Tuesday, March 19, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Rats in the Walls"

Spooky Synopsis: Once again, Lovecraft gives us an unnamed narrator, the last surviving member of the Delapore family. Generations ago, his family had fled to America after Walter de la Pore, eleventh Baron Exham, had conspired with servants to murder his entire family. Yet the narrator finds himself returning to his ancestral British home after his only son dies from injuries sustained in World War 1. He has nowhere else to go and contents himself with restoring the old, broken-down estate. However, strange signs begin to appear all around him. Mysterious Roman-era inscriptions in the sub-cellar that hint at cultic worship. Tales of huge gardens tended by the family for no discernible reason. And the sound of rats burrowing deep within the ancient walls. That should be impossible given that the walls ought to be made of solid limestone blocks. You know what's even stranger? No one appears able to hear the rats except the house's many cats and the narrator himself.

Lovecraftian Language: "Having grasped to some slight degree the frightful revelations of this twilit area -- an area so hideously foreshadowed by my recurrent dream -- we turned to that apparently boundless depth of midnight cavern where no ray of light from the cliff could penetrate. We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went, for it was decided that such secrets are not good for mankind."

Eerie Evaluation: I can think of any number of reasons not to like "The Rats in the Walls." It's overly long, the narrative being weighed down rather than buttressed by its own prose. It makes far too much of the ridiculous idea of racial memory and the shocker of a climax turns on a ludicrous understanding of Darwinian evolution. It features a feline most unfortunately named -- I kid you not -- Nigger-Man. (To be fair, that was also the name of Lovecraft's childhood pet, but I cringed whenever I saw it on the page.) Still, it's a really effective horror tale despite all that, starting with a creepy vibe worthy of the classic English ghost story and crescendoing into outright grue by the end. No spoilers, but suffice it to say that "The Rats in the Walls" really isn't about carnivorous rodents. It's about insanity, abysmal secrets, and the buried evil lurking within.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

2 comments:

Nathaniel Lee said...

This has always been one of my favorites, as much for the title as anything else. The cat's name is easily the least of Lovecraft's hilariously racist quirks. (Wait till you get to "The Horror at Red Hook.")

My very favorite probably remains "The Lurking Fear," which has the best moment of horrified dawning realization.

Loren Eaton said...

I love the part in this piece where the narrator's diction gradually dials backward in time, shifting from "contemporary" English to Middle English to inarticulate grunts in the space of a paragraph. Really chilling technique.

Oh, and the cat. Well, truth be told I didn't find it super-egregious, but I feel like I have to mention it. You can't say, "Hey, this is a great story," and not mention the feline's super-offensive moniker, you know?