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 last descendant of the De la Poer Family, who has moved from Massachusetts to his ancestral estate in England, the ruined Exham Priory, following the death of his only son as a result of injuries sustained in the First World War. To the dismay of nearby residents, he restores the Priory.
After moving in, the protagonist, and his cat, frequently hear the sounds of rats scurrying behind the walls. Upon investigating further and through recurring dreams involving a "swineherd" who resembles the narrator, he learns that his family maintained an underground city for centuries, where they raised generations of "human cattle"—some regressed to a quadrupedal state—to supply their taste for human flesh. This was stopped when the narrator's ancestor killed his entire family in their sleep and left the country in order to end the horror, leaving the remaining human livestock (as well as a single De la Poer whom the narrator finds in a cell) to be devoured by the rats that inhabited the underground city's cesspits.
Maddened by the revelations of his family's past, a hereditary cruelty and his anger over his son's death, the narrator attacks one of his friends in the dark of the cavernous city and begins eating him while rambling in a mixture of Middle English, Latin, and Gaelic before devolving into a cacophony of animalistic grunts. He is subsequently subdued and placed in a mental institution. At least one other investigator, Thornton, has gone insane as well. Soon after, Exham Priory is destroyed and the investigators decide to cover up the existence of the city.
The narrator maintains his innocence, proclaiming that it was "the rats, the rats in the walls", who ate the man. He continues to be plagued by the sound of rats in the walls of his cell.
- 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. The title of Baron De la Poer actually exists in the Peerage of Ireland, and the spelling is indeed derived from le Poer, Anglo-Norman for "the Poor"; it is of some interest in peerage law.
- 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, and amuses him by telling him the "peasant superstitions" surrounding his family's history, which Norrys picked up in his native Anchester. He is described as "a plump, amiable young man". He and Delapore are the ones who initially find the altar that leads to the grotto beneath the priory, and is ultimately killed and partially eaten by the now-insane Delapore, who is revealed to have hated him due to him having lived while Alfred died. It is also implied that Norrys is the model for the "animals" that Delapore sees being herded by the Swineherd in his dreams
- The Swineherd: A nameless being (heavily implied to represent Delapore himself) that Delapore sees in his dreams, tending to his unseen herd in a twilit grotto. It is his dreams of the Swineherd that drive Delapore to investigate the city beneath the priory, as it matches the grotto that he sees in his dreams.
- 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 chiseled "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. Hanwell was an actual asylum, which Lovecraft probably read of in Lord Dunsany's "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap" in The Book of Wonder (1912).
- Gilbert De la Poer: The first Baron of 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 an unnamed 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 of Exham, probably in the 14th or 15th centuries. Such was her enthusiasm for the Exham cult, that she "became a favorite 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 of 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 and is the only De la Poer not hated by the people of Anchester, who revere him as a hero. 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, honor, and delicacy."
- Randolph Delapore: Randolph Delapore of Carfax, the Delapore's estate on the James River in Virginia, "went among the Negros 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 forebears", and who sees this race-mixing life as "unpleasantly reminiscent" of the "monstrous habits" of the ancestral De la Poers. Carfax Abbey is the name of Count Dracula's British outpost in the novel Dracula—a setting that has been suggested as an inspiration for Exham Priory.
- Nigger Man: A cat owned by the narrator. He could detect the spectral rats. When the story was reprinted in Zest magazine (1950s), this name was changed to Black Tom.
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 (a story referenced in the legend 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."
"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 (though in the story itself multiple references are made to Roman goddess Cybele, known as Magna Mater).
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 [sic]". 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 real life works by Petronius and Catullus) without giving a full explanation of its contents, so as to give the illusion of depth and hidden layers to his work. He later refined this idea with the Necronomicon, 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 called "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."
- Richard Corben and Donald Wandrei have adapted the story for the comic book format.
- The Atlanta Radio Theater Company has produced a radio adaptation.
- In 1973, Caedmon Audio published a cassette and LP featuring David McCallum reading the story.
- The film Necronomicon: Book of the Dead purports to dramatize three Lovecraft tales. The segment "The Drowned" involves a character named Edward DeLapoer, but the character is placed in a different setting and the plot does not resemble that of "The Rats in the Walls".
- Tim Uren adapted the story into a one-man play of the same name which was performed at the 2006 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
- Dave Walsh adapted and performed a one-man play of the same name at the 2007 Shakespeare by the Sea, Newfoundland Festival.
- Crypt of Cthulhu #72 was devoted to this story. Two articles on the worship of Atys and Cybele are followed by the Zest reprinting of this story, a sequel to this story "Exham Priory", and a humorous story "Scream for Jeeves" in which Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves novels by Wodehouse is involved in the action.
- Chris Buxey adapted the story to a two-man play "The Haunting of Exham Priory" which started a short UK tour at Crawley on 4th October 2016.
- The song "In the Walls" by the American power metal band Seven Kingdoms is based on the story.
- 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.
- Joshi, p. 49.
- Joshi, p. 55.
- Joshi and Schultz, p. 63.
- Joshi, p. 27.
- 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.
- Carl G. Jung, "Man and his symbols", pp. 42, ISBN 0-440-35183-9
- "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 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.
- 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.
- Works related to The Rats in the Walls at Wikisource