“The Rats in the Walls”
by H.P. Lovecraft
Was it the loss of his son from injuries suffered in the Great War that began the mental deterioration of the protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic “The Rats in the Walls”? Or was he doomed by a hereditary curse emanating from his ancestral manor? “A few of the tales surrounding it were exceedingly picturesque,” says the narrator, known only by his family name of Delapore, “(including) the dramatic epic of the rats – the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst from the castle. . . the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.”
Following his son’s death, Delapore returns in 1923 to his ancestral holding from America, where his 17th century ancestor took refuge after killing his father and five siblings. It was a bizarre multiple murder for which, strangely, he was never prosecuted. With nothing else to live for after his son’s death, the modern de la Poer determines to use the fortune he amassed from his business dealings to restore the family mansion, whose foundations are built on pre-Roman ruins. He has barely settled in the restored castle with his menagerie of pet cats, however, when his favorite black cat begins acting very strangely.
Lovecraft’s horror stories (or as he described them, “weird” stories) don’t always lend themselves to humor, but an item in Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth’s commentary on “Rats” earlier this year at Tor gave me a giggle at poor Lovecraft’s expense.
He gave Delapore’s favorite cat the name of one of his own pets, a cat, as Emrys and Pillsworth put it, “whose unfortunate name starts with N (hereafter referred to as Cat With an Unfortunate Name or CWUN for short)”. The unfortunate name is a racial epithet not necessarily considered offensive in the early 20th century – unless you were the one it was applied to.
When Delapore tries to settle down in his newly rebuilt castle on land uninhabited by rodents for centuries, only he and CWUN (and, admittedly, the rest of his feline friends) can hear the army of rats who infest the walls. It’s a talent which may well lead readers to wonder if the rats exist outside of Delapore’s increasingly tenuous hold on reality.
The rats are inaudible to the other human beings in this story published in 1924. Are they real? Or only the product of Delapore's deteriorating mental state? What ever the reason, a group of experts (including an archaeologist and a psychical investigator) that he assembles are willing to let him lead them on the trail of the rats, deep under the foundations of the ancestral castle, through the relics of a ghastly cult in which the earlier members of the Delapore family had participated, a cult rooted in thousands of years of blood.
Lovecraft’s willingness to reveal his narrator’s (and maybe his own) inner life through a tour of a haunted castle is eerily similar to that of dream by Carl Jung cited in editor S. T. Joshi’s The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. “I dreamed that I was in ‘my home,’ apparently on the first floor. . . I was astonished that I had never seen this room before, and . . . wanted to see more of the structure of the whole house. . . . ”. And so Jung descends to the depths of his dream house, much as Lovecraft’s protagonist did. Except that Delapore’s Lovecraftian descent, which will send him to the madhouse, is more horrific than anything Jung was willing to admit to.
And about those rats: Pillsworth finds them “kind of sympathetic,” more opportunistic than malevolent, which admitting that “they make for cool, slithering, scamper ghosts, too.”
S. T. Joshi’s The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft with its many references is available on Amazon. Or give yourself a good chill in preparation for Halloween and check out Emrys and Pillsworth’s post, which includes a link to the complete tale of “The Rats in the Walls.”
(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes an October of Halloween horror with Patricia Highsmith’s “Engine Horse.”)