“Rats in the Walls, The“

“Rats in the Walls, The“
   Short story (7,940 words); written late August or early September 1923. First published in WT(March 1924); rpt. WT (June 1930); first collected in O; corrected text in DH;annotated version in An1and CC
   A Virginian of British ancestry, a man named Delapore (his first name is not given), decides to spend his latter years in refurbishing and occupying his ancestral estate in southern England, Exham Priory, whose foundations extend to a period even before the Roman conquest of the first century C.E. Delapore spares no expense in the restoration and proudly moves into his estate on July 16, 1923. He has reverted to the ancestral spelling of his name, de la Poer, despite the fact that the family has a very unsavory reputation with the local population for murder, kidnapping, witchcraft, and other anomalies extending to the time of the first Baron Exham in 1261. Associated with the house or the family is the “dramatic epic of the rats—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.”
   All this seems merely conventional ghostly legendry, and de la Poer pays no attention to it. But shortly after his occupancy of Exham Priory, odd things begin to happen; in particular, he and his several cats seem to detect the scurrying of rats in the walls of the structure, even though such a thing is absurd in light of the centuries-long desertion of the place. The scurrying seems to descend to the basement of the edifice, and one night de la Poer and his friend, Capt. Edward Norrys, spend a night there to see if they can discern the mystery. De la Poer wakes to hear the scurrying of the rats continuing “ still downward,far underneath this deepest of sub-cellars,” but Norrys hears nothing. When they come upon a trapdoor leading to a cavern beneath the basement, they decide to call in scientific specialists to investigate the matter. As the explorers descend into the nighted crypt, they come upon an awesome and horrific sight—an enormous expanse of bones: “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 or clutching some other forms with cannibal intent.” When de la Poer finds that some bones have rings bearing his own coat of arms, he realizes the truth—his family has been the leaders of an ancient cannibalistic witch-cult that had its origins in primitive times—and he experiences a spectacular evolutionary reversal: speaking successively in archaic English, Middle English, Latin, Gaelic, and primitive ape-cries, he is found crouching over the half-eaten form of Capt. Norrys.
   In a late letter HPL states 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” ( SL5.181), but this specific image does not occur in the story. HPL recorded the kernel of the idea in his commonplace book: “Wall paper cracks off in sinister shape—man dies of fright” (\#107). And yet, an earlier entry (\#79) is also suggestive: “Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle—discovered by dweller.” HPL first submitted the tale to Argosy All-Story Weekly,a Munsey magazine whose managing editor, Robert H.Davis, rejected it as being (in HPL’s words) “too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick” ( SL1.259).
   The name de la Poerhas been seen to be an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe; but, as John Kipling Hitz points out, the name is a slight alteration of an actual name, Le Poer, which Poe and his erstwhile fiancee Sarah Helen (Power) Whitman believed to be in both their ancestries. HPL would have known this from reading Caroline Tinknor’s biography of Whitman, Poe’s Helen(1916), which he owned. Although the English atmosphere is depicted deftly in the tale, HPL appears to commit some errors. The town nearest to Exham Priory is given as Anchester, but there is no such town in England. HPL must have been thinking either of Ancaster in Lincolnshire or (more likely) Alchester in the southern county of Oxfordshire. Perhaps this is a deliberate alteration; but then, what do we make of the statement that “Anchester had been the camp of the Third Augustan Legion”? Neither Alchester nor Ancaster were the sites of legionary fortresses in Roman Britain; what is more, the Third Augustan Legion was never in England, and it was the Second Augustan Legion that was stationed at Isca Silurum (Caerleon-on-Usk) in what is now Wales.
   Certain surface features of the tale—and perhaps one essential kernel of the plot—were taken from other works. As Steven J.Mariconda has pointed out, HPL’s account of the “epic of the rats” appears to be derived from a chapter in S.Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1869). The Gaelic parts of de la Poer’s concluding cries were lifted directly from Fiona Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater” (1895), which HPL read in Joseph Lewis French’s anthology, Best Psychic Stories (1920). (This borrowing would have a curious sequel. According to a now discredited historical theory, Gaelic was thought to have been spoken in the north of England rather than the South, where Cymric was spoken. When the tale was reprinted in WTfor June 1930, Robert E.Howard noticed the discrepancy and sent a letter to the editor, Farnsworth Wright, pointing it out; Wright passed the letter on to HPL, thereby initiating an intense six-year correspondence between the two writers.)
   The idea of atavism or reversion to type seems to have been derived from a story by Irvin S.Cobb, “The Unbroken Chain,” published in Cosmopolitan for September 1923 (the issue, as is customary with many magazines, was probably on the stands at least a month before its cover date) and later collected in Cobb’s collection On an Island That Cost $24.00(1926). HPL admits that Frank Belknap Long gave him the magazine appearance of this story in 1923 (see HPL to J.Vernon Shea, November 8–22, 1933; ms., JHL), and he alludes to it without title in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This tale deals with a Frenchman who has a small proportion of negroid blood from a slave brought to America in 1819. When he is run down by a train, he cries out in an African language— “Niama tumba!”—the words that his black ancestor shouted when he was attacked by a rhinoceros in Africa. The story was reprinted in HPL’s lifetime in Christine Campbell Thomson’s Switch On the Light (1931). Its appearance (with “The Dunwich Horror”) in Herbert A.Wise and Phyllis Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Modern Library, 1944) was a significant landmark in HPL’s literary recognition.
   See Barton Levi St. Armand, The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Elizabethtown, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977); Steven J.Mariconda, “Baring-Gould and the Ghouls: The Influence of Curious Myths of the Middle Ageson ‘The Rats in the Walls,’” Crypt No. 14 (St. John’s Eve 1983): 3–7 (rpt. in Mariconda’s On the Emergence of “Cthulhu” and Other Observations[Necronomicon Press, 1995]); CryptNo. 72 (Roodmas 1990) (special issue on “The Rats in the Walls”); Hubert Van Calenbergh, “The Roots of Horror in The Golden Bough,” LSNo. 26 (Spring 1992): 21–23; Paul Montelone, “‘The Rats in the Walls’: A Study in Pessimism,” LSNo. 32 (Spring 1995): 18–26; John Kipling Hitz, “Lovecraft and the Whitman Memoir,” LSNo. 37 (Fall 1997): 15–17; Mollie L.Burleson, “H.P.Lovecraft and Charles Dickens: The Rats in Their Walls,” LSNo. 38 (Spring 1998): 34–35; John Kipling Hitz, “Some Notes on ‘The Rats in the Walls,’” LS No. 40 (Fall 1998): 29–33.

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