Bloodcurdling Tales: The Rats in the Walls

rats-in-the-walls

There’s a lot of paradoxes in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.” His narrator/protagonist Delapore, an aging Southern gentleman whose only son died after serving in the Great War, discovers his mysterious ancestral roots in England involves pagan beliefs and cannibalism. The secret caverns he, a family friend, and a group of archaeologists discover beneath the estate suggests a morbid precedent to American slavery: the remains of humanoids, devolved to the point of walking on all fours, and meant for consumption by Delapore’s ancestors. The rats–which only Delapore and his cats detect and are implied to be manifestations or ghostly servants of Lovecraft’s chaos being Nyarlathohep–are a metaphor for man’s destruction of other men. Delapore himself is sympathetic (his favorite cat, “Nigger-Man,” shares its shameful name with one Lovecraft gave his own), but the terrible connections to his family’s mindset show in his resentment of Northerners, revealed in the sole line of ‘dialogue’ in an otherwise journal-entry-style story. Lovecraft, however, wasn’t a progressive, championing the rights of African-Americans. Delapore’s ancestors may have been sub-human monstrosities, damning their scion when knowledge and biology crack his sanity (the fate of one character is cunningly foreshadowed in the repeated observation of how “plump” they are), but Lovecraft holds no sympathy for their victims, only horror at how much further down the evolutionary ladder they are. When Delapore recalls a cousin “who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest” as being similar to the ghastly tales about his forebears he hears from the locals, Lovecraft seems to be correlating not only to the institution of slavery, but also the practice of plantation owners fathering children with female slaves. While the roots of the nihilistic, cosmic horror for which Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” is known are readily apparent, the more immediate fear is that of miscegenation, of one’s heredity being inherently corrupt. The latter helped shape the former, yet its conformity to contemporary human institutions (which are supposed to be ‘worthless’ in the Mythos’ cosmology) is the deep scar on Lovecraft’s skillful, troubled art.

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