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?