“We spent the rest of the night in the brilliantly lighted study, nervously discussing what we should do next. The discovery that some vault deeper than the deepest known masonry of the Romans underlay this accursed pile – some vault unsuspected by the curious antiquarians of three centuries – would have been sufficient to excite us without any background of the sinister.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we dive down into the depths of Gothic Romanesque castles to find the truth behind The Rats in the Walls. This story is lauded as one of Lovecraft’s best of his first decade of writing, and though the imagery it elicits created one of the absolute best illustrations of Lovecraft’s work to date (in my opinion at least), the story is a bit plodding. It isn’t until the last five pages or so that we really get into the gruesome reality of the story and it’s understandable that it was turned down by so many publications early on (notably rejected by Argosy)… this is one vivid and gory tale.
I contend that the reason it’s said to be the best of his early work is because so much of what he strove to do early on was focus on detail to elucidate setting… in that case this story truly is one of the best he wrote early on. In addition to that factoid, we also have his early theme of family. Specifically revolving around genetic madness. So many of his stories have to do with the narrator slowly realizing that he’s odd, or at least his impulses are, but it’s not really his fault. It’s because there is some kind of hereditary defect which creates a strain of corruption.
This leads me to believe that there must have been something in his own life… some drive or impulse that he (Lovecraft) felt nagging at the back of his skull which he felt was directly a cause of his genes. Or could he have been of the mindset that all humans are inherently good and the only reason someone would turn bad, or even evil, is if they had some kind of genetic interference with their ancestors who in turn passed on the defect? I’m sure there is some Lovecraft scholar out there that knows the answer to this. If you do, leave a comment for discussion!
Anyway, lets get into the text…
We start off with place. The narrator tells us, “On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labors.” So the first sentence tells us that there’s some religious undertones to the story. The fact that the narrator is moving into a Priory gives us that immediate understanding of a vast array of history surrounding place…and religion in Lovecraft is rarely good. The reason the place is laid bare is in the next sentence:
“...a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.”
This is our first indication that something is wrong. Why would our narrator call his genetic line abhorred? There’s a bit of contextualization, but we as readers are supposed to pick up that there is something not quite right with the family. However the narrator tells us right up front, “Had I suspected their nature, how gladly I would have left Exham Priory to it’s moss, bats, and cobwebs!”
The narrator gets flack for rebuilding this monument to the past, specifically from the people who live in the nearby town: “When the people could not forgive, perhaps, was that I had come to restore a symbol so abhorrent to them; for, rationally nor not, they viewed Exham Priory as nothing less than a haunt of fiends and werewolves.“
Why werewolves? Lycanthropy, in all of my forays into Lovecraft, has not been a trope that he is prone to focus on. There is primate mating, but no specific virus or disease which causes a person to become an animal. What is it about this, “prehistoric temple, a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge“?
Why had the locals “…represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and Marquis de Sade would seem veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations“?
Was it because he had an ancestor who “performed nameless ceremonies at the bidding of a Phrygian priest.” or the “young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War” or potentially even “…the hideous tale of Lady Mary de la Poer, who shortly after her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsfield was killed by him and his mother, both of the slayers being absolved and blessed by the priest to whom they confessed what they dared not repeat to the world.“
Well, for the purposes of this story and for the intention of our narrator, (dont forget the lycanthropy thread) it’s probably “…most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epic of the rats – the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion – 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.”
Here we have our explanation more than anything else. The titular rats have made their entrance into the story and they are causing all the havoc. So the priory was burned down. Years later, our narrator rebuilds the house and moves in. Obviously people are not happy, but why? Everything happened so far in the past and the real reason why people disliked his family was because of the rats…well that and the…werewolves.
Shortly after moving in, our narrator immediately finds that something isn’t right with the newly built house. “I told the man there must be some singular odour or emanation from the old stonework, imperceptible to human senses, but affecting the delicate organs of cats even through new woodwork. This I truly believed, and when the fellow suggested the presence of mice or rats, I mentioned that there had been no rats there for three thousand years…“
The narrator’s cat (who’s name I will not repeat here) was pawing at tapestries and walls where nothing presented itself. It was curious to our narrator, but nothing to be alramed about. I will, however, call your attention to the line, “imperceptable to human senses,” and remind you one more time of the strange mention of lycanthropy earlier in the story.
Later that night he has a dream which foreshadows everything else and gives a precursor to the great artwork of Michael Whelan: “I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineheard drove about his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.“
Strange happenings continue into the next day and eventually our narrator finds a sub-basement. Too scared to proceed alone he calls on a friend, Captain Norrys, and beneath the Roman construction they found a vault:
“The Vault was very deep in the foundations of the priory, and undoubtedly far down on the face of the beetling limestone cliff overlooking the waste valley.”
The quote which opens this essay comes next, with our intrepid explorers trying to figure out what to do. They eventually decide to go through the sub-cellar and go into the vault…where nothing good could ever come.
“There now lay revealed such a horror as would have overwhelmed us had we not been prepared. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on the flight of stone steps so prodigiously worn that it was little more than an inclined place at the centre, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Those which retained their collocation as skeletons shewed attitudes of panic fear, and over all were the marks of rodent gnawing. The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.”
What I find truly intriguing about this part of the story is that all of these men are following our narrator down into this pit without any kind of inclination as to what they’re doing. The only person to hear the critters was our narrator (“imperceptible to human senses“), so it must just be the high of the discovery itself that kept them going.
Beyond that we have another mention of “apedom.” This calls back to “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” where, again, one of Jermyn’s ancestors went to the Congo and wed a She-Ape who was considered a demi-god. Arthur Jermyn finds out that his ancestor is a white ape. Could our narrator here have much the same ancestral line? Or could there be a streak of rodent lycanthropy in his past?
Our group keeps going down until we get to this incredible passage. It is here that Lovecraft starts to really pour it on thick:
It was a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see; a subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion. There were buildings and other architectural remains – in one terrified glace I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile, and an early English edifice of wood – but all these were dwarfed by the ghoulish spectacle presented by the general surface of the ground. For yards about the steps extended an insane tangle of human bones, or bones at least as human as those on the steps. Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemoniac frenzy, either fighting off some menace of clutching other forms with cannibal intent.
I’ve been dancing around it, but this has to be the inspiration for the classic Michael Whelan cover. This is the Lovecraft that I had always been looking for as a young man growing up. For me it was always about the imagery and the feel of what he was writing, rather than the actual themes that he was exploiting. I would sit and look at the Michael Whelan covers and marvel at their gothic surrealist nature, but whenever I picked Lovecraft up the language was too daunting for me to overcome.
Now that I’m older and more well read and capable of the mental bandwidth it takes to analyze his language, I felt it was the perfect time to dissect his works, which is why this blog came into being. Hopefully it will give others the ability to enjoy his stories, despite the language, or in some cases, maybe even because of it.
But I digress.
“It was the antechamber of hell, and poor Thornton fainted again when Trask told him that some skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations.”
Our narrator had taken his fellows into some hellish nightmare with “prehistoric tumuli” and “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s…” All this in some massive vault underneath the priory and was so tumescent that “We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went…“
The group traverses this nightmare realm, built upon centuries of bodies and bones, until the narrator finally hears what he was dreading:
“It was the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute players.”
This is where the theories of the narrative diverge, as no one else in the party sees or hears the rats other than our narrator, who incidentally spouts off some phrase in Gaelic:
“That is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.“
Two theories jump out at me as the narrator is put away raving that he didn’t kill Captain Norrys, the rats did. The first is what I like to believe because of all the seeds planted earlier in the story. We had the mention of werewolves, which is merely a reference for us to understand that there is Lycanthropy in the possibility of this story, but instead of it being a werewolf, it’s a wererat.
The second notion is that the narrator is the only one to ever hear the rats in the walls; with the exception of his cat, but I’d contend that the cat was trying to say that something was there in the walls. Some vast power the cat was trying to get to. Cats have power in Lovecraft, just look at “The Cats of Ulthar.”
The unique take on this however, is that the narrator doesn’t take on the appearance of a rat, but the mental capacity of the rat. That’s the power of the lycanthrope here and that’s probably the storm of rats which happened all those years previous. What was built underneath the priory is a temple to the horrible god Nyarlathotep and the people tied to the priory, the people who practiced the rituals and built the horrible vault, were the people inflicted with the curse of the lycanthrope. That’s why so many of the townsfolk are scared of the priory…years ago it was a group of cannibals who imagined they were rats who stormed the village and killed and ate and ravaged. Thus when the narrator discovers the horrible truth, his genetic disposition is to turn feral and become one with the rat…poor Captain Norrys was just in the way as the rodent appetite took hold of the narrator.
We were also given a hint to the cannibalism earlier as well, which could also be considered part of Nyarlathotep’s influence.
The other theory is that everything was normal until they got to the vault and Nyarlathotep’s influence robbed the crew of their senses, but I this theory is all conjecture. The real evidence comes from what I’ve discussed prior and I tend to believe that Lovecraft puts in hints, buried underneath detail, and we just have to dig a bit to get to it.
This story touches on a number of tropes classic to Lovecraft as well. Genetic madness, place triggering memory and sanity, the haunted/possession trope, and architecture which develops a tone for the story. What I love about it (and probably why it’s lauded as his best) is that it puts all these themes together in one place, but doesn’t focus on any individual theme, which just enhances the overall feel of the whole story.
Let me know what you think in the comments! Were there mystical rats? Or was it really our narrator all along?
Join me next week as we dissect “The Very Old Folk”!