Best Horror Story: Rats in the Walls

I’m going to take a departure from movie reviews and do something a little different.

Films and TV shows rely on visual and audio to frighten. Either something looks creepy or out of place and unsettles the viewer or an unusual or a loud noise is used to startle the audience.

The written word however is more malleable. It has to rely on mood, tone, and the use of description or dialogue to let the reader’s imagination frighten itself. It’s because of this that written works can often be far more scary than anything you can watch or listen to.

One that in particular got to me is H. P. Lovecraft’s Rats in the Walls.

I will try not to give it away which will be difficult because I will have to try to say why it is scary without saying what happens. The brief story set up is as follows:

Narrator/protagonist Delapore leaves his home in Massachusetts (a place his family settled after being run out of their ancestral home) but returns to his family estate, Exham Priory, in England where the locals are unhappy of his return. During his stay in the old house he hears a sound like rats scurrying through the walls and his cat responds to them as well. He has dreams throughout the story featuring strange demon-like beings overseeing fleshy humanoid creatures, and these dreams become more clear as the story progresses. After following the sound of the rats to a stony cellar Delapore and a group of adventurers explore the dank caverns beneath the priory and find the horrors within.

What is truly unsettling is the tone and the flashes of imagery used to uncover the history of the Delapore family. The story starts slowly, in the deliberate pace used by Lovecraft in all his writing. Unlike the more famous Call of Cthulhu or the more in-your-face Herbert West Reanimator this story doesn’t even sound like a horror story in the beginning. He establishes the character of Delapore. We learn of his family, his son, and his reasons for returning “home.” The tension builds as he spends more time in his family estate. As you plunge into the cavern and more and more is found out the darkness takes hold and the story is told in primal flashes and in maddening staccatos. I think of this story like Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique where a slow, sometimes curious pace leads up to a conclusion that rips you into vertigo as discordant strains make your hairs stand on end.

I truly think it’s the best horror story I’ve ever read, better than anything earlier or anything more modern. It’s imagery that will stay with you after you’ve read it. Lovecraft told you what was there…but your own mind gave it life to haunt the darkest places in your thoughts for years to come.

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