The Rats in the Walls – H.P. Lovecraft

5 out of 5

Lovecraft was one of those authors I “read” when I was a high school kids trying to prove me readerly bona fides to some nonexistent audience, which means that I bought some books and collection, plowed my way through them, likely didn’t absorb anything, but could earn the right to namecheck the author and his works, because I guess that’s all that mattered.

Later in life, I would thin down those Lovecraft collections on my shelf when my concern for having the expansiveness of said shelf be used as some kind of proving totem for – again – a nonexistent audience diminished, holding on to a couple with the pledge to one day revisit them. But that “one day” kept getting pushed off, especially as H.P. became a very common reference in the modern day zeitgeist, and thus it felt like I already was familiar with these stories and didn’t really need to check them out again.

Eventually, though, the books made their way to the top of my to-read pile, and here we are.

The Rats in the Walls is an essentially simple idea – a man hears critter-esque scurrying in his home when others, apparently, do not – and obviously the title isn’t hiding anything: there are rats in the walls. But as I would discover upon diving back in to the text, the magic – and I have to assume the enduring legacy – of the writer, beyond his indirect establishment of the Cthulhu mythos, is in how he grounds his concepts, and exacerbates them into wholly frightening territories by sticking with a central theme: that you, reader, or you, narrator, do not matter. This is certainly the ‘fear of the unknown’ and ‘cosmic horror’ for which the writer is known, and I’m not going to be able to add anything to the discussion on that, but I was amazed at how the imagery / scenes from Rats came back to me so clearly while I was reading, and also at how fresh and unnerving they still feel. To the former, this, to me, means that my initial readthrough, ages ago, even when I was just reading-it-to-read-it and not really investing, made a deep-seated impact on my unconscious, filing away lines and feelings from the story; to the latter, this is not me reading this through a contemporary veil – that is, the story isn’t scary “for the time it was written” – it is still scary.

As our narrator, who has refurbished an old family home, despite locals tending to avoid the area, as he proceeds to investigate the sound in the walls, he discovers more and more about the structure of the home, and the story just explodes in a way that reaches far and dramatically into the unknown-ness. Again, this is fairly simple, but it all happens without any trickery – it happens in daylight, and with a group of other explorers. I think of other books that have taken a similar premise, such as House of Leaves, and how inert in effectiveness they become when they devolve into something more surrealistic, or, oppositely, too explain-y. Lovecraft found his niche in something that remains very human in its frights: that even with all our science and knowledge, we are still infinitesimal. We don’t matter. And when we touch upon that – exploring the subterranean cellar beneath our home, seeing that the rabbit hole goes deeper than we can conceive – it’s mind-blowing.