The Rats in the Walls is my favorite HP Lovecraft story. It’s a wonderful, deeply disturbing tale of a wealthy American named Delapore who restores his ancestral home in England. The sound of spectral rats (which only he and his pet cats can hear) lead him to an ancient stone altar in the sub-cellar of the old priory and a tunnel hidden beneath it; there, he discovers not only the secret that led his ancestor to flee Exham Priory in the early 1600s, but remnants of unspeakable horrors perpetrated by a cult that went on for millennia on that same site, a cult in which his family were only the most recent members.
What I like most about this story isn’t the trappings of old-fashioned gothic horror implicit in the ruins of the priory, nor the eons-old cannibal cult–though both certainly have their charms. It’s that it plays upon the same theme as the Nigel Kneale stories I most enjoy, Quatermass and the Pit, and The Stone Tape: the history of the Bad Place goes back and back through centuries to the earliest days of humanity… and perhaps long before that.
The only thing that mars it for a modern reader is the extremely unfortunate, casually racist name of the narrator’s favorite black cat, who has an important part to play in the story.
You can read it online at http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/rw.aspx
When I first heard that the latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was to be an adaptation of Rats in the Walls, I was delighted, but I wondered how they would handle the cat’s name. When I attended a live, dramatic reading of this same story last summer in Providence, the reader renamed the cat Blackie, and I was perfectly happy with that.
Long before the cat comes into this adaptation, we’re given a sort of meta-textual reassurance about how this element of the story will be handled. This episode begins with a prologue set during the American Civil War. Yankee soldiers are about to seize and burn down Carfax, the Virginia plantation belonging to “Big Daddy” Delapore, a bed-ridden old man. The about-to-be-freed slave-woman who is with him tells him that she’s not going hear that word from him again and makes him say “Please” before she bring him the lock-box containing papers concerning the Delapore family secret. The old man intends to give the box to his grandson, 7-year-old Matthew, for safe keeping, but the mansion is on fire; the little boy escapes with his Yankee-born mother, but the old man is trapped within the flames and the contents of the box are destroyed with him.
A second prologue jumps suddenly to World War I, where a young American airman, Alfred Delapore, Matthew’s son, is telling this story about the plantation to his British friend and fellow aviator, Edward Norrys (Kevin Stidham, doing an adorable Mancunian accent).
Alfred says that the family secret–the reason why their remote ancestor Walter de la Poer fled England for the American colonies in the wake of a mysterious tragedy at Exham Priory after the rest of his family was killed–was lost forever in the fire and neither he nor his father knows anything about it. But Norrys can tell them quite a lot about the de la Poers; his family was given the abandoned estate by James I, and his uncle is currently the owner of Exham Priory, which has fallen into ruins and is shunned even into the 20th century by the local folk. Uncle has no use for the place and might be willing to sell it.
In Lovecraft’s original story, all the details of this backstory–Walter’s mysterious flight from England under the suspicion of murdering the rest of his family, the burning of Carfax, Alfred’s meeting Norrys–are given to us in a first-person narrative by Mr. Delapore (who doesn’t have a first name).
Although these details and the general structure of the rest of the story are faithfully reproduced in this audio drama, the most significant change made is that Delapore’s first-person narration has been replaced by a chorus of voices.
Next scene: It’s 1923. Norrys is on a train from Manchester to Anchester with a group of experts–archeologists, an anthropologist, an historian, and a psychic investigator–who have been specially invited to visit Exham Priory.
We don’t meet Matthew Delapore as a grown man (voiced by Sean Branney) until we’re more than 10 minutes into the audioplay, when he joins his guests at dinner and explains why he’s asked them to join him.
After his son Alfred was wounded in the war and subsequently died of his injuries, Mr. Delapore came the UK to buy Exham Priory and has spent two years restoring the ruins to a livable state. To do this, he had to hire workers and servants from far afield, since none of the locals would go near the place or have anything to do with him.
“You might as well tell the villagers of Transylvania that Dracula was back and rebuilding his castle,” says Captain Norrys.
During this period of construction, Delapore stayed with the Norryses, and the young captain has become a sort of surrogate son to him. Delapore brought his favorite pet cat–here renamed Pluto after the eponymous black cat in Poe’s story–from the US and has acquired eight more cats since; they are all at the priory with him.
A great deal of exposition is presented as dinner conversation. Even though only one of them, the archeologist Sir William Brinton, has been to the site of Exham Priory before, all the guests already know something of the history of the place. As they enjoy the first courses of a delightful dinner, complete with the sounds of clinking tableware and wineglasses (although thankfully no one speaks with their mouth full), each contributes information. They cheerfully discuss legends of indescribable rites and nameless orgies performed at the Druidical (or pre-Druid) temple and continued by the Romans as part of the worship of Cybele, hideous hints of human sacrifice, the “strange and powerful” monastic order that occupied the priory before the land was given to the 1st Baron de la Poer in 1261, “ridiculous spooky tales” surrounding the de la Poers as their terrible reputation developed, including traditional ballads concerning villainous ladies of that family, and finally the story of the army of rats that poured out of the priory months after it had been abandoned to devour everything in their path. No one’s disturbed by any of these old stories. Everyone’s having a good time.
Then Delapore–or, de la Poer, since he’s reverted to the original spelling of his family name–talks about the incidents that led to this occasion.
Soon after taking up residence in his newly restored home, the agitation of the tapestries in his bedroom, the sounds of rats slithering down inside the stone walls, the peculiar actions of Pluto and the other cats–plus some unpleasant dreams–guided him down to the remains of the ancient temple in the priory’s Roman-vaulted sub-cellar. Captain Norrys joined him to witness these strange events–at least, Norrys observed the cats’ strange behavior, but couldn’t hear the rats.
Camping out in the basement, the two men eventually noticed a draft coming up from the base of the temple altar and conjectured that there must be something underneath it. Instead of prying the stone up for themselves right away, they agreed that the best thing to do was bring together a group of experts to look over their find and explore it with them.
Hence this dinner party.
The group of experts abandons their dinner before the roast lamb is served and heads immediately down to the sub-cellar to have a look at this remarkable discovery.
The ruins confirm the oldest stories, that a prehistoric temple was reused by the Romans; Latin inscriptions refer to the priests of Atys (consort of Cybele) as well as symbols of older gods, and there are what look like blood-stains on the altar stone. Mr. Thornton, the psychic, says that things have been quiet since de la Poer’s discovery, since this was what he was meant to find.
The next morning, they manage to shift up the massive altar, which is balanced by a counterweight. Beneath is something none of them expected to see, in spite of the centuries of legends. The temple covers a stairway so old that the middle of the steps are worn nearly to a smooth incline, leading down into a vast cavern. Both the stairs and cavern are crowded with skeletons, mostly human and still in attitudes that suggest they were desperately trying to escape, but some are also rats. And there are teethmarks on the bones, not all of them rodent-sized bites.
Dr. Trask, the anthropologist, observes from the development of their skulls and other bones that the humans are of a lower order, bred for generations to a quadrupedal, inarticulate, ape-like state.
The group breaks up into pairs or trios to look around, finding more Saxon, Roman, prehistoric structures to show that, whatever’s been going on down here, it’s been going on for a very long time.
The story has taken a dark turn, but they do manage to put in one or two comic touches as the group explores the horrors of the cavern, making one grisly discovery after another. Mr. Thornton keeps fainting, and Pluto the cat climbs blithely around on the piles of bones.
But the horror beneath Exham Priory is not entirely in the distant past. As de la Poer and Norrys discover and examine a circa-1600s building that contains kitchen facilities and prison cells with the skeletons of more highly developed people still inside them, de la Poer is strangely gleeful. His vocabulary begins to include some archaic terms: Yon, ’tis, s’blood.
When he starts ranting about Nyarlathotep and amorphous idiot flute-players, I advised Captain Norrys to run away before it was too late…
“Why shouldn’t rats eat a de la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things? The War ate my boy, and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore and the secret… He lived, but my boy died! Shall a Norrys hold the lands of a de la Poer?”
As I said, it’s a faithful retelling of the story. The multiple voices of the characters, not to mention their accents, and shifting points of view keep it lively. Much of Lovecraft’s text is incorporated into the dialog. I could recite such lines as “a twilit grotto, knee-deep with filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts” along with de la Poer as he describes his dreams, which made me very happy with this adaptation.
There are some great props accompanying the CD. The best is a copy of James I’s grant to the Norrys family, giving them Exham Priory, with some beautiful calligraphy work on it. I’m going get it framed. Other items include:
- An invitation to Exham Priory with dinner menu.
- A fragment of burnt paper about Walter de la Poer’s reasons for killing his family that survived the destruction of Carfax.
- An article about the demolition of Exham Priory in The Manchester Guardian that doesn’t tell you what really happened to Norrys (amusingly, on the back of the clipping among the personal announcements and notices is an ad for rat poison).
- A large photograph of the Latin inscriptions carved on the stone temple, with archeologists’ handwritten notes.