This entry contains my comments on H. P. Lovecraft’s stories The Lurking Fear and The Rats in the Walls. The former was written in 1922 and serialized in early 1923. I actually think that The Lurking Fear is a better story than The Rats in the Walls, but I can understand other readers enjoying the latter more.
This story is divided into four smaller chapters, each having their own title:
I. The Shadow on the Chimney
II. A Passer in the Storm
III. What the Red Glare Meant
IV. The Horror in the Eyes
The story takes place in the Catskills in New York. Specifically, the novel takes place on Tempest Mountain. There is a Tempest Mountain in Montana. Also, I found reference to the words “tempest” and “mountain” in the New Testament – I used the KJV, which HPL would have been familiar with. “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest….” (Hebrews 12:18) I do not believe there is such a mountain so named in the Catskills. However, and this has always amused me, parts of the Catskills were known as the Borscht Belt due to the heavy immigration and presence of Russian Jews. (‘Borscht’ to signify their cultural connection to Russia and the Ukraine.) Anyway, the parts HPL references seem to have a large Dutch population.
Some of this setting-building is important, because it makes the story have a realistic feel to it. For example, the narrator stays at Lefferts Corners, mentions two other mountaintops: Cone Mountain and Maple Hill, and references the city of Albany. One feels that maybe this narrator (or HPL himself) really went to such an area – because maybe it could have really existed.
The main character is again a narrator who is writing a memoir of his experience. The story begins: “There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain . . . . “ Now, if you are like me, you just speed-read that line. So, go back now and actually read the phrase with the purpose of using it to draw you into a story. I like it as an opening line. I like that there’s thunder, tempest, night, and deserted all in the first line. It is written so fluidly and immediately places the reader in a dark and stormy night on a mountaintop.
Like so many other narrators in HPL, this one is unnamed, but has an interest (obsession) with scary, creepy, unnatural things. Of course, all these narrators have this interest, but then they always experience a horrific and terrifying event which is life-altering and then they are psychological disasters afterwards. HPL can almost be read as a warning: if you go looking into the abyss, when it looks into you – expect to be damaged and messed up! The thing is, of course in the second paragraph the narrator is telling us that he bore the secret of what he experienced for a long time and he’s been brooding about it. He’s the only one that knows the real story of what happened and he’s regretting he has concealed it so long. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: what did you expect when you sought out the bizarre, unnatural, and terrifying?
On Tempest Mountain is the Martense mansion, which was built in 1670 by Gerrit Martense who was a New Amsterdam merchant. He left Britain and began to cultivate a strong dislike toward anything British-culture. He, and derivatively, his family, shun English culture, colonists, etc. So, he and his family become veritable recluses up on their mountaintop, basically surviving from their land.
I do not want to write anything more, lest I spoil this great short story for anyone. What I’ve said so far is really just setting and background. Needless to say, the narrator decides to research and investigate the happenings on Tempest Mountain. Chapters III and IV are really great in terms of the really-scary-stuff we expect and demand of HPL. Seriously, I was impressed. I mean, this story is dated (1922) and from what I’ve read of HPL, a lot of his stories seem to be wordsmithing and presenting the “unknown” as scary. But this story really is scary. Genuine creepy!
I love that the story is not too long, but yet is longer (and therefore more developed) than some of HPL’s early pieces. I find the narrator a bit ridiculous, but the setting and background that HPL puts the narrator in are so creepy and vivid and realistic that it becomes moot to complain about the narrator. Don’t worry, our good friend HPL does use the word Cyclopean in this story!
The Rats in the Walls was written in mid to late 1923. It’s similar, in places, to The Lurking Fear. Both stories are going to talk about the legendary of their settings. Both involve the history of old (ancient?) mansions. Both involve a narrator that is off his little rocker. Both stories use the word Druidic.
The Rats in the Walls has two other characters that are important, though, through the whole story. I feel that The Lurking Fear only barely utilizes another character – mainly as a prop. One of the main characters in The Rats in the Walls is a cat. Now, look here…. I am not going to speculate on whether or not HPL was racist, nor just how racist he may have been. Simply put: the cat’s name is Nigger-Man. I didn’t name the cat, so don’t take it up with me. I suspect that the cat was black. HPL was fond of cats and therefore so are all of his characters. This cat (let’s call him NM), has a major role in the story. In fact, I might actually call him the real star of the show.
HPL was a cat lover – not that I know much about HPL, but it shows through in his writing. He understands cats. I live in a household with four black cats and one tan mix cat. My neighbors have 12 cats. The neighbors on the other side have two. Needless to say, I am also very familiar with cats. And they are definitely as [insert your choice of adjective] as people say they are. They can be so loving and cute. They can also be ruthless and savage. They can also be creepy and eerie and supernatural. I mention all of this to say that NM has got to take his place in the Famous Literary Cats list and that HPL knows how to write the character.
Anyway, I think readers should also read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher alongside this HPL story. There are loose connections between the two. And maybe even slightly with The Lurking Fear. There are hints of Gaelic and Latin in the story. I am not familiar whatsoever with Gaelic or Celtic anything, so I cannot comment much on that except to say I think it provides a variety of connectivity within the story. Also, it adds to the sense of ancient things being at work still. HPL copied the terms from writer William Sharp’s (aka Fiona MacLeod) The Sin Eater. Don’t forget that there’s no way HPL was not influenced by W. B. Yeats – and he was heavy into Irish Mythology. Lord Dunsany of the Celtic Revival also is a major influence on HPL. The point is, this story strongly develops the setting and background in order to develop the horror of the story. HPL is not just writing horrific slash and gore, he loves to pull from mythology and history and give us a backstory.
Personally, I really liked The Lurking Fear more than The Rats in the Walls. I think readers should decide for themselves and read both – because both are rewarding HPL reads. Both, though, are heavier on the creepy scale than the not-so-scary, so reader be warned. I’d give five stars to the first and four to the latter, but only on personal preference. Overall, both are likely five star short stories from HPL.