The Rats in the Walls – H.P. Lovecraft

LovecraftOne of the things I love-hate about Lovecraft is that the horror fiction-ness of his writing is permanently dialled all the way up to eleven. The default tone of his prose is one of abject fear, panic and impending doom: and this tone both supersedes and precedes any narrative events that might reasonably justify it.

So when the narrator of The Rats in the Walls (1924) discovers a long-hidden cavern underneath his ancient country mansion, he immediately dubs it “the pit of nameless fear”.

And it’s like “the pit of nameless fear”!? Wut? You’ve only just stumbled upon the entranceway; it could be the pit of cuddles and ice cream for all you know. Why don’t you at least take a look or throw a match down there or something before coming up with such a prejudicial moniker?  So it’s not just horror fictional narrative events that characterise Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but the ubiquitous and pre-emptive expectation of horror, too

For Lovecraft the universe is, by nature, terrifying and indifferent and cold, and should be approached as such: the evidence will present itself in time. It’s curious that even though Lovecraft was a great admirer of science and scientists (indeed he spent much of his time self-educating himself on the subject) he nonetheless expected science to eventually yield up some universal truth so cosmically scary that “we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”.

Of course this expectation of horror, if you will, forms a large part of the idiosyncrasy that we refer to as “Lovecraftian”, which has always seemed to me to be less a type of narrative schema (tentacle monsters and extinction threats and science gone mad and etc.), than it is an over-arching nihilistic philosophy of cosmic indifference, taking a stand against our natural propensity for anthropocentrism and highlighting the fact of our cosmic smallness.

The expectation of horror, then, is borne out of Lovecraft’s default philosophical position that the universe is hostile and terrifying and humans are a blip of no importance destined for horrifying extinction. HPL should of course be applauded for having developed a literary voice that expresses his own philosophy with such clarity (which is so vital for horror fiction), but the reason I say that I “love-hate” this aspect of his writing is that, despite the lucidity with which it drives home this world view, it nonetheless has a detrimental effect on some of his works’ tensions. The above example from The Rats in the Walls illustrates how the ubiquity of such a narrative voice can undermine the seriousness of a scene with more than a little comedic bathos. “The pit of nameless fear” is an extreme turn of phrase, yet it becomes kinda comedic because the intensity of the language isn’t justified by anything that’s as-yet happened in the story.  As it goes, of course, the narrator is correct in giving the cavern such a name, but the reader doesn’t know this at the time; rather than slowly build suspense, this approach consistently gives the reader a very heavy-handed heads-up re: what’s coming next. So in order to maintain his brilliantly-realised philosophy as a universal constant, Lovecraft has to employ this sort of stylistic monotone, wherein everything is potentially terrifying. It’s a shame, and a frustrating pay-off, as stories like The Rats in the Walls would surely benefit from more fluctuating levels of tension and suspense.

But this stylistic niggle is all that’s bad about The Rats in the Walls. What’s good about it is: everything else. It’s about an American who returns to his ancestral home in England only to discover that beneath the foundations of the estate is a buried city that was maintained by his dynasty for centuries, where they lived a life of cannibalistic savagery and kept generations of “human cattle”, many of which devolved to become animalistic quadrupeds. This revelation sends the narrator insane and, like those past members of his family, he attacks and attempts to eat another man.

As a work of horror The Rats in the Walls succeeds by converging various pre-established genre tropes into something shocking and new. The rats that scurry in the walls of the mansion call to mind the ghosts of classic haunted house mysteries, albeit transposed into something tangibly corporeal: this physicality is classic Lovecraftian, rather than the supernatural explanations offered by many such older, gothic narratives. The wealthy and privileged lord whose family history harbours horrific and dark secrets is a common trope of anti-aristocracy fantasies. And tied in with this is the old Christian notion of inherited familial shame and atavism, or reversion to type (a common theme in Lovecraft – that scientific and moral enlightenment is transient). The narrator recruits several scientists to aid him in the exploration of the “pit of nameless fear”, hoping that modern scientific approaches will somehow protect him from the horror that awaits, or the shame of his less-enlightened ancestor’s actions. The failure of the scientists to do either of these things perhaps speaks to Lovecraft’s conviction that humanity isn’t as far evolved from animalistic savagery as we’d like to think, and that we may revert backwards just as easily as progress forwards.

Oh, I should probably also mention the cat. So when I said that the monotonal approach was the only bad thing about the story, I was remiss. There’s also the narrator’s pet cat “Nigger Man”. It’s definitely one of the more in-your-face examples of HPL’s abhorrent racism; the casual employment of such a loaded epithet it grotesquely shocking, and a common stumbling block for many readers.

Unscrambling the racist artist from his accomplished art is par for the course in literary criticism, it seems, but when said art is so informed by the opinions of (is, indeed, a reflection of) the artist, things become strikingly problematic. The reasoned approach would be a criticism that recognises the philosophically compelling nature and brilliant originality of Lovecraft’s fiction, while calling-out the unsavoury fact of his beliefs. Racism in Lovecraft is something I fretted over for a long time, and I’ve more-or-less settled on the opinion that it *is* perfectly valid to praise one aspect of his writing, while simultaneously condemning others, and in the harshest possible terms.

Love-hate, then, is the critical standard by which I approach HPL, and I flatter myself in thinking that holding two contradictory opinions about a writer is a sign of critical maturity, rather than of moral weakness. But who knows?

11 responses to “The Rats in the Walls – H.P. Lovecraft

  1. This is a terrific analysis. I’ve long wondered about trying Lovecraft, but your comments about examples of abject racism in his work and his OTT approach to dialing up the horror leave me feeling he may not be for me. I tend to prefer stories with a more measured approach to building suspense and tension. Great review.

    • Many thanks.

      I would still recommend Lovecraft, he’s massively important for horror fiction, and a true visionary.
      But the racism does pretty much pervade everything he ever wrote, and can be very tricky to navigate at times. So there’s always a cognitive dissonance thing going on when you read him.
      I wouldn’t start with this one though. Maybe ‘The Colour out of Space’, ‘The Call of Cthuhlu’, or ‘The Dunwich Horror’ 🙂


  2. Is Lovecraft a sort of phase one goes through? I devoured the bulk of HPL as a student — even wished I’d a T-shirt emblazoned with Miskatonic University — while a friend swore by Arthur Machen. I’ve a little time for Machen now but can’t manage more than a few sentences of the master of eldritch. Am I getting old?

    By the way, I liked the joke cracked by a friend who saw me reading HPL. “Is that a book about MP’s seduction techniques?” Very apposite these days: plus ca change…

    • I can only handle HPL in small doses. I’ve had his complete works for about 5 years, and read one or two stories every coupla months.

      I think we’re definitely seeing a resurgence of interest in his work atm though. Mostly because he is such a profound influence on the so-called “New Weird” (China Mieville, Thomas Ligotti, Jeff Vandermeer, Caitin R. Keirnan etc.), and this is begining to filter through into more mainstream genres like Fantasy and Science Fiction, too.

      Ta for reading and commenting 🙂

      • I too can only take HPL in small doses. ‘Tedious’ is the word I often use to describe him. While some of the premises are indeed interesting, the setup often takes much too long, and the final payoff frequently leaves me feeling like, that’s it?

  3. I have a great fondness for Lovecraft’s work, which has never really diminished since i first found a mouldering second hand copy of some of his short stories buried away in the back of a used bookshop (surely the best way to discover him).

    His racism is I think integral to and inseparable from the majority of his work. It’s unusually in your face here because of the cat name, but oddly in some ways less central. The Shadow over Innsmouth or The Horror at Red Hook are less explicitly racist, but the underlying horror is definitely driven by racist sentiment. That said, The Shadow over Innsmouth remains one of his best tales. Tricky stuff.

    Anyway, nice review as ever. I agree with your recommendations to Jacqui also, those would be very solid starting points. Maybe also The Whisperer in Darkness.

    • Many thanks.

      I know what you mean about Lovecraft’s racism usually being less.. obvious than the cat name. The Colour Out of Space is one of my favourites, but is, itself, pretty darn hate-filled. You know, all those characters running around panicking because a “colour” from “a distant place” is invading and coming to get them, etc.

      • I see that, though to be honest that’s not how I read color. I think that one is a more straightforward horror of the genuinely alien and unknown – the color bit is to make it unimaginable for me.

        Have you read The Street? That for me is possibly his worst, it’s horribly racist and it’s actually not a very good story. One for the completists. Shadow over Innsmouth may be racially dodgy, but at least it’s a great story still.

        • I’ve not read The Street, I’m afraid. I have his complete fiction, and I’m slowly working through it (in no particular order, it must be said).

          I think, for me, the most immediately shocking of his racist statements is in the Call of Chuthlu, when he describes some ancient ritual as more evil than the “blackest negro”. Urgh.

  4. He does say a lot of racist things in his works but it’s more than that; He had severe xenophobia, completely terrified of everyone and everything that was different from himself. It doesn’t excuse his racism but it’s important to understand that without this aspect of his character he wouldn’t have been able to write the way he did. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves yet wrote about how men are created equal and should be free and allowed to pursue liberty. Sometimes even great minds cannot escape being products of their time. The 20’s and 30’s saw a resurgence of racism. This was a time when the kkk was coming into prominence nationally and the practice of eugenics was seen as a legitimate scientific endeavor.

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