James Herbert is a famous British horror writer; his first novel Rats quickly became a bestseller, as did many of his subsequent books. I got in to Herbert’s books, along with other horror and gothic writers, when I was in my teens in the 1980s. I read a fair amount of his books that had been published at the time, including Fluke. Although he became famous with the ‘Rat’ books (there were two sequels to Rats—The Lair and Domain) and other gory horror books he didn’t totally restrict himself to this sub-genre; although most of his books would be classed as horror some were more supernatural stories, ghost stories or thrillers. Fluke is one of the more untypical books by Herbert as it is the story of a dog from the dog’s viewpoint—well, the dog is actually a man that’s been reincarnated as a dog. I originally read this nearly thirty years ago and I vaguely remember not liking it as much as his other books but I felt like including it in my reading for the ‘1977 Club’ as I wondered what I’d make of it today. I also felt like reading something a little less highbrow than a lot of my current reading so it ticked all the boxes.
The novel begins with Fluke being born, or reborn, as a dog. His first memories are of the warmth and comfort of his mother and siblings and also of being handled by humans. As Fluke is adopted by his new owner we get to see the world from Fluke’s point of view. The taste of human skin is particularly delightful but the noise and smells of a London street take some getting used to, especially the huge metal monsters that race about at incredible speeds. Fluke’s experience with his first owners doesn’t work out and he finds himself back in a dog’s home where he feels unloved and becomes a bit of a troublemaker by howling and snarling a lot and tormenting some of the other dogs. But it is during this period that Fluke begins to have dreams or memories of a previous life as a human; as a husband and a father.
I screamed and the scream woke me.
My head felt as if it would explode with the new knowledge. I wasn’t a dog; I was a man. I had existed before as a man and somehow I had become trapped inside an animal’s body. A dog’s body. How? And why? Mercifully the answers evaded me; if they hadn’t, if they had come roaring through at that point, I think I should have become insane.
Overhearing two workers talking about him having to be put down Fluke decides to escape and ends up roaming the streets of London. Fluke’s experiences with humans is mixed but he never manages to settle into a happy co-existence with them though he is always drawn back to them. Fluke’s experiences are sometimes brutal but there is also kindness and joy; as Fluke often tells us—dogs are optimistic creatures.
Things change when he meets another dog, Rumbo, with whom Fluke can communicate. Rumbo takes Fluke under his wing and shows him how to survive in the city by both begging and stealing. Fluke is also accepted by Rumbo’s owner, a scrap-metal merchant, who only feeds them occasionally so they have to fend for themselves most of the time. We follow the two dogs as they steal meat from butchers shops, play in the parks, catch rats and get to know each other. Fluke is inquisitive about their ability to communicate with each other and when he tries to talk about his previous life as a human Rumbo refuses to discuss it. It’s not until later in the novel that he is able to discuss this aspect of his existence with a wise badger. Events mean that Fluke has to leave the scrap-metal yard and the urge to find out about his previous life becomes overpowering so he tries to find the town where he used to live, however, he only has vague memories of his life as a human.
Although there are some violent scenes in this book, such as a fight between Rumbo and a large rat, there are also many comical passages. In one chapter Fluke arrives in a town, hungry as usual, and endears himself with a little old lady, called Miss Birdle, who makes a big fuss of him. She takes him home and pampers him. But she also owns a cat, a spiteful, vicious thing called Victoria, who tries her best to get Fluke into trouble with their owner. There are chases and fights between cat and dog that end up with all the crockery getting broken, Victoria making her escape through a glass window and Fluke doing the same in another instance. On top of this Miss Birdle has a bit of a viscious streak and occasionally metes out a swift kick at Fluke for no apparent reason or locks him in a room for days.
Round and round that kitchen we ran, knocking chairs over, crashing against cupboards, shouting and screaming at each other, too far gone with animal rage to concern ourselves with the noise we were making and the damage we were doing.
After another similar incident Miss Birdle deliberately sets the fire going after Victoria has raced up the chimney; soot and a smoking cat end up coming down and Victoria escapes for good. Fluke tries to carry on living there after Victoria has gone but after further incidents he decides it’s just not worth it as the woman is clearly nuts.
I won’t reveal what happens at the end but Fluke now is determined to complete his odyssey back to his human family even though the badger he meets tries to dissuade him from doing so. Herbert manages to wrap everything up neatly leaving nothing ambiguous at the end, although it’s pretty clear what is going to happen Herbert does have a little twist at the end. I wonder if this was Herbert’s response to that other anthropomorphic novel from the seventies, Watership Down.
I shall end with an amusing quote that appears near the end of the book where Fluke is looking back on his life as a dog.
I’ve talked with, eaten with, and played with so many different species my head aches trying to remember them all. I’ve been amazed at and chuckled over the neuroses in the animal world: I’ve met a pig who thought he was a horse; a cow who stuttered; a bull who was bullied by a shrew he shared a field with; a duckling who thought he was ugly (and he was); a goat who thought he was Jesus; a woodpigeon who was afraid of flying (he preferred to walk everywhere); a toad who could croak Shakespeare sonnets (and little else); an adder who kept trying to stand up; a fox who was vegetarian; and a grouse who never stopped.