1923 – The Rats in the Walls

1923. The African-American town of Rosewood is destroyed by a white mob, between 8 (official reports) and 150 (eyewitness accounts) people are killed. Ku Klux Klan activities are now at an all-time high. In New York, 30 policemen are exposed as Klan members. In Indiana, 200,000 people openly participate in a Klan rally. And, in Kansas, the Klan openly defies a state order, and 1,000 people parade while wearing masks.

In Germany, hyperinflation is doing wonders for the Nazi party, which is becoming increasingly stronger and more violent. Hitler’s presence is now openly welcomed in national parades. A play is disrupted by Nazis who throw gas bombs into the auditorium. The first issue of Der Sturmer is published. And orders from the federal government to suppress Hitler’s publications are openly defied.

The KKK and Hitler also suffer setbacks (the Nazi party is outlawed after the failed Beer Hall Putsch); however, it is pretty clear that the overall level of evil in the world is on the rise. Evil that is beginning to manifest in various supernatural ways. After entering the unlooted tomb of Tutankhamen, Lord Carnarvon is killed by a mosquito bite; the result of an ancient Egyptian curse (according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In England, ancient evils are stirring, evils that are only revealed to those brave enough to read the horror stories being related by H. P. Lovecraft, stories like “The Rats in the Walls”.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American writer who achieved posthumous fame for his many influential works in horror fiction. During his lifetime, he was largely unknown and only published in pulp magazines before he died of poverty. Today he is considered one of the most significant twentieth-century authors of horror and weird fiction.

Lovecraft’s life was frequently marked by pain, tragedy and death. When he was three, his father suffered a psychotic episode and was committed to a mental health hospital. He died five years later. Lovecraft spent most of his childhood in his mother Susie’s family home. He was raised by his rich grandfather, Whippie, who helped him overcome his fear of the dark. When Lovecraft was 10, Whippie became impoverished, forcing the family to abandon their ancestral home and move to a small apartment. Whippie died when Lovecraft turned 14. Before graduating high school, Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown forcing him to abandon his studies and not graduate. It is theorized that Lovecraft suffered from chorea.

The financial situation of Lovecraft and Susie continued to decline. Lovecraft decided to pursue a career in journalism, and joined the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). He also began writing short horror stories which were published in various magazines, but then tragedy struck again. When Lovecraft was 28, Susie suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a mental hospital, the same hospital where his father died. Two years later she passed away after an unsuccessful gallbladder surgery. Afterwards, Lovecraft continued with his writing, and even managed to get married (and later divorced). However, he was never really able to make a living from his profession, and he spent many years living frugally, sometimes without food, and there were periods where he suffered from malnutrition. At age 47, he was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine, and lived his final year in a lot of pain. In 1977, forty years after his death, fans erected a headstone in Swanstone cemetery on which they inscribed his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the phrase “I am Providence” – a line from one of his personal letters.

“The Rats in the Walls” is one of Lovecraft’s more famous short stories. He wrote it towards the end of 1923, and published it in Weird Tales in 1924. The story is about an American named Delapore, the last descendant of the English De La Poer family. Delapore’s ancestor fled England centuries ago after murdering his family for unknown reasons. The murder unleashed a plague of rats on the countryside, and fear of the family’s evil has never been forgotten. Following the death of his son, Delapore decides to return to England, restore the ancestral home, and reside there. Not an easy task since no one wants to go near the place. Eventually Delapore succeeds in renovating the home, and he moves there with his seven servants and nine cats. After moving in, Delapore and his cats are constantly plagued by the sounds of rats scurrying through the walls, rats which no one else can see or hear. And that is all the spoilers I am going to provide.

I read this story at midnight in bed while under my covers. I was expecting nightmares, and was very disappointed when they didn’t materialize. I’m guessing it was because I am deep sleeper. It definitely wasn’t through any fault in the story, which was originally rejected by the Argosy All-story Weekly pulp magazine because it was “too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick” – a fairly accurate description. The story is indeed blood-curdling. However, the horror is not derived from any real suspense – the reader knows something horrible is coming. The horror is found in the very graphic images described by Delapore when he discovers the true extent of his family’s evil, images that manage to dwarf whatever horror the readers will have already conjured in their heads before reaching that point (remember Delapore brings nine cats with him to his ancestral home). This story is not recommended for children and those with a weak heart. I’m also guessing that most adults would have a difficult time dealing with the horrors this story unleashes. Read this story at your own risk.

The Omer today is courage in eternity, and oddly enough this seems fitting for the year and the story. Evil like good is eternal. It is always lurking, hiding, and waiting for an opportunity to rear its head and strike. We see this with the KKK and the Nazis who while defeated have never truly gone away. Their ideas live on, and sadly will probably continue to live on so long as there is evil in this world. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to evil. We saw it back then in all those who stood up to these dangerous movements, and we also saw it in the story with Delapore who was determined to reclaim his ancestral home despite the warnings signs. Courage like evil is also an eternal attribute. If enough people possess it and their courage is strong enough, evil will be forced to keep itself hidden away. And hidden away it will remain so long as courage and kindness are always there to hold it at bay.

The Rats in The Walls

Author: H. P. Lovecraft

Publisher: Weird Tales

Published: 1924 (written in 1923) 

Format reviewed: Digital