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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Short story review: "The Rats in the Walls", H.P. Lovecraft

Tales (Library of America #155) - H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub

The grandson wants to remember what the father wished to forget.

- Anonymous



The moral of "The Rats in the Walls", like so many Lovecraft stories, is Ignorance is bliss.  Or more specifically its corollary, Cognizance is torment. So don't go poking around swampy cyclopean structures, or digging up hex-marked graves, or hanging out with pagan cannibal cults.  Just don't.  "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."


But every Lovecraft story worth its salt features some dumbass protagonist who does not heed this warning.  Here, we have the last scion of the de la Poer family, a once-prominent English clan, who decides to restore the ancestral home, Exham Priory.


The place had not been inhabited since the reign of James the First, when a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.


So yeah, going back there and digging up the past: sounds like a great idea!  How could this possibly end badly?



Shortly after moving in, de la Poer is wakened at night by what sounds like a massive horde of rats scratching and scurrying within the ancient walls, descending from the eaves down toward the cellar.  This cacophony repeats nightly and has him understandably unnerved, especially since it seems only he and the cats can hear it.


And rats at Exham Priory are not without precedent: Legend has it that a "scampering army of obscene vermin had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion"; the rats had swept throughout the countryside devouring everything in their path, including livestock and a couple of humans.  If rats are again infesting the manor, de la Poer wants them exterminated immediately.  And that means investigating the basement, which turns out to be a lot deeper and more sinister than he ever expected...



Just recently, I was reading about literary descents into the abyss in Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead.  She discusses voyages to the underworld as a metaphor for writing.  Where does a writer's inspiration come from?  Somewhere deep and shadowy in the earth, where the dead who have gone before us can grant to us their tales and the words we need to tell them.  And though Atwood doesn't describe it this way, to me this murky destination signifies not so much the underworld as the human subconscious.  It isn't the dead providing us with inspiration; it's something buried deep and shrouded within ourselves.


But horrors lurk within our subconscious as well - appalling and forbidden desires, disquieting repressed memories, blood-lust and power-lust and plain old lust-lust.  All those Freudian grotesques.  And perhaps a subliminal and indelible racial memory lurks there too, following us doggedly down through the generations.


For de la Poer is haunted not just by the sound of the rats in the walls, but also by a recurring nightmare:


I seemed to be looking down from an immense height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing. Then, as the swineherd paused and nodded over his task, a mighty swarm of rats rained down on the stinking abyss and fell to devouring beasts and man alike.


This is not his own memory, but an impression filtering in from his family's distant past.  He knows, before he can know, what lies there forgotten in the fathomless sub-basement.  He has inherited this dreadful knowledge, like one might inherit a snub nose or a lazy eye.  He carries the past within him.  It is him, and with the right trigger it may be able to overtake him.


For it isn't the dusty relics entombed far below the basement of Exham Priory that are so terrifying, in the end.  It's the relics entombed within de la Poer's mind, within his soul, quietly scurrying like the rats within the walls and waiting for their moment