Saturday, November 3, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft Part 2: The Rats in the Walls

Last week we took a very brief look at the life and career of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the Grand-daddy of Cosmic Horror and Elder Godfather of the Necronomicon. From here we're going to look at a few of Lovecraft's best stories, as selected by S.T. Joshi in his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. We're starting off with "The Rats in the Walls", a tale which Joshi calls "a nearly flawless example of the short story in its condensation, its narrative pacing, its thunderous climax, and its mingling of horror and poignancy."

"The Rats in the Walls" was an early story of Lovecraft's, published in Weird Tales, and considered by some critics to be the first story specifically written for the pulp market.
It's narrator, a man named Delapore, comes from a wealthy Virginia family whose founder had come to America in the 17th Century because of some un-named scandal. The records relating to this family secret were lost when the Delapore's house was burned during the Civil War, and so the narrator is ignorant of this secret when he goes to England to research his family history and buys the ancient family estate, Exham Priory.

The Priory is a ruin, having been left vacant for centuries. The locals will have nothing to do with it, and Delapore has to bring in outside contractors to renovate. The de la Poer family, it seems, has had a bad reputation going back to the reign of Henry III, and Delapore's ancestor, Walter de la Poer, murdered his entire family with the help of four servants after making a "shocking discovery" and then fled to America. That the locals do not blame Walter for this says something about the family's reputation. The narrator begins delving into his family's history with the help of Captain Edward Norrys, one of his son's army buddies whose family had owned the land on which Exham Priory stands.

Although the narrator claims to be repelled by the gruesome hints of his family's misdeeds, and is repelled by the one black sheep on the American side of his family, (a cousin who "went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War", one gets the sense that he has a morbid fascination with it all.

Shortly after moving into the renovated Priory, the narrator finds that the cats, of which he owns several, seemed to be highly agitated in the building. He notes in particular that the old black tom cat he brought with him from the States seems disturbed about something in the house.

I mention the cat in particular because it's an example of one facet of Lovecraft that many modern readers can find disturbing -- and not in the way he hoped they'd be disturbed. Lovecraft was raised as a child of privilege in an exclusively white upper-class New England home, and from that upbringing unpleasant bits of racism occasionally arise in his writing. His exposure to a more cosmopolitan environment when he lived in New York and widened his circle of friends mitigated these views to some extent; but at the same time, struggling to find work in a city flooded with immigrants helped intensify his dislike of foreigners.

We saw a hint of his racist attitudes in the narrator's comment about his cousin the voodoo priest. Here we get something a lot less subtle. Lovecraft names the narrator's black cat "Nigger Man".
I am sure Lovecraft was not intending to be offensive here. He named the cat in the story after his own cat. The cat has no connection to blacks in the story other than his color. I suspect that this was more of an unconscious, oblivious racism arising from his sheltered upbringing rather than an intentional demeaning of a race of people; I find his comment about the cousin who lived among the negroes more indicative of Lovecraft's attitudes about race than the name of the cat is. Still, there it is.

Whatever the cat's name he seems agitated about something. At first the narrator guesses that some sort of odor, undetectable by human senses, was emanating from the walls. Either that or the place is infested with rats; there was a local legend about swarms of rats pouring out of the Priory a couple months after Walter de la Poer's departure. But the workmen had found no evidence of rodents during the renovation project.

At the same time, the Narrator begins having hideous dreams:
I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with a his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.
The cat's nocturnal agitation leads the narrator down to the Priory's sub-basement, a crypt constructed in Roman times and used to worship an eastern god named Attys associated with the goddess Cybele. The foundations of the temple were believed to have dated back to the time of Stonehenge. Now the narrator can plainly hear the sounds of rats scrabbling in the walls which are driving the cats crazy.

He summons his friend Norrys and together they investigate the crypt. The cat seems intent on something underneath the crypt's big stone altar, but the two men can't budge it. Here Lovecraft does something remarkable.

He has his hero do the sensible thing.

Instead of trying to break into whatever lies beneath the crypt on their own, as characters in a bad horror movie might, the Narrator and Norrys recruit several eminent authorities, experts in the fields of archaeology, history and psychic phenomena to help investigate the mystery. Lovecraft did not like the "idiot plot" where the protagonists have to act like idiots in order for the plot to work. His heroes are perfectly willing to bring in experts to aid in facing the Unknown.

Not that it helps the protagonist much.

The Narrator and his team of Eminent Men of Science uncover an ancient stairway beneath the prehistoric altar; stairs worn down by unknown millenia of footsteps. Scattered about the steps lie bones; mostly human, but many displaying sub-human qualities, suggesting that they have degenerated. Some of these sub-human skeletons seems to be quadrupeds. They also see the bones of many rats

At the bottom of the steps they find a huge grotto; the grotto from the narrator's dream. In that grotto are several structures from varied periods of history: a neolithic circle of standing stones, a Roman ruin, a Saxon house. One of the buildings contained the remains of pens where once dwelt the pale, flabby beasts of the narrator's dreams. Most ghastly, perhaps, is the most recent building, dating to the early English period, containing a butcher's shop and kitchen.

This is clearly the secret that William de la Poer discovered; an antediluvian cult whose unspeakable practices had continued down through the Romans and through the Narrator's own family.
The Narrator ventures beyond the buildings into the dark abyss deep in the grotto. He loses track of his companions and begins to rave. His free-association rantings spiral backwards in time, going from modern English, to Elizabethan, to Middle English, Latin, Gaelic and finally degenerating into inarticulate grunts.

He ends up in an insane asylum. Exham Priory has been dynamited to forever seal the secret beneath it.
When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it, They must know it was the rats, the slithering  scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep...
Even in the barred room in the asylum, he still hears the noises of the rats, the rats in the walls.

NEXT:  HPL's Wonderful World of the Colour Out of Space! Taste the Rainbow!  Fear the Rainbow!

1 comment:

alex-ness said...

the horror, THE HORROR!