The Rats in the Walls
|"The Rats in the Walls"|
|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Genre(s)||Horror short story|
|Published in||Weird Tales|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||March, 1924|
Set in 1923, "The Rats in the Walls" is narrated by the scion of the de la Poer family, who has moved from Massachusetts to his ancestral estate in England, known as Exham Priory, which had fallen into ruins. Much to the dismay of nearby residents, he restores the Priory while plainly showing ignorance of the horrific history of the place. After moving in, on several occasions, the protagonist and his cats, specifically his favorite black cat called Nigger Man, hear rats scurrying behind the walls. Upon investigating further (and as revealed in repetitive dreams), he finds that his family had maintained an underground city for centuries; and that they fed on human flesh, even going so far as to raise generations of "human cattle," including some which had regressed to a quadrupedal state. In the end, the protagonist, unknowingly maddened by the revelations of his family's past and driven by a hereditary cruelty, attacks one of his friends in the dark of the cavernous city and begins eating him. He is subsequently subdued and locked in a mental institution. At least one other investigator, Thornton, has gone insane as well. Soon after, Exham Priory is destroyed. The protagonist of the story maintains his innocence, proclaiming that it was "the rats, the rats in the walls," who ate the man. The rats live on, as he continues to be plagued by the sounds and sights of them in the walls of his cell.
Long after writing "The Rats in the Walls", Lovecraft wrote that the story was "suggested by a very commonplace incident — the cracking of wall-paper late at night, and the chain of imaginings resulting from it." Another entry in Lovecraft's commonplace book also seems to provide a plot germ for the story: "Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle—discovered by dweller."
Steven J. Mariconda points to Sabine Baring-Gould's Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1862–68) as a source for Lovecraft's story. The description of the cavern under the priory has many similarities to Baring-Gould's account of St. Patrick's Purgatory, a legendary Irish holy site, and the story of the priory's rats sweeping across the landscape may have been inspired by the book's retelling of the legend of Bishop Hatto, who was devoured by rats after he set fire to starving peasants during a famine. See the story of the Mouse Tower of Bingen.
Parts of Lovecraft's story bear a striking resemblance to Carl Jung's famous "house" dream (told to Sigmund Freud in 1909, though not well known before 1925): the descent through one's historically-stratified ancestral family home to a Romanesque cellar; lifting a hidden slab; descending stone steps to a prehistoric cave littered with bones, broken pottery, etc.
Leigh Blackmore has posited that one surface feature of the story may be found in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", in which Roderick Usher comments that so abnormally sensitive is his hearing that he "can hear the rats in the walls".
The Gaelic quoted at the end of the story is borrowed from Fiona Macleod's "The Sin-Eater". Macleod included a footnote that translated the passage as: "God against thee and in thy face… and may a death of woe be yours… Evil and sorrow to thee and thine!" Lovecraft wrote to Frank Belknap Long, "[T]he only objection to the phrase is that it's Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as with anthropology — details don't count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference." Robert E. Howard, however, wrote a letter in 1930 to Weird Tales suggesting that the language choice reflected "Lluyd's theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts" — a note that, passed on to Lovecraft, initiated their voluminous correspondence. The Cymric-speaking area at that time covered not only Wales, but all of the island below Hadrian's Wall, with Gaelic only being spoken north of the Wall.
S. T. Joshi points to Irvin S. Cobb's "The Unbroken Chain" as a model for Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls".  In his essay, Lovecraft writes, "Later work of Mr. Cobb introduces an element of possible science, as in the tale of hereditary memory where a modern man with a negroid strain utters words in African jungle speech when run down by a train under visual and aural circumstances recalling the maiming of his black ancestor by a rhinoceros a century before."
Delapore: The narrator. His first name is not mentioned. He changes the spelling of his name back to the ancestral "de la Poer" after moving to England.
Alfred Delapore: The narrator's son, born c. 1894. He goes to England as an aviation officer during World War I, where he hears stories about his ancestors for the first time. He is badly wounded in 1918, surviving for two more years as a "maimed invalid".
Edward Norrys: A captain in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Edward Norrys befriends Alfred Delapore and amuses him by telling him the "peasant superstitions" surrounding the de la Poer family that Norrys picked up in his native Anchester. He is described as "a plump, amiable young man".
Sir William Brinton: One of the "eminent authorities" that accompanies Delapore's expedition beneath Exham Priory, Sir William Brinton is an archaeologist "whose excavations in the Troad excited most of the world in their day." It is Brinton who figures out how to move the counter-weighted altar that leads to the caverns, and who noted that the hewn walls "must have been chiselled from beneath." He is the only member of the expedition who retains his composure when they discover the horrors below the priory.
Dr. Trask: Another eminent authority, Trask is an anthropologist who is "baffled" by the "degraded mixture" he finds in the skulls below Exham Priory -- "mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human." (The Piltdown man, a supposedly prehistoric specimen discovered in 1912, was not revealed as a hoax until 1953, thirty years after the publication of The Rats in the Walls). Trask determines that "some of the skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations."
Thornton: The expedition's "psychic investigator", Thornton faints twice when confronted with the nightmarish relics below Exham Priory, and ends up committed to the Hanwell insane asylum with Delapore, though they are prevented from speaking to one another.
Gilbert de la Poer: The first Baron Exham, granted title to Exham Priory by Henry III in 1261. There is "no evil report" connected to the family name before this point, but within 50 years a chronicle is referring to a de la Poer as "cursed of God".
Lady Margaret Trevor: Lady Margaret Trevor of Cornwall married Godfrey de la Poer, second son of the fifth Baron Exham, probably in the 14th or 15th centuries. Such was her enthusiasm for the Exham cult that she "became a favourite bane of children all over the countryside, and the daemon heroine of a particularly horrible old ballad not yet extinct near the Welsh border."
Lady Mary de la Poer: After marrying the Earl of Shrewsfield (a title invented by Lovecraft), she was killed by her new husband and mother-in-law. When they explained their reasons to the priest they confessed to, he "absolved and blessed" them for their deed.
Walter de la Poer: The eleventh Baron Exham, he killed all the other members of his family with the help of four servants, about two weeks after making a "shocking discovery", and then fled to Virginia, probably in the 17th century. He is the ancestor of the American Delapores. He was remembered as "a shy, gentle youth", and later as "harassed and apprehensive"; Francis Harley of Bellview, "another gentleman-adventurer", regarded him as "a man of unexampled justice, honour, and delicacy."
Randolph Delapore: Randolph Delapore of Carfax, the Delapore's estate on the James River in Virginia, "went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War." He is a cousin of the narrator, who regards him as "the one known scandal of my immediate forbears", and who sees this race-mixing life as "unpleasantly reminiscent" of the "monstrous habits" of the ancestral de la Poers.
Nigger Man: A cat owned by the narrator. He could detect the spectral rats. When the story was reprinted in Zest magazine (1950s), this unfortunate name was changed to Black Tom.
"The Rats in the Walls" is loosely connected to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories; toward the end, the narrator notes that the rats seem "determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth's centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players." In this reference to Nyarlathotep, the first after his introduction in the prose poem of the same name, the entity seems to have many of the attributes of the god Azathoth.
Before moving to Exham Priory, Delapore lives in Bolton, Massachusetts, a factory town where the title character of "Herbert West–Reanimator" performs some of his experiments. The town is also mentioned in "The Colour Out of Space"; it is not thought to be the same place as the real-world Bolton, Massachusetts.
Later Mythos writers have suggested the Magna Mater ("Great Mother") worshipped by the Exham cult was Shub-Niggurath.
Literary significance and criticism
The story was rejected by Argosy All-Story Weekly before being accepted by Weird Tales; Lovecraft claimed that the former magazine found it "too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick". The publisher of Weird Tales, JC Henneberger, described the story in a note to Lovecraft as the best his magazine had ever received. It was one of the few Lovecraft stories anthologized during his lifetime, in the 1931 collection Switch on the Light, edited by Christine Campbell Thompson.
It is notable in that Lovecraft uses the technique of referring to a text (in this case a real life works by Petronius and Catullus) without giving a full explanation of its contents so as to give depth and hidden layers to his work. He later refined this idea with the infamous Necronomicon so prevalent in his Cthulhu Mythos stories.
Equally important to the later development of the Cthulhu Mythos was that it was a reprint of this story in Weird Tales that inspired Robert E. Howard to write to the magazine praising the work. This letter was passed on to Lovecraft and the two became friends and correspondents until Howard's death in 1936. This literary connection became reflected in each author adding aspects from the other's works to their own tales and Howard is considered one of the more prolific of the original Cthulhu Mythos authors.
Kingsley Amis listed "Rats" (along with "The Dunwich Horror") as one of the Lovecraft stories "that achieve a memorable nastiness". Lin Carter calls "Rats" "one of the finest stories of Lovecraft's entire career." S. T. Joshi describes the piece as "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 Atlanta Radio Theater Company has produced a radio adaptation.
The film Necronomicon: Book of the Dead adapts three Lovecraft tales, including The Rats in the Walls, although only loosely: The segment "The Drowned" involves a character named Edward DeLapoer, a member of the family line in a different setting.
Dave Walsh adapted and performed a one-man play of the same name at the 2007 Shakespeare by the Sea, Newfoundland Festival.
- Lovecraft, Howard P. (1984) . "The Rats in the Walls". In S. T. Joshi (ed.). The Dunwich Horror and Others (9th corrected printing ed.). Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House. ISBN 978-0-87054-037-0. Definitive version.
- H. P. Lovecraft, More Annotated Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, eds.
- H. P. Lovecraft, The Annotated Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi, ed.
- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos.
- S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia.
- Straub, Peter (2005). Lovecraft: Tales. The Library of America. p. 823. ISBN 1-931082-72-3.
- The death of Warren G. Harding takes place during the story.
- H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. V, p. 181, cited in Joshi, p. 23.
- Joshi and Schultz, p. 223.
- Steven J. Mariconda, "Baring-Gould and the Ghouls", The Horror of It All, Robert M. Price, ed., pp. 42-48.
- "A Possible Poe Influence on "The Rats in the Walls"".Mantichore 25 (2012).
- Joshi, pp. 54-55.
- The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York, New York: Hippocampus Press. 2000. p. 99. ISBN 0-9673215-0-6.
- Joshi, p. 49.
- Joshi, p. 55.
- Joshi and Schultz, p. 63.
- Joshi, p. 27.
- Joshi and Cannon, p. 44.
- Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. I, p. 259, cited in Joshi, p. 23.
- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, p. 36.
- Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell:A Survey of Science Fiction. Victor Gollancz, 1961, p.25.
- Carter, p. 34.
- Joshi, p. 10.
- Joshi, p. 35.
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