The Rats in the Walls
Infobox short story |
name = The Rats in the Walls
H. P. Lovecraft
language = English
genre = Horror
published_in = "
media_type = Magazine
pub_date = March 1924
"The Rats in the Walls" is a
short storywritten by H. P. Lovecraft. Written August-September 1923, it was first published in " Weird Tales", March 1924. [cite book | last = Straub | first = Peter | title = Lovecraft: Tales | publisher = The Library of America | date = 2005 | pages = p. 823 | isbn = 1-931082-72-3 ]
"The Rats in the Walls" is narrated by the scion of the Delapore family, who has moved from Massachusetts to his ancestral estate in
England, known as Exham Priory. On several occasions, the protagonist and his cats, specifically his favorite cat, "Nigger-man" (which was actually the name of Lovecraft's own beloved cat from his childhood), hear the titular sounds of rats scurrying behind the walls. Upon investigating further, he finds that his family maintained an underground city for centuries and that the inhabitants of the city fed on human flesh, even going so far as to raise generations of human cattle, who eventually began to de-evolve due to their sub-human living conditions. (Another possibility is that Lovecraft is providing a suggestion of the fate of early pre-human Homininaespecies following the rise of Homo sapiens). In the end, the protagonist, unknowingly maddened by the revelations of his family's past and driven by the stronger force of his own heritage, attacks one of his friends in the dark of the cavernous city and begins eating him. He is subsequently subdued and locked in a mental institution. The protagonist of the story maintains his innocence, proclaiming that it was the rats who ate the man. The rats still persist however, as he continues to be plagued by the sounds and sights of rats in the walls of his cell.
The name of the cat, "
Nigger-man", has often been cited in discussions of Lovecraft's racial attitudes. Lovecraft himself owned a cat by that name until 1904. [Joshi, p. 35.]
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." [H. P. Lovecraft, "Selected Letters" Vol. V, p. 181, cited in Joshi, p. 23.] 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." [Joshi and Schultz, p. 223.]
The idea of a character reverting to ancestral speech may have come from
Irvin S. Cobb's story "The Unbroken Chain", published in the September 1923 issue of "Cosmopolitan". The story depicts a Frenchman with a small percentage of African descent shouting out "Niama tumba!" when struck by a train--the same words spoken by a distant African ancestor attacked by a rhinoceros.
Critic 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. [Steven J. Mariconda, "Baring-Gould and the Ghouls", "The Horror of It All", Robert M. Price, ed., pp. 42-48.] See the story of the Mouse Towerof Bingen.
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. [Joshi, pp. 54-55.]
The narrator's first name is not mentioned. He changes the spelling of his name back to the ancestral de la Poer after moving to England.
The name "de la Poer" is apparently an homage to
Edgar Allan Poe, whose ancestors were reportedly named "le Poer".fact|date=November 2007
Another clue supporting this thought is the spelling of the name, "d"E" l"A" "POE"r". [Joshi, p. 26; Joshi and Schultz, p. 223.] .
There may also be a reference to the French word "peur", meaning fear, which is also evidenced by the "de la", so that the name can be translated as "of fear" or "from fear".
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".
A captain in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Edward Norrys befriends Alfred Delapore and amuses him by telling him the "peasant superstitions" surrounding the de la Poer family that Norrys picked up in his native Anchester. He is described as "a plump, amiable young man".
ir William Brinton
One of the "eminent authorities" that accompanies Delapore's expedition beneath Exham Priory, Sir William Brinton is an archeologist "whose excavations in the
Troadexcited most of the world in their day." It is Brinton who figures out how to move the counterweighted altar that leads to the caverns, and who noted that the hewn walls "must have been chiselled "from beneath"." He is the only member of the expedition who retains his composure when they discover the horrors below the priory.
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 manin the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human." ("Piltdown man", a supposedly prehistoric specimen discovered in 1912, was not revealed as a hoax until 1953.) [Joshi, p. 49.] 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 investigators", 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). [Joshi, p. 55.]
Gilbert de la Poer
The first Baron 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 a de la Poer as "cursed of God".
Lady Margaret Trevor
Lady Margaret Trevor of
Cornwallmarried Godfrey de la Poer, second son of the fifth Baron Exham, probably in the 14th or 15th centuries. Such was her enthusiasm for the Exham cult that she "became a favourite 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 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. [Joshi and Schultz, p. 63.] He is the ancestor of the American Delapores. 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, honour, and delicacy."
Randolph Delapore of Carfax, the Delapore's estate on the James River in
Virginia, "went among the negroes and became a voodoopriest 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 forbears", 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. [Joshi, p. 27.]
"The Rats in the Walls" is loosely connected to Lovecraft's
Cthulhu Mythosstories; 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. [Joshi and Cannon, p. 44.]
Later Mythos writers have suggested the Magna Mater ("Great Mother") worshipped by the Exham cult was
Literary significance & 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] ". [Lovecraft, "Selected Letters" Vol. I, p. 259, cited in Joshi, p. 23.] The publisher of "Weird Tales", JC Henneberger, described the story in a note to Lovecraft as the best his magazine had ever received. [Lin Carter, "Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos", p. 36.] 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 a real life work by
Catullus) without giving a full explanation of its contents so as to give depth and hidden layers to his work. He later refined this idea with the infamous Necronomiconso prevalent in his Cthulhu Mythos stories. Lin Cartercalls "Rats" "one of the finest stories of [Lovecraft's] entire career." [Carter, p. 34.] 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." [Joshi, p. 10.]
Richard Corbenand Donald Wandreihave adapted the story for the comic bookformat.
Atlanta Radio Theater Companyhas produced a radio adaptation.
Caedmon Audiopublished a cassette featuring David McCallumreading the story.
The film adapts three Lovecraft tales, including "Rats". Though rather than an adaptation of the story, the film involves Edward DeLapoer, a member of the family line in a different setting.
Stephen King's short story " Jerusalem's Lot" is something of a homage to this story as well, and features many similar elements.
The 2003 video game "" borrows heavily from the plot of "The Rats in the Walls". It features one character, who discovers an ancient underground city below his acquired property. He hears in the manor not rats but the creatures who possess his house servants, who he eventually kills. This action lands him in an asylum, where he deliriously screams, "May the rats eat your eyes! The darkness comes! It will damn us all!"
Exham Priory is mentioned in "
The New Traveller's Almanac" and " The Adventure of Exham Priory."
H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House", the Masters of Horroradaptation of " The Dreams in the Witch House", references "The Rats in the Walls" in a line of dialog.
[http://www.10000comicbooks.com 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, NewfoundlandFestival.
*cite book|first=Howard P.|last=Lovecraft|year=1984|title=The Dunwich Horror and Others|chapter=The Rats in the Walls|origyear=1923|editor=S. T. Joshi (ed.)|edition=9th corrected printing|publisher=Arkham House|location=Sauk City, WI|id=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".
* [http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/theratsinthewalls.htm Story text]
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