Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lovecraft 101 - Rats in the Walls (Part 1)

The Rats in the Walls
(Part 1)
The Rats in the Walls is actually shorter than our last story, but it is a significant one. So I thought I would break this into two parts to really dive into it. It is a major work, with lots of interesting background and things written about it. It is also one of the very first HPL stories I ever read.
There is a lot in this story, and it being one of HPL's most famous works, there is a lot to unpack as well. I will probably go more in depth with this story than I have in previous works, but I have a lot more reference material on this particular piece. So let's get into it, shall we? A word of warning however, I plan to go through this entire story, so if you haven't read the text yet, consider this your alert for future spoilers.

First, of course, we start with some background info on this story. This story was written in 1923 and would see publication the following year in Weird Tales. This story would actually find some success in the reading public and was the first story to be anthologized within Lovecraft's lifetime. HPL usually found minimal success in his writing while he was alive. This was common among pulp writers who ached to have their works printed in various publications and find some level of positive reception. Rats in the Walls was first submitted to Argosy All-Story, but was rejected. Lovecraft was convinced this was because the editors found the tale "too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick."

Rats is a rather haunting and gruesome tale, but it still falls within the realms of Lovecraft's other gothic works. We can see him moving into new areas, while rehashing the old. The images and the ideas within the story had been tossed around in Lovecraft's mind for years. The inspiration for the tale can be seen as much in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher as in fragments written in HPL's commonplace book. He claimed to be inspired by the cracking, peeling wallpaper in his old home. We can also see the evolution of the stories theme in previous stories. Rats follows the Lovecraftian theme of the cursed family lineage. The story he had written just before Rats, The Lurking Fear, had explored this very same idea. In fact, until a story we will explore much later, this would be the pinnacle achievement of this long running theme. The idea that a man would be cursed by the misdeeds of his ancestors haunted Lovecraft and fascinated him. I am unsure if he felt a personal connection to this idea, in regards to his own family, or if it was merely something he saw in the long historied New England families around him.
As the story begins, we are introduced to our narrator. A shift from previous tales in which the narrator is observing the effects of the cursed lineage on someone else, in this story we learn that is in fact the narrator whose family line was filled with evil. We are introduced to our protagonist, Delapore, as well as to the haunting estate of Exham Priory in the southern part of England.
An interesting note on the name Delapore, or de la Poer, as it is later spelled in the story. This name may be a reference to the family of Edgar Allan Poe. A fiancé of Poe's once researched the ancestry of her family and EAP's to find a common ancestor. She managed to find one by the name of Poer.
At the start of our story we find that our protagonist has moved to his ancestral home in England to rebuild the estate to its former glory. Oddly enough we also learn that he has recently set to demolishing the entire house. We are left wondering why. Why would a man leave home to start his life again somewhere else, only to weeks later destroy all he had worked towards. This framing device sets up the story we are about to read. Just like in Herbert West we know the characters and that something bad has happened, we then get to go back and find out what.
The estate of Exham Priory has a long and sordid history, dating back to the Roman occupation of Northern Europe. Its story is filled with cases of murder, kidnapping and witchcraft. Architects and scholars love the place for its strange history and mysticism, but the locals abhor it. They have wanted to see it destroyed for centuries. The anxious superstitions of the local villagers remind me of the wary locals in The Moon Bog.
Delapore's ancestors never spoke of the past or the history of where they came from. All the family secrets were passed down in a sealed envelope at the death of the previous generation. Delapore has never seen the writings of this hidden past, as it was kept by the oldest member of his lineage. But when his grandfather is killed in a fire, the link to the past is turned to ash along with him.
This link is partially restored when Delapore's only child, his son, goes off to war in Europe. As his son fights in World War I, he manages to learn bits and pieces of his family history. A war buddy, named Norrys, hails from the son's ancestral home in England. He regales him with horribly macabre legends of the de la Poer family. But neither the two soldiers, nor our narrator really believe the fanciful legends of superstitious town folk. But our protagonist is still interested. His link to the past hasn't been restored but he is certainly curious now. With such ridiculous tall tales abounding on the other side of the ocean, who were his ancestors really?
Delapore sought to find out more and purchased what remained his ancestral estate, Exham Priory, with plans to take it over and discover all he could. However, before he leave for his new home, Delapore's son comes home injured. His body damaged beyond repair, the boy is left an invalid and destined to die. Delapore devotes all his time to the care of his son. He relinquishes the duties of his work to partners in the company and spends every waking hour tending to the boy. With the death of his grandfather, Delapore had lost his link to the past, as his son's life slipped away, he loses his link to his family's future as well. Devastated by his son's death, he leaves America, bound for his ancestral home and any possible remnants of his family line left in existance. This is a rather rare thing to see in Lovecraft's work so far. It is now a common staple of the horror genre to cast your protagonist as deeply flawed or coming from a place of emotional weakness.
Delapore is alone in the world, and when he arrives in England, he finds himself ostracized even more. Despite his attempts otherwise, the locals want nothing to do with him and avoid him like the plague. His name precedes him and all others are very wary of anyone baring the name of so feared a family. All communication with the outside world is done through his late son's old friend, Norrys.
As the narrator explores the estate, and gathers more knowledge of the local lore and legends, he begins to piece together a possible history for the old place. He deduces that the house was built on the crumbling ruins of an ancient temple that dates back to the time of Stonehenge (which would be about 1900-1400BC). It was the center of a lost cult of Cybele worshipers.
I did a little research into this. Cybele was originally an Anatolian mother goddess, she was typical of most mother/earth goddess of the ancient Mediterranean. Her cult was wide spread and was eventually adopted by the Empire of Rome where she was known as Magna Mater ("Great Mother").
This is the first real mention of cults in Lovecraft. It is a pervasive theme that will spread its roots throughout a number of stories and in the later writings of Lovecraft's followers would become a central premise. This has always been a favored element of Lovecraftian fiction. Backwoods folklore and hidden ancient cults have always been particularly spine-tingling for me. I am actually surprised it isn't used more in contemporary horror fiction. From a more literary perspective, cultists prove to be a useful tool in cosmic horror storytelling. If the main antagonistic force behind your stories is a great expansive presence that even trying to understand will drive you mad, creating interesting stories can be difficult. By using creepy elder god worshipping cultists, the writer can then have a more physical and immediate force for the protagonist to go up against. The greater threat is still felt, but the battle can be fought a smaller scale for the sake of a single story. We will see how Lovecraft tackles cults in future Mythos stories, and if you like, compare them to how they would be changed drastically by the works of Derleth and others.
The dark practices of that cursed place continued as the Roman's occupied England and remained even after they left. The secret religion and rites changed little despite the changes in Britain's history happening around them. Though Lovecraft makes a few errors here, he does show an understanding and deep interest in the history of Northern Europe.
Our protagonist learns of his ancestors, who struck fear in the locals with horrible acts that caused even Bluebeard and the Marquis de Sade to pale in comparison (that's pretty damn bad). As the narrator explores the ancestry of the old house, I can't help but think of the scene from the old Roger Corman film based on Poe's Usher, as Vincent Price points out the creepy portraits of each dead relative and tells of their horrible deeds.
His ancestors ran an inner sect within the cult and Delapore was disgusted by the revelation of his families notorious deeds. He begins to spell his name as his ancestors did in hopes that he can prove the fallacy of his cursed lineage, hoping the villagers will see that not all who bear that name are monsters.
Finishing the home, he takes up residence with a seven member house staff and nine cats. This is our introduction to a cat who has become infamous when it comes to the writing of Lovecraft. We have discussed ad nauseum the racist ideas the Lovecraft held. Focusing solely on this elements and writing him off I think does a great disservice to an influential writer. I certainly do not agree, encourage, nor like the things HPL has to say about members of other races. As I discussed previously, and even linked to, there are some great essays on how HPL's xenophobia actually lent itself to the inclusive paranoia and central themes of his work. This is a topic that will come up repeatedly as we explore his work, but it isn't one I choose to focus on for too long because I do not think it is pivotal to exploring these works. We must acknowledge it exists, however. In this story, I bring it up again of course because of the horribly unfortunate name the narrator gives to his favorite cat. It is a word I will never be comfortable using. I am not even sure I know how to tackle it in my own novel that deals directly with racial tension in the Southern US. So, I will not type it here. In later, post 50s, editions of Lovecraft, the name would actually be changed to Black Tom. I am not really one for censoring or changing a writers works, I whole heartedly disagreed with those that sought to remove this word from the works of Mark Twain. But it is the revised version I feel more comfortable using.
This name is harped on a lot by contemporary critics of Lovecraft as a clear sign of writer not worth studying. However, as we have seen in previous stories, Lovecraft had far more horrible things to say. The use of this name, apart from being a terrible racial epithet, really says nothing about race or any group of people. I am not trying to defend it, just to be clear. This was also the name of HPL's own cat who mysteriously disappeared around the time of his grandfather's death (who was more of a fatherly figure in HPL's life).  Apart from the cat's unfortunately chosen name, it does play a crucial part in this story. It is not important because of its name, but because of what it does as a cat. To spend too much wasted breath on the much pointed out name, is really a disservice to this great story. It had to be mentioned, but let's move on.
Late in the night, as the members of the household sleep, the cats begin to act strangely. Black Tom is disturbed by something he can hear within the walls. Leaping from Delapore's bed, the cat attacks something in the dark. The event disturbs the narrator deeply and he is unable to sleep for the remainder of the night. Fighting exhaustion the next day, he cannot help but nod off. In a fitful sleep, he has a frightening dream of a strange swineherd and a swarm of rats seeking to devour all before them.
Be sure to read the full text here: HPL's The Rats in the Walls

Next time: The exciting conclusion, The Rats in the Walls (Part 2)

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