Rats in the Walls
When we left off last time, our protagonist, Delapore, was having a terrible time with horrendous sounds in the walls of his home and the recurring nightmare of an evil swineherd. In this dream he relives the ancient legend of an unleashed torrent of ravenous rats, watching them devour everything and everyone in sight.
After being awoken by his cat, who we are still calling Black Tom, Delapore is surrounded by the sounds of the rodent swarms within the walls of the house. The traps he has set have all been sprung, but not a single rat can be found. Unable to sleep, he follows the sounds of the rats and the alerted cats of the house to an old cellar door where the sounds seem to disappear into the darkness beneath the house.
The next day, he convinces Norrys to accompany him into the dark cellar. As they explore the structures upon which the house sits, Norrys is amazed to find the ruined Roman structures that the de la Poer home was build on top of. They find the remains of an ancient temple, walls scrawled with fading inscriptions. The clearest of these is that of "Atys", a variant spelling of the name Attis. Delapore recalls this name from his reading of Catalus. This is a reference to the ancient poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus written towards the end of the Roman Republic. The poem describes the first person account of Attis as he completes the self-mutilating rites to his mother/lover, Cybele. A creepy but incredibly obscure reference, that further connects the ancient temple with the ancient cult of Cybele, the Magna Mater.
The central altar of the temple, stained with ancient blood and char, looks to be far older than the Roman adopters of the dark religion. Intrigued by the revelation of the place's older roots, and the desire to find the cause of the nocturnal disturbances, Delapore and Norrys (stupidly) decide to spend the night in the ancient cellar. Having couches brought down by the house servants, they lay in wait for something to happen. But it isn't long before Delapore is asleep and dreaming the haunting dream of the daemon swineherd and his flock of hideous "fungous" things. The nightmarish sight awakens him, screaming.
Once again noticing the mad pawing of Black Tom, they discover yet even more structure hidden beneath the Roman architecture. Enlisting the help of a variety of experts, from a psychic to an anthropologist and an expert on ancient Troy. The recurring nightmare once again comes that night as the growing party of experts await their journey below. When they finally move into the newly discovered understructure they find an eerie and unworldly scene. The floor is littered with the rat chewed remains of human and inhuman beings.
As they make their way deeper, the tunnels open up into a massive cavern filled with the ancient ruins of an abandoned city. Every inch of the ground in this catacomb metropolis is covered in the remains of the dead.
The anthropologist of the group notes that the bones are human, though they are of a species of lower order than "piltdown" man. At the time that Lovecraft was writing, the Piltdown Man was still thought to be the missing link of human evolution. This discovery would later be found to be a hoax, but that was still unknown at the time of this story. HPL makes reference to the infamous discovery in numerous stories.
The remains littering the city have been gnawed by the gnashing teeth of millions of rats. It soon becomes clear to the explorers that these ape-men were kept in stone-walled pens, fed by the numerous gardens and herds of Delapore's ancestors. The rats, having broken free, had fed upon caged beasts before pouring into the village above to sate their hunger. The legends and dreams were proving true, as the rats ate their way through the village.
In the darkness, our protagonist is startled by his cat and the full force of fear overcomes Delapore. HPL shows his true skill as he writes a passage filled with the panicked anxiety of a man unable to handle the madness of the truth. He writes:
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 to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.
Here we see reference to Lovecraft's creation Nyarlathotep, thought it a different light than before. He is not meant to be the carnival huckster or dark pharaoh of before, but now takes on the force of an unseen dark entity. HPL also makes use of the nightmarish flute-players. These musicians were first alluded to in Nyarlathotep, but will later come to be more associated with the unimaginable Azathoth. We can see HPL playing with already established conventions and ideas, but altering them to make them work. Lovecraft never intended his works to be a cohesive whole or to operate in the same fictional universe. But he is using his own established ideas to further infuse that sense of the real outside into the unreal fictional world, a common element in Lovecraft's writing.
Delapore screams in a panic, and the weight of events has driven him to madness. As the story concludes we learn only vaguely what had happened. We understand why the house is being destroyed and we see the unspeakable acts that Delapore is capable of in a state of primal madness as he comes face to face with the true nature of his ancestry.
Like other stories in a similar vein (Arthur Jermyn and Lurking Fear), HPL is basing his horror on the idea of the cursed lineage. Delapore discovers who his ancestors really were, the horrific acts they were capable of, and ultimately what that made him. Lovecraft is building on his fears that a man is doomed to be a product of his genetics, that the sins of the father will have a devastating impact on the lives of later generations.
We will see this line of thinking again as Lovecraft evolves this theme, working it into his own original works. As he strays from the Poe-esque stories and write the stories we now think of as the bigger mythos stories, we will see this theme culminate in The Shadow over Innsmouth.
If you want to check out one of the first Lovecraft stories I ever read, and enjoy a little rodent induced madness, you can check out the full text of this story here: HPL's Rats in the Walls
Next time: Under the Pyramids