“The Rats In the Walls”, first published in Weird Tales, March 1924.
This is the the tenth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
Lovecraft seems to write a lot of characters that are just stand ins for himself, but up until now they have generally been the passive observers rather than the active characters – the narrators in The Statement of Randolph Carter, Herbert West - Reanimater and The Hound, for example. In this story, he not only puts himself at the centre, but creates for himself a kind of dream other life.
Walter Delapore needs some kind of background so that the reader can feel something about his eventual fate, but this kind of aristocratic set up seems to be a big draw for Lovecraft. Walter Delapore is the scion of a distinguished line of British aristocracy that has been settled in Virginia for many generations. He makes a fortune in business, marries and has a child but his wife dies in child birth, getting her handily out of the way. When the son dies as a consequence of injuries suffered in World War I, this allows the father to indulge his fascination with antiquities by pouring the family fortune (to which there is now no heir) into restoring his newly the family seat in the south of England.
Love craft saw himself as the scion of minor New England aristocracy, the last of a noble line. In Delapore's death and degradation, maybe HPL is hinting at his own father's fate and what he thinks might be in store for himself. All the stuff about the luxurious surroundings, well-padded chairs and Nigger-Man on his knee is cold comfort at the horror that lies just below the surface of his mind.
I enjoyed this one a lot, and HPL seems to have hit his stride. It's an excellent horror. Delapore's dreams add an atmosphere foreboding and the climax pays off on it with a really nasty, gruesome ending.
Like a number of the previous stories, it's set against the contemporary events of World War I. In A Life, Joshi notes that in this tale Lovecraft adds a very specific date in the first line: “On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory.” Lovecraft is clearly working hard to place his stories in the context of the real world. The Music of Erich Zann, by contrast, is the most successful of his dreamier stories, and represents a style he chose not to pursue. After this, his stories follow closer to this pattern – specific, detailed, placed expertly in the real world.
Joshi notes another interesting bit of trivia, that it was through this story that HPL began corresponding with Robert E Howard. Howard wrote to Weird Tales, querying HPL's use of Cymric in the stories final scene. Farnsworth Wright thought that HPL would be interested to read the young man's points and passed the letter on. This connects the story to the present day to me, as it's just the kind of obscure point that two colossal nerds would enjoy arguing about on the internet.
A couple of years ago I went to a concert by the Tiger Lilies, showcasing their album based on Lovecraft songs, and this is one of the songs I remember the most vividly. Thanks to the magic of youtube here it is:
I have to admit, my favourite part of that show was Alexander Hacke's readings from the stories, which were delivered with great conviction.
Next up "Under the Pyramids"