2. The Rats in the Walls
by Red Emma
Last week, my astute coworker José did what we in the activism community refer to as, “call me on my sh*t.” Meaning, he cut right to the obvious issue readers of Lovecraft must grapple with in a more enlightened 21st century: the Lovecraft’s real world bigotry that seeped into his writing. I may have hoped to skip this issue. Lovecraft is well-known for his racism and anti-Semitism, and we're just beginning to discuss his classism as well. I hoped other people had written enough about it, but José is right: I have to face the issue before I can blog on.
H.P. Lovecraft was a man of contradictions. Through accounts of friends, notably of members of the Kalem Club, Lovecraft muttered darkly about ethnic peoples and Hasidic Jews during his time in New York City, but he was good friends with Samuel Loveman, a writer from a Jewish family, and at the time he was married to Sonia Greene, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine. This kind of contradiction is puzzling for most of us. I don’t recall if there are examples of his friendship with a person of color or ethnicity that I can point to. In my mind, most of Lovecraft’s friends were white men of the middle or upper classes and white New Englanders like Edith Miniter, whose home in Massachusetts inspired the setting for “The Dunwich Horror.” If Lovecraft had friendships with people outside his race and class, I imagine they were exceptions in his otherwise Puritanically white world.
As previously blogged, Lovecraft was a prolific letter writer. We have passages in many of his letters that speak to his bigotry and ignorance of people who weren’t of his class. I have read and heard many fans of Lovecraft excuse his unsavory leanings by saying that times were different when he lived; our ideas on equality weren’t the same. I’ve even heard this: he wasn’t a member of the KKK, he didn’t burn any crosses or lynch anyone, so where’s the proof he was a racist? Another excuse is his Anglophilia, that perhaps he had affected these attitudes of bigotry in order to mimic the English ruling classes he admired. I find these offerings interesting more for their commentary on those who’ve offered them than as viable options. We live in a world that is just awakening to a new paradigm that acknowledges institutionalized privilege, whether that of gender, class, sexual identity, or ethnicity, and we can no longer afford to pamper the egos of those who aren’t ready to be called out for, pardon my saying it again, their sh*t: old racist attitudes have got to go if human kind wishes to move forward.
This is a difficult practice, but we can’t condemn a person with an antisocial attitude. I reject the idea that a person is “a racist,” rather that people have racist ideas. Ideas can be corrected through education and patience. Labels, however, are always detrimental: whether you’re calling a man a “fag” for wearing a pink shirt, or we’re calling people “commies” for questioning bans on free speech. This is how I see the Lovecraft issue. He harbored unsupportable ideas on racial superiority. I’ve read that he was interested in Eugenics, and in the story I’d like to reference today, “The Rats in the Walls,” he makes reference to the less evolved skull shapes his protagonist finds in an ancient crypt. He calls them the skulls of “idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom,” which is hardly the language of one who embraces equality. S.T. Joshi wrote in his Annotated H.P. Lovecraft that these were official medical terms established by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded in 1910 to classify people of lower or under-developed intellect, so it is possible Lovecraft, a prodigious reader and autodidact, was merely putting to use the knowledge available to him at this time. I posit, however, that the knowledge of the time was put forth by a ruling class that made little attempt to accept, embrace, or make room for people who deviated from their idea of normal.
I give Lovecraft no passes. Instead, I wryly shake my head when I come across a passage that jolts me in my 21st century sensibilities. On HPL fan forums, references to the starring feline of “The Rats in the Walls” are politely and humorously made as “the unfortunately named cat.” During a reading of one particular story, I made a game of adding a tick mark each time I felt offended by something he had written, but decided to give up after the practice of making tick marks was so frequent it jeopardized my reading comprehension.
The next question is, then: why read Lovecraft? Let’s look now at “The Rats in the Walls.”
This is the story of a man who has sunk every last penny into the restoration of his family home in England, only to see it dismantled after a horrible event that has him institutionalized. Right away, the reader is asking ‘why?’ as this seemingly sedate and educated man recounts the history of Exham Priory, and how his family came to be estranged from it.
We know Lovecraft read widely, and had an avid interest in the sciences, particularly astronomy, but it is his love of history that is brilliantly shown here through his narrator, a Delapore recently of America. He walks us through an archaeological history of England that leads through the Romans to the native Cymry of Wales. Within the matrix of the story (if you’ll allow me a semi-pun), the mother goddess worship of Cybele is referenced. Mother goddess worship dominated the pre-Roman continent that we now know as Europe, and received more than a bad rap with the advent of Christianity; pagan mother-worshipers were violently suppressed, and it was a horrible misfortune to be accused of one, in the guise of a worshiper of the devil (a witch) in the middle ages. Worshipers of the Phrygian goddess Cybele were considered to be particularly craven. Scholarship about mother worship has come a long way since Lovecraft’s time; we are now able to identify Cybele as an earth goddess, goddess of nature and regeneration, and the counterpart of innumerable mother goddesses in other pantheons across the world, such as the earth mother Rhea who mothered the Greek gods.
In Lovecraft’s story, however, Cybele retains her distasteful guise as an orgiastic, possibly cannibalistic fornicator who mates with her own son, Attis (called Atys in Lovecraft’s tale), who later castrates himself in devotion to her. Heady stuff, and that’s not the story Lovecraft tells, but merely the spine of it. His narrator, Delapore, doesn’t know why his family abandoned their English home three centuries before, but through a war buddy of his only son, he learns that the Priory was given to the stewardship of the Norrys family, from whom he purchases the property.
His son Alfred returns from the war fatally wounded, and after his death, Delapore resolves to put his resources toward restoring the priory. Let’s pause here to note that his son’s name is Alfred. Alfred is the name of kings in English history, and has connections to the mythology of the early Britons. The root of the name connects to the elves; Alfred means a mortal who takes counsel from the fairy folk. Alfred, I believe, is a significant name here, which Lovecraft has used to further drive a stake into the past, rooted in the mythology of early Britain.
Lovecraft’s Delapore has a need to understand these roots. The death of his only son and heir only heightens his desire to know. Anyone who has ever visited ancestry.com or who has had a cotton swab DNA test understands this longing to know from whence one came, to have roots that extend past a lonely and even troubling existence in the modern world. But trouble comes to Delapore when he delves too deeply. Once again, we see Lovecraft’s cosmicism: the idea that human reality is the thinnest of veneers over an expanse we are not meant to and are incapable of understanding.
In “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft takes the reader on a journey into a crypt as dark as any of your imaginings, and what we find there is darker still. I find it frankly exquisite the way the story begins so sedately, and we are fooled into believing we have our wits about us. Through his allusions to places such as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, we are escorted from the safety of the ledge into a darkness that is deep and primal.
That is why we ought to read Lovecraft. Because somewhere, in all of us, is a longing to understand, and the only way to get there is to walk through Hell.
Next week: I want to delve into the geography of Lovecraft, and take a look at the real life places that correspond to those in his delightfully creepy fiction.
The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft and S.T. Joshi, paperback, $17.00
Lovecraft's New York Circle: The Kalem Club, 1924-1927, edited by Mara Kirk Hart and S.T. Joshi, with contributions by H.P. Lovecraft, paperback, $15.00
Dead Houses and Other Works by Edith Miniter (Out of Print) - Please call us at 801-328-2586 if you’re interested in acquiring a copy and we will refer you to Special Searches.