The Rats In the Walls: The Complete Lovecraft #38

The first Lovecraft story I ever read was ‘The Rats In The Walls’. I always have, and will always, looked upon it fondly, for all its flaws. It remains the tale I am most likely to recommend as a starting point to anyone who has never read the old tentacle huggers macabre scribblings. So with that in mind, I can not claim to be entirely unbias on this one…

So let me get this out of the way first, no matter what else I say, I love ‘The Rats In The Walls‘, it is a masterpiece of the grotesque, the disturbing and the chilling. If, as a writer, you want to write horror. If you want to send chills down the spines or your readers. If you want to know how to get under their skin, to make them feel the itch they can not scratch, study this tale. It is the quintessential horror story, it is as good as it gets for insidious, nasty narratives about the worst of humanities failings and the thoughts of a disturbed mind. It is, in a word, perfect…

Heres the thing, despite these blog posts been a generally lighthearted look at Lovecraft, and occasionally stumbling blindly in to literary criticism, I don’t really want to tell you all about ‘The Rats In The Wall‘, because of all the Lovecraft stories, this is the one I most want people to read. So here is a link to the story itself, go read it…

http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/rw.aspx

Or alternatively listen to it being read by the wonderfully dulcet tones of David McCallum, him of Saphire and Steel, the Man from Uncle, and many more TV shows and movies. His distinctive voice adds to the tale all the more…

So, now you have read, or listen to it ‘hopefully’, and agree its perfect… Let’s talk about its many flaws…

Reading ‘The Rats In The Walls’ you can not help but feel you have read it before. Okay, in my case I most certainly have read it before on several occasions, it’s my favourite Lovecraft story after all, but that’s not what I mean. If you’re reading these in order along with me you will know what I mean (at least three people are apparently according to their emails, which is both gratifying and horrifying in equal measure, so possibly I am inflicting a reading list on more than that, but I digress.)  The story centres around an American who has brought back the old ancestral pile, and is the last remaining descendant of the last remaining scion of a family with a long history that fled to the United States to escape some dark event in that family’s past… Sound familiar yet? Further to this, they have to bring in workers from far afield, as the locals still tell black rumours of the old house up on the hill and the family who once lived there… If you’re thinking you’ve heard this tale before, well this is not a surprise… He also manages to glean more of his family history form the folklore and whispered tales of those few locals willing to talk to him. Not that most do, because of the shadowy history of his family and dark acts over many centuries. Even fewer once he adopts his original family name rather than the Americanised version he began life with…  Got it yet?

the_rats_in_the_wall___hp__lovecraft_by_kxg_witcher-d5zltow (1)

Basically, if you aren’t sure, this is the plot from ‘The Moon-bog‘ which back in #31 got a measly 2 tentacles. It’s not even a case of this story been written after but published before, and the moon-bog only coming to light when Lovecraft achieved more popularity. The Moon-bog was published two years before ‘Rats‘, and the recycling of so many elements of the plot really has no defence. That said a good story stays a good story no matter how many times you retell it. Doctor Who has been saving mining colonies in outer space form the ancient evil they freed by mistake for over fifty years. Every incarnation of Star Trek has a time loop story in it at least once a season. Every James Bond novel tells the same basic plot, and the problem with ‘the Moon-bog’ was never the story itself. All the same to read ‘Rats’ so soon after ‘Moon-bog’ is somewhat jarring in its familiarity. Beyond one been set in Ireland and the other in Sussex, there really is hardly a slither between them in the basics of the setting and background plot.

There are other problems too. Not least the name of the narrator’s favourite cat. Let’s just say its a black cat and much like the dog in ‘Dambusters’, it was a different time. It does bring up an internal debate I have had with myself, and indeed a wider audience than my inner thoughts. I am, generally speaking against censorship, I explained my point of view on the subject in some detail in the post ‘That Offensive Word…’ a few months ago. I also am absolutely against the diluting of an author’s work after they are dead, just as I understand why Ray Bradbury was so angry about the way Fahrenheit 451 was butchered for America schools. But there is a case, all the same, for some minor tampering to match 21st-century sensibilities when it has no effect on anything other than the name of the cat. If the cat were called ‘Mr Tibbles’ it would have no effect on the story in any way. That said I would call the cat ‘Shadows’ or ‘Darkness’ to keep it clear its a black cat we are talking about. Would it matter if the name was changed in newer editions of the collected works?

Of course, once you start down that road, where do you stop. Lovecraft is beset with issues, but for the most part not much worse than many other writers from the same era, though he tends to show his underskirt more often, and certainly is less liberal than most of his contemporaries. The writer’s politics are just something you have to contend with and reach your own conclusions about, it should not be sanitised just because we don’t hold the same views on the whole as he did then. If you can’t read Lovecraft or any other author because their views and politics horrify you then fair enough. Just as not reading a book by Steve Bannon now because of his horrendous views makes sense to me, it doesn’t give me or anyone else a right to decide what should be printed and what should not, that is an uncertain road down which to travel. So I guess it’s better to live with a cat call N******-man…

What set’s ‘Rats’ apart from the likes of ‘Moon-bog’ is the intensity of the tale and the way it quietly, and slowly builds up. It is also a window into the mind of madness, or possibly not, as the story is told from Delapore ‘the narrators’ point of view exclusively. Is he really hearing the rats, or is it all in his fevered imagination. Is he slowly going mad, is this a family trait, is it just karma for naming his cat N*******-man… The descent of  Delapore’s sanity is matched by the descent into the caverns below Exham Priory, and the ancient sites dark history. Yet what you chose to believe is the truth of the tale is left ever open-ended, all of which adds to its strength as a narrative. That and those wonderfully telling hints of the winder Lovecraft universe like the one below…

…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…

I am not alone in thinking this is the perfect Lovecraft tale.  Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian among others, wrote to Wierd Tales praising ‘Rats’ after it was published. This letter was passed on to Lovecraft and was why they became friends and correspondents for the rest of H.P’s life. While Lin Carter, who wrote a few Conan stories himself,  called “Rats” “one of the finest stories of Lovecraft’s entire career. If you read one Lovecraft Tale in your life, then Rats is the one to read, as it achieves what Kingsley Amis described as ‘a memorable nastiness’…

In case you have not guessed this is a tale that gets all the tentacles from me. Six is not enough so my out of six scale, may have to grow a couple of extra pseudo-pod’d limbs.

allout 6

 

Finally, in keeping with another increasingly long-running theme of these posts, ‘Lovecraft stories inspiring Metal bands,‘ American Power metal band Seven Kingdoms wrote ‘In The Walls’ based on the tale. Its a surprisingly cheerful bit of speed metal. (It has reached the point I will be surprised the next time I do a story that hasn’t inspired a heavy/death/goth/metal band of troubadours to pen a tune. Also possibly disappointed when that happens…)

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

This entry was posted in fiction, horror, Lovecraft, music, mythos, opinion, pointless things of wonderfulness, reads, retro book reviews, sci-fi and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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