place within moments.
After an initial description of the explosion and the deaths of people caught near the blasts, James Herbert introduces us to some characters who may be able to survive.
Alex Dealey is a government worker with access to a well-stocked and defended bunker. His mistakes are to walk to his destination in the fine weather and to look momentarily into the blast itself.
Dealey is blinded, but he meets Steve Culver. Culver agrees to guide Dealey to the bunker if Dealey will let him shelter there. Dealey is cagey about giving away too much information about its location in case Culver abandons him en route.
They have just thirty minutes to reach safety before the radioactive fallout high above London reaches the ground and kills them.
The two men arrive at the bunker only to find that its entrance has been blocked by a collapsed building.
Dealey then tells Culver about an alternative way in via a Tube tunnel. They somehow get past the crowds down into the station and then into the tunnel.
Culver can see dead bodies that have evidently been attack by rats. He is very disturbed to see the carnage the rats have wrought on the bodies.
Culver, Dealey and Kate, a young woman they find in the tunnels, reach the bunker and safety.
The first stage of their battle for survival is over, and they regroup. However, Culver cannot shake off the images of the dead bodies.
Clare Reynolds is a doctor inside the bunker. Like everyone there, she must put the thought of her family out of her mind and carry on.
Culver tells Clare about the rats. She asks uncomfortable questions of the authorities, and they become suspicious of Dealey’s tendency to prevaricate and withhold information.
He doesn’t seem at all surprised about the mutant rats and, despite his protestations of ignorance, Clare notes that her medical supplies include plenty of vaccinations against the disease that the rats spread to humans last time around.
The initial shock of nuclear war sinks in. The group must wait out the first month inside the bunker before venturing up to the surface.
Tensions rise as the people in the bunker become increasingly resentful of anyone who represents the authorities. These tensions are worsened by a total lack of communication from other bunkers in the system.
Order breaks down and a mutiny begins.
The bunker is threatened by flooding and this brings out the mutant rats. Culver, Kate and the others are forced back to the surface far sooner than is really safe.
Domain was a fascinating portrait of what a nuclear attack on London would look like. The initial chapters are very powerful, in part because they show the destruction of a familiar location.
The descriptions of roads, buildings and Tube stations were very specific, adding to the chill of seeing our real world destroyed in a moment.
As with most apocalyptic dramas, order breaks down entirely as government fails. Those few people who are still alive are left to fend for themselves.
However, James Herbert’s response to a world-changing event was very different to other writers. His characters believe in the return of state power. They rely on government provisions in the bunker while waiting for order to be restored.
This is very different to, say, John Wyndham’s novels about the collapse of world order such as The Kraken Wakes or The Day of the Triffids. There heading to the countryside and banding together in small groups in the near-permanent absence of government becomes an essential survival strategy.
By keeping the emphasis on a reassertion of state control, James Herbert is able to retain a clear focus on the danger posed by the rats.
The mutant rats respond gleefully to a weakening of the human race that begins instantly when the first bomb explodes. They kill people sheltering in the tunnels and then roam easily around at surface level to keep finding fresh food sources.
There was a danger of the rat-attack theme being entirely overwhelmed by the horror of nuclear war. However, the balance remains in play because after the initial explosions, Culver and his group are safe within the bunker.
During that time, the rats take full advantage of the opportunities presented by humans sheltering in a bunker linked to the world by an artisan well. Finally, the rats get inside.
I really loved Domain. The threat of nuclear war was terribly real when the book was published in 1984, and the story describes the attack and the aftermath as well as any novel of the time.
I grew up down the road from a secret nuclear bunker designed to house key government workers of the most senior level. It’s now open to the public as a tourist attraction.
As a carefully guarded secret at the time, it was never spoken of in our community. But everyone knew it was there.
And if we knew about it, so did the Russians. Hence, the philosophy was that our small market town would take a direct hit and surviving a nuclear war was something our community would never have to worry about.
This made reading Domain a fascinating experience when it was published. The threat of nuclear war had receded since 1984, only to rear its head again during the current conflict in Ukraine.
Domain is a really impactful horror narrative centring around two terrible threats to human existence. The pace is good and there are plenty of central characters to root for alongside the ‘soon-to-be-dead’ cameo roles of the kind that James Herbert did so well.
Thank you for reading my review.
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If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Mountains of Channadran by Susan Dexter.