A week or so ago I was at Necronomicon, a four day convention in Providence devoted exclusively to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. You would therefore be correct in surmising that I am a fan. Let’s have a look back at the story that first hooked me on his fiction.
I forget exactly where I heard such things, but by the time I was seventeen I had come across enough references to Lovecraft that I felt I needed to read him. I knew this even though the only fact I knew about him was that he was a major horror writer, which is odd because I wasn’t reading much horror at the time; even I can’t reconstruct my motives back then. And it wasn’t as if he fell into my lap. My school library didn’t have anything, and after a couple of public libraries turned up nothing I ordered one of his collections at random from another branch. The second story in the collection was ‘The Rats in the Walls’, and I was hooked.
Our narrator is a Mr Delapore. Though he’s lived all his life in Massachusetts, he’s always known that his ancestors were once the well-respected de la Poer family who left England under mysterious circumstances. After making his fortune the narrator travels across the Atlantic to trace his family roots, and soon finds just what he was looking for: his ancestral home, Exham Priory, its ruins left untouched for three hundred years.
He even learns some of his family history from the local villagers, though they are highly suspicious of both him and the house. To them, the family name is cursed. The de la Poer ancestor who fled to Massachusetts did so after killing the rest of his family in their sleep. Shortly after this the house had been demolished in the English Civil War. Out of the debris had poured forth a ravenous swarm of rats that had swept through the village, biting to death all livestock in their path. No one has dared venture near the ruins since.
This doesn’t dissuade the narrator, and he likes the idea of restoring honor to his family name. He decides to use his wealth to rebuild Exham Priory, restoring it to just as it was in the seventeenth century. Work continues smoothly, though he has to import laborers and craftsmen because everyone in the village refuses to have anything to do with the house.
In a short while the house is complete and habitable. The narrator, having adopted the de la Poer spelling of his name once more, moves in with his friend, Capt Norrys, a skeleton staff and a cat. That night he dreams of a swineherd directing sweeping hordes of rats, and he is awoken by his cat’s restless scratching at the solid walls.
The following night the dreams are more vivid, and when he wakes he can hear a low distant scurrying as of rats or mice. He summons Norrys and a couple of servants, but none of them can hear anything.
An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could well explain. These rats, if not the creatures of a madness which I shared with the cats alone, must be burrowing and sliding in Roman walls I had thought to be solid limestone blocks . . . unless perhaps the action of water through more than seventeen centuries had eaten winding tunnels which rodent bodies had worn clear and ample . . . But even so, the spectral horror was no less; for if these were living vermin why did not Norrys hear their disgusting commotion?
Entirely by accident, my Lovecraft recommendations seem to be proceeding chronologically through his oeuvre. His fiction output can be roughly divided into three periods. His first period contained his Dunsanian fantasies, and The Silver Key nicely captures the reason he loves such tales. The third period was his cosmic horror, telling of the insignificance of humanity and the dark dispassionate gods and aliens that sleep, and I’m sure I’ll talk about some of them in time.
This story however dates from his second period, when he wrote his most conventional horror pieces. I feel that today’s story is the best representative of this period. It is deliciously unnerving thanks to the chittering sounds of rats in walls that the narrator knows to be newly built and solid. And the horrors that are discovered beneath the house are memorable too, and distinctive thanks to the cosmic flavor that Lovecraft would soon learn to harness and make the focal point of his stories.
The Rats in the Walls by H.P. Lovecraft
Availability: free online (out of copyright), print
Word count: 8,000
First published: Weird Tales, March 1924
Where to find it: It is available online in a number of places, including Wikisource here
The story appears in most of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos collections and ‘best of’ collections, as well as the Library of America volume of Lovecraft
I recommend the Penguin edition (The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Stories) because of S.T. Joshi’s annotations
I first came across it in The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3: The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales, collection, 1986, Grafton
The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, 2012, Oxford University Press