Vacation Necronomicon School, summer 2010 reading assignment for 28th July 2010: “The Rats In The Walls”.
“Your short assignment today […] Try to make a connection […] between Lovecraft’s sense of “otherness” in other people and the intense Otherness of his unknowable horrors.”
TASK THREE: 28th July 2010.
“The Rats in the Walls” was written in August or September 1923. The short story is set in rural England, in the British Isles. The plain literary inspirations for “Rats” are suggested by S.T. Joshi’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (1999): Baring-Gould’s antiquarian folklore collection Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (new ed., 1881); the bare idea of ‘racial regression in an individual’ taken from Irvin S. Cobb’s story “The Unbroken Chain”; and subtler stylistic influences and the idea of decadent aristocrats from Edgar Allan Poe. Similarly decadent aristocrats appear in the context of horror in de Sade and Oscar Wilde, but it may be that Lovecraft did not have access to what were at that time ‘forbidden’ writings. He does however allude once to de Sade in “Rats”.
Although Lovecraft was a passionate Anglophile who longed to visit England — his family had roots in Devonshire, England — he was prevented from travelling by genteel poverty. So he no doubt paid special attention to English subject matter when he found it in stories, reviews, or in the writings of antiquarians and folklorists. His vision of England was thus a fantastical and rural one, yet in this he shared a genuine ‘structure of feeling’ evolved by a long line of native visionaries, a structure which had been inculcated over the millennia into the physical and emotional fabric of the nation.
A central idea in “Rats” is that important and sacred structures in the British countryside are built atop one other on the same site over the centuries and millennia. So far as I know, this then heretical idea was first put forward in archaeological circles in 1922 by Alfred Watkins’ Early British Trackways: Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites. Possibly Lovecraft read a review of this seminal work. The idea was also expertly anticipated in literature by Rudyard Kipling in his series of linked fantasy/historical stories Puck of Pook’s Hill (1909) and its sequel Rewards and Fairies (1910). In “Rats” this literary-antiquarian idea — a broadly sound one in most cases, except for the semi-mystical “ley lines” aspect later added by Watkins — forms the ‘deep time’ counterweight to the personal tale of a gentleman who after excavating layer upon evil layer of family genealogy finds himself trapped in his ineradicable and inescapable genetic identity.
Yet the rebuilding of the house in “Rats” also suggests a more subtle allusion to the similar and healthy ability of the English to rebuild and rework their customs and traditions, and to then psychologically inhabit the resulting hybrid blend…
“Every attribute of the Middle Ages was cunningly reproduced and the new parts blended perfectly with the original walls and foundations.” — “The Rats In The Walls”.
One of the great British traditions is the invention of tradition. An example would be the highly selective recovery and romanticising of the medieval period by the Arts & Crafts movement between 1880 and 1910, a movement which struggled on into the 1920s despite the effect of the First World War and a creeping Modernism (Modernism took many decades to become acknowledged in England). The movement’s crypto-elitist anarcho-socialism may even have been of interest to Lovecraft, if he had been born a few decades earlier — as would some of its seminal books of fantastic fiction. John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market and William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, The Well at the World’s End, and The House Of The Wolflings, would all certainly have interested him. Yet Lovecraft does not mention them at all in his long essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, and it is possible he was simply unaware of these works or else unable to obtain them. Or perhaps he did not consider them to have enough weird moments.
This British cultural mechanism — deeply rooted in the historical experience of culturally managing the union of the Romans and the British; the Angles and the Saxons; the Vikings and the English; the English and the Normans; the Catholics and the Protestants; the Royalists and dissenters; and then the union with Scotland, Wales and Ireland — is partly expressed in the forward-looking ‘nobility obliges’ attitude inculcated into an English gentleman. Social position and education obliges a landed gentleman to act as a responsible steward of people, culture and land for the benefit of future generations. This tacitly ideological position looks both backward for materials that can be useful for re-orienting the present day, and far forward in time — much as Lovecraft merged armchair antiquarianism and a fascination with the cutting-edges of science / science-fiction. This English tradition thus has a tacit sense of ‘deep time’ that Lovecraft may have admired, if only when he saw it reflected in literary works.
A good real-life example would be the matter of the oak beams of Oxford University’s New College, built in the 1300s. In the 1800s the maintenance men of that College found the massive roof beams infested with deathwatch beetles. But where to find the sort of ‘mighty’ oaks needed? A young don recalled that the nearly-forgotten College lands might hold some suitable trees. The College Forester, who had not set foot in the College for decades, was called for. “We were wondering a century ago when you’d be a’ asking.” He said. “We planted the trees to replace your roof beams 500 years ago. The beetle always gets ’em after about 500 years.”
Lovecraft’s “Rats” thus seems to counterpoint these robust British cultural traditions with the apparently science-based eugenicist ideas of ‘reversion to ancestral type’. Such beliefs were part of a package of murky 1920s notions, then just as prevalent on the ‘progressive’ left of politics as on the proto-fascist right. Lovecraft’s own ancestry had a great many murky corners, something he may have been coming to realise when writing “Rats” — a drowning, a sensational suicide, mistresses, insanity, lost fortunes, animosities and lawsuits, hereditary facial deformity (or so Lovecraft may have believed), and much else that might be ‘lurking in the unspeakable’. In the British cultural experience Lovecraft may have subconsciously found psychological relief from his science-bolstered personal worries about ‘reversion to ancestral type’ and his wider political fears of unassimilated mass immigration. Here was a deeply-rooted tradition that suggested a nation could be reinvented, reworked, and that — given enough time — outsiders and invaders could be assimilated and the culture can develop into a congruent and vigorous hybridity.
This tradition has never precluded a certain long-lived national animosity toward the French, however. It is perhaps notable in this context that the narrator’s name “de la Poer” gives a French origin, in contrast to Lovecraft’s own very English roots in deepest Devonshire. There may be something in “Rats”of a “let’s stick it to the Normans” attitude, on the part of Lovecraft.
In relation to linking issues of race and rats, it would be tempting to look at Lovecraft’s descriptions of the rats as a “ravenous rodent army” and “the lethal army” and “the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth” — and then to suggest F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film Nosferatu (Germany, 1922) as a possible immediate influence on Lovecraft. Thus providing a tenuous link with the murderous iconography of Eastern European anti-Semitism, as suggested by Robert H. Waugh’s book The Monster in the Mirror: Looking for H. P. Lovecraft (2006). The vampire at the centre of Nosferatu travels from town to town and brings with him coffins filled with an army of rats, who are his ‘familiars’ and who spread plague in the citizens of northern Europe. This same motif, with its obvious undertow of folk anti-Semitism, was later virulently and infamously taken up in Fritz Hipple’s notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Der Ewige Jude (1940, “The Eternal Jew”) early in the Second World War.
However, Nosferatu cannot have been an influence on Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”, since this film did not come to New York until 1929 — and then only with limited success. It is however possible that Lovecraft may have read English reviews of Nosferatu, and he was a great fan of the novel Dracula (1897) on which the film is based. But this does not justify a claim that Lovecraft meant to equate rats and Jews.
Further open-access reading online:
What Was the “Corpse-Eating Cult of Leng”? by Robert M. Price.