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Literature / The Rats in the Walls

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The Rats in the Walls is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, written in August-September 1923, and published in Weird Tales in March 1924.

It represents a rare Lovecraft story that does not contain any overt supernatural elements, other than the mention of ancient worship and the imaginings of an increasingly unreliable narrator. After his son dies from injuries sustained during the Great War a man named Delapore leaves New England, with his nine cats, to purchase and restore the hereditary lands of his ancestors, the De la Poer family, in England. Helped by a friend of his son's, who just happens to be the nephew of the man currently in possession of the land, he discovers generations of mistrust and suspicion aided by local traditions of horrible, nasty deeds attributed to the land and his ancestors specifically. Then the cats start acting weird, the narrator starts having troubling dreams and the newly renovated ancestral home may be overrun by an army of nocturnal rats. And things just go downhill from there...

The complete story can be read online here.

Warning: Spoilers Below

Tropes in this work include:

  • Arc Welding: The Atlanta Radio Theater Company version mentions that the cult of the Magna Mater is associated with The Great Old Ones of the larger Cthulhu Mythos.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The protagonist's ancestors fit the bill quite nicely, save for the Defector from Decadence that became his direct ancestor.
  • Artistic License – Biology: It'd be extremely difficult to maintain a breeding population for generations that relied entirely on inbreeding, since the chances of dying young from genetic abnormalities or being sterile would greatly increase with each generation (see: Tutankhamun and Charles II), rendering the idea that the lineage would have survived long enough to become ape-like quadrupeds highly unlikely (and that doesn't take into account the fact humans would make terrible livestock due to a very slow breeding cycle, and the diseases that would surely set in from keeping so many people packed together in squalor for centuries). Terrifyingly averted, since the de la Poers don't. Early in the book it's noted that the people of Anchester resent the de la Poers for "the occasional disappearance of villagers through several generations." With the revelation of the grotto, the reader discovers what those villagers, and who knows how many others, were used for.
  • Asshole Victim: Most of the protagonist's ancestors ended up murdered by the White Sheep of the family. Notably, the locals considered him a hero and made no effort to apprehend him.
  • Author Avatar: Like Lovecraft himself our narrator is a cat lover and, after his move to England, a budding historian—albeit mostly just of his own family line. His favourite cat also shares a name with one of Lovecraft's own cats.
    My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond.
  • Black Speech: As the protagonist realizes the truth about his family's history, he starts to deliriously rant in antiquated, medieval English, then in Roman-era Latin and finally in Celtic. Eventually his speech degenerates into guttural, wordless grunting implied to be a primordial pre-druidic tongue.
    The war ate my boy, damn them all… and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore and the secret… No, no, I tell you, I am not that daemon swineherd in the twilit grotto! It was not Edward Norrys' fat face on that flabby, fungous thing! Who says I am a de la Poer? He lived, but my boy died!… Shall a Norrys hold the lands of a de la Poer?… It's voodoo, I tell you… that spotted snake… Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do!… ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust… wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?… Magna Mater! Magna Mater!… Atys… Dia ad aghaidh's ad aodann… agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas's dholas ort, agus leat-sa!… Ungl… ungl… rrrlh… chchch…
  • Bowdlerise: Nigger-Man the cat gets this a lot:
    • He was renamed "Black Tom" when the story was reprinted in a 1950s magazine.
    • A 2011 Comic-Book Adaptation simply didn't refer to him by name at all.
    • The Atlanta Radio Theater Company version names the cat "Voodoo", in memory of the narrator's cousin who was disowned by the family for converting to Voudoun and becoming a priest in that religion.
  • Cannibal Larder: Basically the entire hollowed out limestone cavern found underneath the Exham Priory but also specifically the ancient English building Capt Norrys inspects and presumably many more, which not only served as a Cannibal Larder, kitchens and disposal grounds for the degenerate, cannibalistic De La Poer family, but also contained breeding pens where the family had raised generations of human "cattle", some of which so completely bred into food that they had regressed to walking on all fours as shown by the bones remaining in the ruins.
  • Defector from Decadence: The narrator's ancestor, who killed his entire degenerate family when he discovered the truth of their evil, and fled to America. The people of the surrounding area considered him something of a hero and didn't even try to stop his escape.
    • A nobleman who had married into the family ended up killing his wife when he discovered some gruesome secret about her. When he explained his motives to the local priest (we're never told exactly what they were), he immediately absolved him of his crime and told him he had committed no sin.
  • Deteriorates Into Gibberish: Used to terrifying effect as described above.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The climax implies this is what happens to the protagonist, as the horror of what he's uncovered combined with the loss of his family, finally brings him over the edge. When he attacks one of the supporting characters, he rants about how "the War ate my boy, damn them all, and The Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore".
  • Downer Beginning: The main character's son is horribly injured in World War 1 and left an invalid. The main character spends two years taking care of him before he dies, leaving the main character alone, as his wife had died years ago. It's implied that him taking it upon himself to restore Exham is at least partially to keep distracted from his grief.
  • Downer Ending: The story ends with the main character going mad after realizing his ancestors engaged in human farming and cannibalism, kills and eats Mr. Norrys, and is subdued, has his cat taken away from him and is committed to an asylum where he constantly hears the rats haunting him.
  • Formerly Sapient Species: The de la Poer family sated their cannibalistic appetites by breeding "human pigs" in immense underground food pens. The breeding stock was so inbred and twisted towards the end that some of them had devolved into quadrupeds, and they had largely lost the capacity for thought.
  • Freudian Slip: In the Dark Adventure Radio Theater production, Delapore accidentally calls Norrys by his son's name, Alfred.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: It's more or less left up to the reader whether the narrator was driven mad by what he found or the madness was inherit in his blood and only needed a slight push to go spiraling out of control.
    • Thornton the psychic researcher ends up in the cell next to the narrator, possibly after seeing him cannibalize Norrys.
      Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do!
    • One of the folk tales about the estate revolved around a servant going insane from seeing something in the Priory in broad daylight.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: The narrator tears Norrys to pieces cursing him that he lived while his son died.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The hideous truth behind all the horrible legends surrounding the Exham Priory and its inhabitants.
    • The horrible reveal maddened the narrator into killing his companion and eat his flesh.
  • It's the Only Way to Be Sure: The narrator mentions at the end that "they have blown up Exham Priory" in response to the horrors discovered there.
  • Kill It with Fire: de la Pore's ancestor came to the conclusion that this was the only remedy for his family's excesses.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's one of the few Lovecraft works that only hints at the supernatural - nothing concrete ever appears despite all the foreshadowing. It's not even stated whether exploring the caverns awakened the evil in the narrator's bloodline or he simply snapped like a twig upon discovering his ancestors were a cannibal cult. Even the most obvious supernatural implication in the story, the presence of chiselmarks going up from the limestone grotto under Exham Priory, is immediately undercut by the discovery of faults in the cliff face outside.
  • Older Than They Think: In universe, the Exham Priory itself - the visible parts are old enough (ranging from Gothic, Roman, Druidic and possibly even native Cymric) but then they get down into the caverns and the further they move the older the remains, both structural and skeletal, become. The exact age of the underground ruins are never totally established, since they only explore a small fraction and never find out how far the caverns descend; the point where "typical creepy castle" turns into "High-Octane Lovecraft" is when Sir William notes as they're descending the stairs that from the marks in the stonework, the passage was chiseled from below - the passage wasn't cut to permit access to the caverns, whoever or whatever lived in the caverns dug its way out.
    We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went, for it was decided that such secrets are not good for mankind.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The narrator lost his son, Alfred, who succumbed to injuries he had sustained in World War I. For most of the story, the narrator doesn't dwell too much on it, and it appears to be mostly an innocuous background detail to explain how he knows Edward Norrys, who was a friend of his son as the two of them met on the front. But it gets a dark twist later, when the narrator snaps and attacks Norrys, revealing that he resented him for ultimately surviving the war, while Alfred didn't.
  • People Farms: One of the investigators the author brought with him states that, based on the skeletons they find, the poor unfortunates kept down below had been so interbred they had devolved to walking on all fours.
    The skulls denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom.
  • Purple Prose: Not as bad as some of Lovecraft's works but still definitely there.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: Delapore is made to suffer for his ancestors' crimes.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Technically a family with a dark secret - It is implied that throughout its history any family member let in on the secret that didn't react well or any member who simply didn't 'fit in' was gotten rid of.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The first-person narration dips into this toward the end.
  • Villainous Lineage: Implied, it seems that the de la Poers have a hereditary predilection towards madness and evil, even the single surviving branch had a few black sheep, despite its progenitor being a significantly nicer person than his ancestors (the main character mentions an uncle who had gone off the deep end and run off to become a voodoo cultist). It's also implied that the Priory itself, or rather the caverns it was built on, was the cause of this curse, as the narrator mentions that there was no record of any sort of evil in his family before his ancestor was given the land by Henry III in the 13th century.
  • Wham Line: In the radio play we get this as the searchers descend the stair.
    Professor Leeds: Brinton, those tool-marks...
    Sir William: Yes, I know.
    Professor Leeds: They're going the wrong way.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the rats? The titular rats. A horde of rats that burst forth on the countryside centuries ago is part of the legend of Exham Priory. But at the time of setting, in the 20th Century, Delapore hears rats scrabbling and scratching inside the (stone) walls of the castle. Even his cat Nigger-Man hears them and reacts, fiercely. Poison is set out for them, to no effect. But the rats never appear in the story — they are not even present in the cavern below the priory where so many hideous things are revealed. (Delapore later again hears rats in the walls of the insane asylum, but that can be dismissed as a madman's hallucination.)
  • White Sheep: One of the hero's ancestors despised his family's evil deeds. When he learned the full extent of their depravity, he killed them and left to start a new life in America.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Goes for all the evil de la Poers, but one particular family member mentioned in passing was treated as a virtual boogeyman by the children of the town.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Played with, the rats aren't actually evil themselves, but the heralds of something much darker. They're still treated as dangerous and monstrous; shortly after the narrator's ancestor wiped out the de la Poers and set fire to the castle, their abhuman "cattle" trapped in the underground city were devoured by rats, resulting in a population explosion which then proceeded to swarm the countryside in a "historic orgy of devastation which the peasants will never forget."