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Belfast's man they couldn't kill and the Michael Jackson hit record... but why has Stephen Gilbert been forgotten?

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

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Stephen Gilbert in the 1960s. (courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen Gilbert in the 1960s. (courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen and Kathleen Gilbert with their four children in 1954. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen and Kathleen Gilbert with their four children in 1954. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen Gilbert and Forrest Reid in October 1933. (Courtesy of Special Collections, Queen's University)

Stephen Gilbert and Forrest Reid in October 1933. (Courtesy of Special Collections, Queen's University)

Stephen (front right) with his regiment c. 1940

Stephen (front right) with his regiment c. 1940

Stephen Gilbert as a young boy

Stephen Gilbert as a young boy

Singer Michael Jackson who had a hit with Ben. Photo: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Singer Michael Jackson who had a hit with Ben. Photo: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

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Bruce Davison as Willard Stiles in the film Willard, based on Ratman’s Notebooks

Bruce Davison as Willard Stiles in the film Willard, based on Ratman’s Notebooks

Gilbert during the war, and as a young boy. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Gilbert during the war, and as a young boy. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen Gilbert in the 1960s. (courtesy of the Gilbert family)

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.

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Stephen and Kathleen Gilbert with their four children in 1954. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen and Kathleen Gilbert with their four children in 1954. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Stephen and Kathleen Gilbert with their four children in 1954. (Courtesy of the Gilbert family)