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Tag Archives: The Rats in the Walls

A friend asked me recently how I felt about the World Fantasy Award association’s decision to stop using the bust of Lovecraft as its trophy.

These handsome fellas right here.

Short answer: I think it was a great decision, and will benefit us all in the long run.

Long answer:  Have you ever read “The Thing on the Doorstep”?

Some people might argue it’s one of Lovecraft’s best–or, at least, most innovative–works.  Aaron Mahnke (of the podcast Lore) claims that it’s the first horror story to introduce the setting of the insane asylum.  (I take a bit of issue with that…insane asylums were definitely present before then–“The Repairer of Reputations”, anyone?–but he still was one of the first.)  The story revolves around mind control and the living dead, all well before they were popular in mainstream horror.  On top of that, it’s a classic unreliable narrator set-up that starts off with a bang.

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Damn, right?

Well, I’ve always just fucking HATED it.

Why?  (Spoilers, but come on, the man died in 1937.)

Because the malevolent force is a wizard who’s functionally immortal because he possesses the mind of those close to him.  Only–wouldn’t you know it?–he was unfortunate enough to have a single daughter.  And her mind was weak, as a woman’s is.  And thus he would not have the full force of his strength as long as he inhabited his daughter’s body.  So, of course, he possessed her, got her to seduce a man (our hapless protagonist), and then gained control of his mind.

While I can appreciate its literary merits, I’m never going to like it.  I’m never going to embrace it and think that this work encapsulated his genius.  I read it and think things like, “Oh, come on.”  Or, “Motherfucker, your long-suffering estranged wife was vastly more powerful and hearty than you ever could hope to be.”*

I can deal with that, though, because clearly women confused and baffled Lovecraft.  That’s really the only story with a female protagonist.  Most of the time, he just seems to forget they exist, and honestly, I’m okay with that.

But what if elements of the weak-willed, silly woman was present in every. single. one. of his stories?  Would I be able to ignore it?  Would my feelings about his writing stay the same?

I don’t think any of us would deeply enjoy reading an author who highlighted a feature of our core identity and used it as a weapon, a threat, or a joke in every single one of his works.  But I think it’s really easy to forget that those elements–and to be clear, I am talking about his blatant racism, there’s no getting around that fact–are there, if you’re not the one being singled out.  As a white female, I’m not phased by the cat’s name in “The Rats in the Walls”.  It doesn’t immediately jump out at me that every single black person in his stories seems to be either simple but upstanding or literally a member of a barbaric death-cult.

But if you’re the target, each and every slip and descriptor is a reminder that you’re not welcome.

I hate boring horror.  I hate things that strive to be as traditionally frightening as possible, both within horror as a whole and within Lovecraftian fiction specifically.  I think a lot of us do.  I think we seek out innovation, and that’s why the mythos has been such a fertile stomping ground–because there are so few rules, so few facts set in stone.

But if we keep telling people they’re not welcome–or tell them not to be silly, of course they are, and then expect them to be happy about a gift of a hateful man’s head–we’re never going to learn all that horror can be.  Diversity can be a buzzword, but it can also be our salvation.

We can only read stories of broad-chested English adventurers exploring the deep sea/Antarctic/Congo who stumble across an ancient cult and then get destroyed by something unthinkable or unknowable.  We can do that for the rest of our lives, if we want.  There’s certainly plenty of that ilk out there to last a lifetime.  For some people, that might be enough.  But it’s not for me.

The Cultist

*I love Sonia Greene.  I really, really do.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I read both The Andromeda Strain (purchased, if I recall correctly, at a book fair) and The Hot Zone (brought to a family reunion and abandoned by a unknown relative). Now, don’t get me wrong: I was not a brilliant child. HUGE swathes of both books completely evaded me—I think I just unconsciously skipped over everything I didn’t understand. But, to this day, I can’t quite pry either book out of my brain:

The Andromeda Strain: A perturbed 10-year-old’s summary

  1. All your blood will clot instantly.
  2. Everyone in the small town where it originates either dies in seconds or kills themselves in bizarrely elaborate ways.
  3. They cut into one guy’s heart and chunks of spongy blood fell out.
  4. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen in real life.

 

The Hot Zone: An increasingly terrified and despondent 10-year-old’s summary

  1. It’s real. This really happened
  2. The guy on the plane threw up what looked like coffee grounds and then his intestinal lining sloughs off.
  3. Sometimes your testicles swell up and get rotten.
  4. We are all going to die of Ebola.

(Yes, during the Great U.S. Ebola Panic of 2014-15, my parents did congratulate me for being ahead of my time.)

So, this exposure (har!) had three major consequences:

  • It turned me into a life-long hypochondriac
  • It kick-started my interest in medicine and health (although try working that seamlessly that into a graduate or medical school essay)
  • It sowed the seeds that would become my full-blown love of body horror*

 

I would define body horror rather loosely (“Anything that really squicks you out”), although I’m sure there are much better and much more formal definitions**. And, for reasons that may be at least somewhat obvious, I particularly like the horror of contagion. (If you want a fantastic example of this, check out The Best Horror of the Year Vol 2, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an amazing anthology, and one of the first stories—and neither Google nor Amazon is particularly helping me out here with title or author—is a very modern take on the Masque of the Red Death in the most satisfying possible way.)

Initially, when I started to write this post, I didn’t think that it would be possible to find good examples of body horror in Lovecraft’s work. I could only think of the gray and brittle wasting of the farmer in “The Colour out of Space”. But there are indeed some good examples if you broaden your definition beyond illness, and I may touch on these in a future post:

  • The devolution of man to pale, maggot-like humanoids of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls”.
  • The metamorphosis of Innsmouth residents in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
  • The monstrous appearance of the Whateley twins in “The Dunwich Horror”

But on the whole, I’d say that these examples take a backseat to the cosmic, indifferent horror that plagued and intrigued Lovecraft to no end. But never fear, lovers of body horror—mythos writers have taken up the torch, and taken it up handily since the 1930’s. Here are a couple of prime examples:

  • “The Hour of the Tortoise”, Molly Tanzer: Excellent depiction of unwilling metamorphosis, plus the only Lovecraft fiction I can think of that makes liberal use of Victorian smut. (Think Fanny Hill.) The smut alone would probably make it worth reading, but it’s an excellent story in its own right.
  • “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee”, Christopher Reynaga: An excellent re-telling of Moby Dick: much shorter than the original, and guess how Ahab lost his leg!

But in terms of contagion/disease horror, I can only think of a handful of mythos stories:

Even if you’re not as disease-oriented as I am, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story, both for its detective-like story arc, as well as the sheer joy the enthusiastic narrator takes in the unusual biology of the Tibetan plains.

“[We arrived]…in the midst of the Summer Grass Festival, which celebrates the harvest of Cordyceps sinenis, the prized caterpillar fungus…Phupten led me several blocks to the café—and what a walk it was! Sidewalks covered with cordyceps!   Thousands of them laid out to dry on tarps and blankets, the withered little hyphae-riddled worms with their dark fungal stalks outthrust like black mono-antennae, capped with tiny spores…never have I seen so many mushrooms in one place, let alone the rare cordyceps; never have I visited a culture where mushrooms were of such great ethnic and economic importance.”

cordyceps100% not made up, for the record: You can find tons of references to cordyceps on alternative health websites.  You eat them.  For your kidneys, apparently.

Let me know if you know of other examples of fear of disease in Lovecraftian works—I desperately want to read more!

The Cultist

 

*Although, for completion’s sake, I’d throw in the original “Violet Beauregarde turns into a gigantic blueberry” from the original Gene-Wilder-as-Willy-Wonka movie. To this day, I’m still faintly amazed they show that to children.

**“Horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. Other types of body horror include unnatural movements, or the anatomically incorrect placement of limbs to create ‘monsters’ out of human body parts.” Thank you, Wikipedia!