His novel Ratman’s Notebooks was turned into a top Hollywood movie and paved the way for writers like Stephen King and James Herbert. On the 10th anniversary of his death, Andrew Doyle shines a light on a Northern Ireland figure dubbed ‘the man they couldn’t kill
Most of us will remember Michael Jackson's sickly-sweet song about his best friend 'Ben', his first number one hit as a solo artist. But how many realise that the song is addressed to a rat? Or that the rat in question was the creation of a little-known writer from Belfast?
Stephen Gilbert's novel Ratman's Notebooks (1968) sold over a million copies after it was adapted by Hollywood under the title Willard. It was a box office hit, the 12th highest grossing movie of 1971, and was quickly followed by a sequel called Ben. It was for this movie that Jackson performed the theme song. Given this international success, it is strange that Gilbert should be relatively unknown in his home city.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Gilbert's death at the age of 97. During his lifetime he published five novels, worked as a journalist at the Northern Whig, ran a prosperous seed merchant company, fought in the Second World War and took part in the evacuation at Dunkirk. In the 1960s he acted as the Northern Ireland secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. On top of all this he was a devoted husband and father of four children. That's quite a full life by anyone's standards.
Gilbert was a far more prolific writer than his publication record would suggest. His son Tom recalls how as a child he would often hear his father's typewriter clacking away in the mornings and evenings before and after work. Numerous manuscripts of unpublished novels still languish in the archives of the McClay Library at Queen's University. As far as I am aware I am the only person to have read his immense four-volume autobiography, which contains some of his most elegantly written passages. In order to open the pages I had first to clear away layers of cobwebs and desiccated spiders.
This instinct for writing had emerged in Gilbert's youth. During his time as a boarder at the Loretto School in Edinburgh he would tell his fellow pupils that his ambition was to be an author. He founded a magazine called The Broadcaster, which featured stories, poetry and editorial commentary. His first published piece, The Anglo-American Entente, appeared in the satirical magazine Punch on July 17, 1929, just a few days before his 17th birthday.
After his school career he returned to Belfast and met the novelist Forrest Reid, who was to become his mentor. They remained close friends until Reid's death in 1947, but theirs was a relationship fraught with difficulties. Although Reid provided Gilbert with the equivalent of a university education, meeting him during the week to read and discuss novels and tutoring him in French, Reid's obsessive and unrequited love was a source of deep resentment for the younger writer.
"Time and again I wished he would take himself out of my life," Gilbert wrote in an article for Threshold in 1977. "I felt bitterly that he had stolen my youth. I knew that he had given me a great deal in exchange. I carry these gifts with me yet. And for good or bad he influenced my writing. For good or bad…"
Gilbert's mother had hoped he would become a minister or a missionary. It was thought that a boarding school education would have a refining influence, but the young Gilbert had mixed feelings about his experiences. His Belfast accent was bullied out of him at an early age and his academic progress was erratic. School reports from the time show that he tended to fare better in the humanities subjects and had "distinct literary ability". One teacher was less complimentary, describing him as a "lazy young monkey".
Doubtless this was down to Gilbert's pronounced sense of individuality. The public school system has never been ideal for free-thinkers and non-conformists.
The headmaster of Loretto, James Greenlees, offered the most accurate assessment of his character in a letter written to his parents after he had failed matriculation: "I think it more than probable that he will eventually do something quite out of the ordinary, as he has an original way of looking at things."
One need only read Gilbert's novels to see that Greenlees was right. The imaginative range is extraordinary. Although there are recurrent themes in his work - social decline, the corruption of humanity, morality, revenge and original sin - his plotlines are varied and unpredictable. The Landslide (1943) was his first published work, a fantasy about a boy, his grandfather and numerous primeval creatures who are brought back into existence after a landslide exposes their long-dormant eggs.
He followed this with the autobiographical Bombardier (1944), based on his experiences as a gunner during the Second World War. Monkeyface (1948) is the eccentric tale of an ape boy - a member of a new intermediate species destined to replace humanity - who is kidnapped from a forest in South America and raised in a Belfast suburb. The Burnaby Experiments (1952) concerns a sinister recluse who attempts to teach his protege the esoteric powers of "psychic translocation".
Then there is his most famous work, Ratman's Notebooks, in which a young man trains rats to commit crimes on his behalf, including vandalism, theft and, eventually, murder.
Among the unpublished novels, The Assailants (c. 1936) is one of the most fascinating. Effectively an autobiographical account of Gilbert's school days but with an added murderous twist, the book delves into the psychology of adolescent bullies and their victims. The writing is impressively disciplined for a first attempt at a novel, doubtless owing to Reid's editorial contributions. The original manuscript of The Assailants in the archives at Queen's University is strewn with Reid's annotations, and there are even whole pages of text in his handwriting. Gilbert never doubted that these interventions improved the book's quality, but he certainly wasn't happy about it.
Then there is The Bloody City (c. 1970), an incomplete manuscript which I was able to reconstruct from pages found in an old ammunition case discovered in the grain loft of the family farm. I edited the novel for a limited edition published by Valancourt Books in 2015. The story takes us through a single year in Belfast's history from the perspective of Protestant businessman Frank Downton. It begins in the final months of 1968 - at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining support across the province - and concludes soon after the riots of August 1969.
In this Gilbert was drawing on his direct experiences of running a business in the early days of the Troubles. His firm, Samuel McCausland Ltd, was located in Victoria Street in the city centre. According to Gilbert, his staff "worked in constant danger of disfigurement, mutilation or death".
One of the older workers died of a heart attack caused by a car bomb that exploded directly outside the offices. While he was writing The Bloody City Gilbert was living at 35 Colin Road in west Belfast. As Patricia Craig pointed out in Gilbert's obituary for The Independent, this was "an unlikely, indeed a hazardous, habitation for a middle-class Belfast Presbyterian who sounded like an Englishman".
But Gilbert wasn't one to be easily intimidated. He was the only member of the 3rd Ulster Searchlight Regiment to be awarded the Military Medal for single-handedly burning a bridge over the Aa Canal as they were retreating towards Dunkirk. Under continuous enemy fire he lined the bridge with petrol cans and ignited them. After this astonishing feat other members of his regiment started to refer to him as "the man they couldn't kill".
Gilbert's success as a writer came late in his career. His debut novel The Landslide had garnered enthusiastic reviews, was published in both London and New York, and later translated into French. His next novel Bombardier sold sufficiently well to justify a second edition.
When Monkeyface was published in 1948 Gilbert had hoped to build on this momentum, but revenue from sales barely covered the author's advance. Monkeyface was, in his own words, "a flop".
In a sense Gilbert had become a victim of his own ingenuity. Glenn Patterson has rightly described Monkeyface as "one of the strangest of all Belfast novels, by one of its most overlooked writers", but stories about talking apes are always likely to have limited commercial appeal. Gilbert's fourth novel The Burnaby Experiments, probably his most enigmatic work, sold fewer than 1,000 copies. "It has dropped into the world noiselessly," he later wrote, "like a dead leaf falling into a pool of black, stagnant water". It was not until 1968 that he produced his bestseller, Ratman's Notebooks. Part horror, part social commentary, the novel is not just a revenge story, but a study of hubris. The narrator makes himself into a kind of deity to the rats, who become agents of his most malevolent desires.
Ratman's Notebooks had been three decades in the making. Gilbert's preliminary work had begun before the outbreak of the Second World War. Although the composition of the novel had not proceeded much further than the planning stage, he had already undertaken some of the necessary background research. Among his papers in the archives at Queen's University are handwritten notes about rats detailing their feeding habits, and the physical and behavioural characteristics of various species. Gilbert was nothing if not thorough.
After the book was adapted as Willard in 1971, and again for a remake in 2003, Gilbert refused to watch either version. He had always intended for the character to remain nameless, and so was displeased with the new title. In addition the filmmakers had relocated the story to California, even though its idiosyncrasies are far better suited to its original Belfast setting.
Yet Ratman's Notebooks is an important milestone in the history of popular literature. As journalist and film critic Kim Newman has pointed out, the book enabled horror to become a mainstream genre in publishing, paving the way for novelists such as Stephen King and James Herbert. There is a passage in Gilbert's autobiography where he recalls the moment at school when he is informed that his article had been accepted for Punch magazine. "I am an author," he says, numb with delight. "Nothing else matters."
That it would take a further 40 years before his writing became commercially successful was beside the point. For Gilbert, writing was a vocation that he pursued irrespective of whether or not his work was being read. Ten years may have passed since his death, but his unique perspective lives on in the novels he has left behind.
Andrew Doyle is a writer and satirist. Under the pseudonym of Titania McGrath, he has written two satirical books: Woke: A Guide To Social Justice and My First Little Book Of Intersectional Activism. He has also edited a number of new editions of novels by Stephen Gilbert and Forrest Reid for Valancourt Books.