Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"The Rats in the Walls" and the nature of racism

I'm seriously trying to get a story in Weird Tales ("The Unique Magazine"!) the greatest and longest running of all the old pulp magazines, the Valhalla of the literary heroes I adored when I was a wee little kid; Ray Bradbury, H P Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and others.  Names to conjure with.  I want to be there with them, I want to be able to tell people I was once in Weird Tales, so I've been schooling myself in horror fiction specifically to get a notion of what this genre looks like when it’s done right.   Who are the good writers today?  Who are the old masters?  What do they sound like?  How do you scare someone really?  Do you build up suspense like Edgar Allen Poe or go for the gross-out like Stephen King?  I've especially been reading Ramsey Campbell who pioneered erotic horror which would be my natural trajectory.
One of Weird Tales most often anthologized classics  is H P Lovecraft’s early story "The Rats in the Walls", considered his best story.  I take heart from the fact that Lovecraft was an unknown who fell flat during his short lifetime, but was rediscovered and developed a modern cult following long after his death.  I'll take what I can get.

 According to omniscient Wikipedia, "Rats in the Walls" was more or less inspired by contemplation of the cracks in Lovecraft's wall paper.  Writers I suspect secretly spend a lot of their productive time staring into cold cups of coffee, cracked wall paper, brown grass or out the window.  This mental loafing is one of the most important investments of your time you can make.

So here’s the least you need to know about “The Rats in the Walls”:

The present day (this would be 1923) descendent of the de la Poer family has moved into his ancestral home of Exham Priory in England.  This is a shunned place, despised for generations of townspeople for whispered and unspecified hellacious shenanigans, but he is of course ignorant of this and uses his wealth to restore the place to its former dark glory.  After moving in he and his several cats become aware of strange scurrying sounds behind the ancient walls of the priory.  He discovers the priory is built on a satanic cult temple going back to Roman settlements, which is built over a secret underground city which had been maintained in the distant past by his degenerate ancestors in which cannibalism was practiced, with human cattle bred for slaughter. 


Human cattle.  Think about that for a minute.  They are described as "quadrupeds" in Lovecraft's baroque voice, but implied to be human beings who had tumbled backwards down the evolutionary ladder over generations of in-breeding and degenerated into some mindless  and debased form of humanoid life upon which people (and giant rats) fed.

Human cattle.

 Huh.  That's interesting.
Excuse me while I turn and stare at the wall paper for a while.  Let's stare at it together.

Cannibalism is as old as our species.  There are many reasons why different groups of people turned to it.  Religious ceremony.  A profound gesture of respect for loved ones or fallen enemies.  Desperation when no other food could be found. 

 Human beings, as a general thing, have always been good eating as any large carnivore would testify.  Alone and unarmed a human is a relatively easy kill and more good meat and fat on his bones than a deer or a pig.  Paul Theroux, who spent some time among cannibals, said that it is reputed to taste very much like Spam, and was referred to by islanders who would know as "long pork". 

 But human cattle on purpose?

 What is this notion of breeding human beings for a purpose, much like the Morlocks who bred the Eloi in H G Wells’ novel "The Time Machine"?  How far can you go before you hit the wall of human decency?   If you bred them for food, would you also breed them for sex?  Taking it upon yourself to grow your herds as it were?  Or for status symbols if you could breed an especially beautiful woman or handsome man?   Slavery, another institution that goes back to the dawn of time, was different in a fundamental way in ancient times from modern slavery.  Slaves were not intentionally bred like human cattle.

Up until the last few centuries slavery was common and almost universal among civilizations.  Usually slaves were your own countrymen who had fallen into poverty and sold off to pay debts, often as children.  Or were born of parents who were slaves themselves, or convicted criminals condemned to work until they dropped dead, or people of conquered lands who had been enslaved by the victors.  By the time of the fall of the Roman Empire the population of slaves outnumbered the population of free Romans.  Artistically gifted Greeks were often Roman slaves.  Hebrews were slaves of the Egyptians for generations until Moses came along.  Slaves were often educated and invested in to perform highly skilled work.  No one regarded them as anything less than human only socially unequal.
What if  . . . .

. . . say, Neanderthals or Homo Erectus were still around?  Lovecraft's "quadrupeds"? 
Anthropologists tell us there were, at one time, as many as six genetically distinct species of Hominids living simultaneously here on God's foot stool.  This is the common condition of almost all animals, to have several species of one family co-existing at the same time.  Hominids are an exception in that all species except Homo Sapiens have gone extinct for reasons that aren't all that clear.
What if . . .

 . . .  a species, clearly regarded as inferior or less developed than Homo Sapiens had survived to the present day?  Say, Homo Erectus.  Or maybe they'd gone extinct but advanced DNA science had brought Homo Erectus back without necessarily making us Homo Sapiens any kinder or wiser?

 Could you have a Hominid of another species for a personal pet?
We have lived with domestic animals bred for utilitarian purposes since the dawn of civilization.  Cows to milk; horses to ride and pull; sheep to eat; dogs to hunt and guard;  cats to patrol for pests.  But we've never had a domestic companion that was not human (e.g. Homo Sapiens) but close enough to be used as a human. 

 Yes, sex.  We’re talking about sex here.

 Close enough to human to fuck any time, any manner, on demand as often as we want without having to feel bestial about it.  We might make a Homo Erectus male or female part of the household menagerie as a sex toy or a brute servant.  We might breed them for specific qualities, like body type, phallus size, breast size, sexual appetite, docility or loyalty. Parade them for prizes in breeding pageants.  Pass them down to our sons and daughters when they reach puberty. That troublesome Facts of Life talk, but augmented by a hairy lab partner -  "Here, son.  Watch how I do this - whoa!  Oh yeah!   Just like that.  See?  Now, you try it, kid." 

Here's an interesting question; which came first, Slavery or Racism?

Remember slavery has been around pretty much forever.  It’s around now.  According to Amnesty International there are more slaves in the United States at this time than before the Civil War.  Think about that.  In the past, Romans and other slave owning societies did not regard their slaves as in any way racially or physically inhuman or inferior.  They were simply people society and circumstance had given into your hand to exploit.  There were complex laws regarding their rights and protecting them from violence or gratuitous abuse.  This was never true about slavery in modern times.
Indigenous peoples, black people and even Asians were conveniently declared as subhuman half way through the Twentieth Century, well within my lifetime.   Consequently white folks felt they had a free hand to treat them like brute animals, or even worse than animals like Lovecraft's quadrupeds.  These were Christian people.  These were people who regarded themselves as right with God.  Racism appeared after the fact of modern slavery as the necessary justification for a civilized conscience, to explain using human beings worse than you would use a dog.  Worse than you would even be allowed to use a dog.  Myths were made up about Africans and Indians, their mental inferiority, their physical prowess, they didn't feel cold and heat like we did, they didn't attach themselves to their offspring like we did.  This is how a morally aware person lives with evil.

And make no mistake - if your body and all of its most intriguing orifices are someone's legal property in front of both God and Man and Church to dispose of, sex will not be far behind.

Now that's horror.


  1. I think in the US, it was a slaveowner's right to use his property however he wanted, but I wonder if they bragged about it. Geneticists say that many African-American families whose ancestors have been here since slave times have at least some white blood running through their veins.

    And there's a good bit of evidence that Neanderthals were absorbed into Homo Sapiens rather than gone extinct. A minority of geneticists feel the correct designation should be Home Sapiens Neanderthalensis. A friend just had one of those genealogy tests and they found Neanderthal genes, which wasn't considered at all unusual by the testing agency.

    1. Hi Daddy X!

      I'm sure they bragged about it. Almost all African Americans are of mixed blood. As a matter of fact, pregnancy was encouraged among human live stock being shipped from Africa because a woman with an infant on the way was considered two for the price of one, so women on ship board were routinely raped by the crew as one of their perks.

      I love the fact that we all carry Neanderthal genes. I'd rather think we absorbed them rather than just slaughtered them. Its interesting to wonder what their relationship was with Homo Sapiens, if it was mutually desired or an early form of slavery.


  2. What scares me more than anything is the extent one human will go to in satisfying himself (almost always men), at the expense of another. I'm reading Margaret Atwood's "Madd Addam" now, the third and final book in her dystopic future that began with "Oryx and Crake". I liked that book because it looked at what we do now in terms of bio-engineering, and took it to the nth degree. But still there are human "monsters" much more frightening than any genetically-altered beasts. Because some human men will torture and deliver pain along with gratifying themselves, and the hapless, unlucky female whom they use for their own purposes is, for all extents and purposes, not considered "human" to them that act worse than the beasts they consider themselves superior to. Awkward sentence construction alert, but when I get really riled, I forget my inner grammar teacher and just rant! And this topic always sets me off!

    Just like in Star Trek The Next Generation, when almost the first thing we learn about Data, the android, is that he's "fully functional". And in Japan they've almost perfected the android females for sale...hmm, related perhaps to the fact that Japanese females feel no need to marry anymore, now that they can support themselves? So men will turn to robots? Why not, oh, I don't know, try to discover how to relate realistically to a woman, to win her heart? Oh, right...that's too hard! Sheesh!

    1. Hi Fiona!

      I'm getting back to everybody so late.

      It is frightening how people will find a way to dehumanize each other in order to treat them anyway they want. And if you talk to the person they'll have good explanations for every horrible thing they do. The theological speculations on that thought alone are vast.

      So much of it is about power. I suppose a lot of that dynamic goes back to sex, trying to impress women or dominate women. I read that when you see stone age hand axes, chipped from stone by cave men, they're more technically precise and beautiful than they need to be. Why? They were a status symbol, a display of prowess. In order words - trying to impress girls.

      I've written quite a bit about sexual relationships between human beings and non human objects, and I think its because I understand it and it goes back to what you were saying. Some men feel judged and found wanting by women. So they want to stop that somehow, either by violence or by interacting with a sex object that will not judge them. Say an android - or a prostitute, which is also in reality a device.


  3. Whooee, Garce, you manage to go a long way staring at walls!

    I think this is an excellent starting point for a story. However, I don't see this as horror. Or at least, it would be difficult to make it so. These days - unlike Lovecraft's time - you'd always have the shadow of social commentary hanging over this fictional world. No matter how awful and disgusting you made the behavior of your characters, I don't think it would inspire fear - just guilt and/or moral outrage.

    Lovecraft was an innocent. He lived before the death camps and civil rights and (the label of) ethnic cleansing. We understand now about atrocities, even as we still commit them.

    Speaking of Lovecraft, the notion about genetic regression and beastly humans runs through many of his tales. I recently reread The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which the narrator, much to his horror (really!) discovers that he has descended from this race of half-human, half-fish monsters who haunt the seas off the haunted town of Innsmouth - and that he's gradually becoming one of them.

    1. hi Lisabet!

      "I think this is an excellent starting point for a story."

      Hmn. Funny you should mention that.

      "However, I don't see this as horror. Or at least, it would be difficult to make it so. . . '

      Hmn. Let's find out. Got an idea just now.

      I think these days its very difficult to write horror that horrifies without stepping into taboos just killing children or something. Our age has been so filled with human horrors. I ask what would frighten me. I think its the ongoing low simmering fear under the surface than even the thin skin of comfort that exists over my life might suddenly be ripped away by contingency, such as a stroke, or a tornado, recently in my area a small earthquake that occurred while I slept. What if it was a big earthquake? I'd have awoken just in time to feel the ceiling come down on me. Lovecraft seemed to play with the theme of inherent madness, that you would lose your grip on reality and your own identity which is what happens at the very end of Rats in the Walls. That would be a horror also, to discover that the world you think you're living in is not the world you're living in.

      Imagine the horror these days of being a Syrian, who only a couple of years ago had a nice business, a family and a comfortable middle class life and now you're living in a tent somewhere? We can;t even imagine such a thing, but it happens.


  4. I've long been fascinated by the changing theories on the Neanderthal people, probably beginning when I read Golding's "The Inheritors" back when I was an impressionable teenager. I llke to think of them as in no way a lesser form of human, just adapted to a world changing under them. The modern day sex slave idea is intriguing; would the offspring of Neanderthal sex slaves be inevitably more and more "homo-sapienized" by the intermixing of genes, until they conformed more to the standards of attractiveness of the oppressing culture? Or would there be a deliberate breeding plan to keep them "othered" to satisfy a desire for sex outside the cultural norms?

    1. Garce, you always raise such intriguing issues! Horror indeed.

    2. Ooo! Ooo! Gave me an idea!!

      Thanks ladies.



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