by Aidan McBride
In his 1924 story “The Rats in the Walls,” horror writer H. P. Lovecraft breaks his usual mold, moving away from typical science fiction stories and taking a decidedly more Gothic approach. The story diverts from cosmic horror to give us a much more human villain and creates horror not through cosmic indifference but through the parallel it draws between humanity and our animalistic nature. The story constructs this parallel through the device of the rats in the walls, the sound of which only the protagonist can hear and which are revealed at the end of the story to be a reflection of the fact that his ancestors were ritualistic cannibals. Throughout The Rats in the Walls, the uncanny is clearly seen through the direct comparison between humanity and a primal inhuman state that is prevalent throughout the story. A connection may be seen both between the protagonist and the deadly swarm of rats and between the protagonist and the human-cattle species discovered beneath the protagonist’s ancestral home. By exposing of the repressed ancestral urges of the narrator, the story gives us the chilling message of the inevitability of the regression to the primitive stages of man.
It should first be noted that the uncanny monster is something different from a strictly cultural or personal monster. The uncanny, as described by Sigmund Freud, is related to things repressed coming back to light. Freud’s central argument is that the fear of the uncanny is not caused by any manner of grotesqueness or categorical crisis but instead comes from something repressed. That is to say, something known in some capacity but which one is unable or unwilling to actively think about. Freud would argue, for instance, that one is not afraid of a zombie because of its disgusting form, but because it brings up the fact that death is not something we can understand, and we do not want to face that ambiguity (Freud).
The Rats in the Walls is narrated by an unnamed member of the Delapore family, who discovers a property that has been in his family for over 17 centuries but was mysteriously abandoned when the narrator’s ancestor murdered every other member of his family for undocumented reasons. The narrator vows to fix up the estate, Exham Priory, much to the horror of the surrounding neighbors, and he is eventually made aware of the various stories and myths surrounding the Priory. The most disturbing of these details is that, briefly after its abandonment, an army of rats “swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent” (Lovecraft 244). The narrator largely dismisses these stories, but he finds that he is haunted by horrid nightmares of a swarm of rats descending upon a group of “beasts and man alike” (244). The narrator is also disturbed by the distinct sound of rats scurrying in the walls, a sound which none of his servants can make out.
The narrator sets out to find the source of the noise and, in the process, uncovers a massive cavern underneath his newly restored property, which houses an ancient city. Upon further investigation, the narrator finds skeletal remains of human and creatures that he describes as sub-human, quadrupedal-humanoid beings, who were raised, it is implied, to be cattle for the Delapore family. The narrator describes these creatures as having “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s” and mentions that the image of them “denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom” (252). This immediately creates a sense of the uncanny in two regards. First, Delapore is forced to come face-to-face with beings of his ancestral past, bringing to life that which he has repressed, and, second, the appearance of these beings is almost human, but not quite. The story concludes when Delapore, driven to madness by this horrific discovery and compelled by some ancestral yearning, devours one of his compatriots and is sent to an asylum, the whole time maintaining his innocence as he claims that it was the rats who had eaten the man.
The uncanny is most easily viewed in this piece through the semi-human skeletons found beneath the house. The narrator and the men who accompany him, all of whom are described as men of exemplary character and strength of will, are genuinely horrified when they stumble upon these uncanny remains: “Of seven cultivated men, only Sir William Brinton retained his composure; a thing more to his credit because he led the party and must have seen the sight first” (252). These skeletons are meant to terrify, and the reason is clear enough. Humans, especially in the time period immediately following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, like to think of themselves as better than animals, something in a wholly different category than the other living creatures because our capacity to think and our bipedal nature largely set us apart in that regard.
These skeletal beings are stripped of everything that makes them “human” by these standards. However, they are also indisputably genetically human. Being raised as cattle, their living conditions are abhorrent: “The quadruped things—with their occasional recruits from the biped class—had been kept in stone pens. . .” (253). Their capacity to think has been stripped, as has their very bipedal nature, making them into something the narrator describes as sub-human. This is uncanny because it clashes clearly with the notion that humans are a different class of being than animals. In every way, these beings act as animals. However, they are genetically indisputably human, and this is what scares us.
The other uncanny connection comes from the narrator and rats in the walls. The creatures are constantly described as savage beings, consuming everything in their path with horrific ease, and Delapore is the only one who can hear them. On top of that, Delapore frequently dreams of a swarm of rats devouring everything in their path, including humans. Their savage nature is contrasted, however, with Delapore himself, who is a well-to-do man from a wealthy family that had fallen on hard times in the previous few generations. He is proper, normal, and acts as any upper-class member of society should act.
However, the uncanny again shines through when the narrator eventually gives in to his primal instincts and devours his friend, which fully connects him to the all-consuming rats. His entire life, he has been repressing the truth of his family’s past, scoffing at the stories of the rats and ignoring the pleas of the neighbors, who insisted that the Priory is an evil place. He alone could hear the rats because he alone had the urging of the Delapore’s, the desire of the rats to devour human flesh. He hides this truth from even himself; on a conscious level, it is possible he does not even know. But somewhere deep down within himself, the sounds of the rats beckon him to go lower and lower into the Priory, towards the monument to his ancestor’s gluttony.
With this story, Lovecraft makes a case that the uncanny is not only for things which an individual has repressed about him or herself. Instead, uncanniness can be familial or cultural, living on through family ties, through ancestral history, and even through evolution. The uncanny exists everywhere there exist artificial borders, slowly beckoning into the present to remind us of what we used to be and what we still could be.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin,
Lovecraft, H.P. “The Rats in the Walls.” H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, edited by S. T.
Joshi, Barnes and Noble, 2011, pp. 240-255.