Monday, February 15, 2016

3. The Basement as Family Archaeological Site

An earlier post in this series introduced the topic of horror stories that take place in cellars or basements.  After discussing David H. Keller’s memorable The Thing in the Cellar (1932), the subsequent post moved ahead a few decades to talk about Ray Bradbury’s Come Into My Cellar (1962), an example of Cold War era hysteria and paranoia, and Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman (1950), a masterful short horror story about adolescent rage.  

Given his traumatic family history, which resulted in life-long psychological and emotional difficulties for the author, it is no surprise that H.P. Lovecraft would be preoccupied with the lower levels of his house, that is, his mind and his memories, ancestral or otherwise.  So much of his fiction has to do with going down dark stairs to the foundations of a residence or even further below.  What was he looking for?  Did he ever find it?  (See also Looking Up and Looking Down (Mostly Down).)

It was by way of my most immediate ancestor—my dad—that I first learned about H.P. Lovecraft.  As a youngster I stumbled upon The Colour Out of Space (1927)—which involves considerable staring down into the depths of a bottomless well.  The story appeared in an ancient anthology of science fiction and horror I found on the slowest shelf of my father’s wall of books.  I consumed and re-consumed portions of this poisonous, oddly coloured fruit whenever my parents were not immediately nearby.  After I began to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, the book mysteriously vanished from the lower shelves and reappeared safely out of reach, way up on the shelf nearest the ceiling.  But when my father mentioned Lovecraft, it was usually in relation to his favorite story, which was The Rats in the Walls (1924).

Lovecraft’s approach is markedly different from that of the first three stories, which focus on the experiences of children.  Childhood fears of the cellar are commonplace; Keller proposes that youngsters—like dogs—have more acute senses than adults and are better able to detect the presence of phenomena of which their elders are oblivious.  Perhaps this is why Bradbury has one of his characters urge his adult peers to be vigilant, to make better use of all five senses, and perhaps a sixth or seventh as well.  Lovecraft would propose that cats are more attuned to what may be down there in the dark—there are about as many cats at Exham Priory as there are in The Cats of Ulthar (1920) and the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (published posthumously but written around 1927).  Actually this is an exaggeration:  The Rats in the Walls contains just 9 cats.

Although there are cats, with very few exceptions, there are no children in Lovecraft’s stories.  For him, ‘what is down there’ is unknown ancestral history, a forgotten past that reaches up out of the darkness to throttle the present and the future.  Much of Lovecraft’s horror is autobiographical and genealogical in nature.  He is trying always to come to terms with his family’s impoverishment and loss of social standing, his father’s shameful death from syphilis, and the terrors of an uncertain financial future.

The Rats in the Walls is one of Lovecraft’s relatively few haunted house stories, remarkable for its supernatural elements, which include spectral rats and strange visions of an underground grotto.  A wealthy descendant of a family with a disreputable past—and awful table manners—contrives to restore both the family homestead and its reputation in a remote site in England.  The theme of restoring a family’s lands and social standing must have been acutely resonant for Lovecraft, who was unable to do this for his own once prosperous family, who after 1904 was forced to rent small apartments and subsist on a dwindling inheritance.  There is terrible irony in the narrator De la Poer’s efforts:

The seat of my fathers was complete, and I looked forward to redeeming at last the local fame of the line which ended in me.  I would reside here permanently, and prove that a de la Poer, (for I had adopted again the original spelling of the name) need not be a fiend.

As enthusiastic readers of Lovecraft know, De la Poer accomplishes exactly the opposite of what he intends, and is psychiatrically hospitalized by the end of the story, along with Thornton, the psychic who tries to get him to use all of his senses.  Was eventual hospitalization Lovecraft’s fear as well?

De la Poer reconstructs the family’s castle on top of the ruins of a much older edifice.  It is hinted that the original occupants were contemporaneous with the Druids or even arrived earlier.  Their gruesome history is linked with that of the narrator’s ancestors.  In fact, there has been an upwelling and contamination of his family line by a subterranean—because buried and forgotten—evil.  (A very similar thing happens to the Martense family in Lovecraft’s 1923 story The Lurking Fear.) 

Like his colleague Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft assumes that as individuals travel deeper into the earth, they risk not only encountering evil and monstrosity but are likely to become one with them. This descent into diabolical atavism resembles a pathway to Hell—overtly so in Howard’s case, with all his serpent imagery.  Howard emphasizes downward movement as the route to ever greater evil.  Less spiritually inclined, Lovecraft’s approach to Hell is the path to insanity.

Psycho-architecturally speaking, De la Poer has built his comfortable, familiar daylight consciousness on top of the old basement, the vault, the cavern—that is, the repressed or forgotten truth about his origins.  He shares with his cat an acute sensitivity to noises that his fellow humans cannot hear.  Spectral rats scratch and scuttle inside the stone walls, their pathways leading relentlessly down to the foundations of Exham Priory.  The author connects these initial supernatural phenomena with backstory about the history of the site and its environs, in particular, recalling a grotesque calamity centuries earlier involving hordes of famished rodents.

However, Lovecraft has his narrator express his ambivalence about the supernatural;

Yet when I awoke it was full daylight, with normal sounds in the house below.  The rats, living or spectral, had not troubled me…On going down, I found that the same tranquility had prevailed elsewhere; a condition which one of the assembled savants—a fellow named Thornton, devoted to the psychic—rather absurdly laid to the fact that I had now been shown the thing which certain forces had wished me to know.

Yet pride goeth before a trip down the stairs to the basement.  The investigation of the hidden vaults beneath the foundation of his new home begins scientifically and rationally—in the day light.  A team of renowned academics—“It is hardly necessary to name them all, but I may say they included Sir William Brinton, whose excavations in the Troad excited most of the world in their day…” enters the ancient stairwell leading to the shadowed depths below.  But a relatively brief survey of the horrors they discover, combined with corners of impenetrable darkness and the narrator’s poisonous racial memory, drives De la Poer hopelessly insane—and ravenous. 

At this point the text disintegrates into what S.T. Joshi has called “perfervid free-association”—a stream of broken italicized phrases separated by dashes and ellipses, Lovecraft’s trademark sign that the narrator has been horrified out of his mind.  (Compare this scene in The Rats in the Walls with similar ones in The Haunter of the Dark, The Loved Dead or The Hound.)    In the end, De la Poer becomes the monstrosity he was trying to transcend, a bleak outcome typical of Lovecraft.

The Rats in the Walls is one of the author’s most effective stories and deservedly well known.  S.T. Joshi praised the story as the author’s “greatest triumph in the old-time Gothic vein” while also appreciating its contemporaneous feel—one of the relatively few Lovecraft stories with modern dates and references.  Joshi was also impressed with the symbolism that links the narrator’s descent beneath the foundations of Exham Priory to his recapitulation of ancient history and his own family’s dark past.    

On a side note, it is interesting that cannibalism is a frequent topic in Lovecraft’s stories.  It appears in The Picture in the House (1921), The Lurking Fear (1923), In the Vault (1925) and Pickman’s Model (1927), among other places.  This may be worth exploring in future posts.

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