Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re playing Alex Blechman’s “You Are the Rats in the Walls” video game, created in January 2020 for Techdirt’s Gaming Like It’s 1924 game jam. Play takes about 15-20 minutes, and we recommend playing! Spoilers ahead.
Mr. Delapore has bought and restored Exham Priory, the ancestral hold of the de la Poers. It’s been deserted for centuries since Walter de la Poer murdered the rest of his family and fled to Virginia; the locals still fear and hate the place. Captain Norrys, who befriended Delapore’s deceased son during the late war, is helping out.
The Priory stands on the edge of a limestone cliff. Gothic superstructure tops traces of Roman architecture and foundations dating back to Druidic and even Cymric times. Legend has it that Cybele was worshipped there during the Roman occupation, that dark cult having grafted itself onto one still more ancient. When the de la Poers took possession in 1261, their honorable line took up occult practices too horrible to contemplate. Or maybe not. You know how superstitious these peasants can be.
Anyhow, Delapore and Norrys have discovered something ominous in the Priory. Or as Delapore puts it: “It turns out that below my house is a twilit grotto of enormous height, stretching away farther than any eye could see. This is goddamn nuts. Jeez.” Norrys replies: “Yeah, I’m also freaked out by this subterraneous world of limitless mystery and horrible suggestion.” Delapore assures his friend that though his ancestors might have practiced nameless rites in the “grotesque chthonic chasm,” he “is totally okay and has no plans of doing cannibalism.”
Fine, says Norrys. But Delapore had still better avoid the grotto ruins until the archaeologists catch up. These architectural relics include a low-domed Roman ruin, a sprawling Saxon pile and an early English edifice. There are also scattered skeletons, charnel pits and unseen depths beyond all the visible horrors. “Good call,” agrees Delapore, for “If I explored all three buildings and learned the full truth of my family’s unspeakable past, that would destroy my sanity.” Yep, no way will he enter “these mind-shattering eldritch buildings.”
But all of a sudden, heralded only by a stream of noxious vapors, a “huge, scampering army of obscene vermin,” aka RATS, appears. Norrys doesn’t see the “slithering horde” and opines that it may just be “a metaphorical delusion devised by your diseased mind to represent your subconscious urge to embrace madness.” Delapore, however, insists that the “chittering swarm of rodent malice” is 100% real, and he must flee it, which is totally the sane thing to do.
The Probably Imaginary Rats merely say “squeak.” Incidentally (though perhaps also symbolically), the PIR are you. Have fun.
Delapore flees, rats in hot pursuit. H. P. Tipcraft makes occasional appearances to offer hints on how the rats can best herd their victim into the three maddening buildings. For example, they can nip at his heels, causing him to squeal and run faster, but even more randomly. Or they can get ahead and block his escape.
Depending on the sharpness of the rat army in negotiating the directional keys, Delapore will sooner or later run into the noxious Roman ruins, Saxon pile and English edifice, each time encountering a familial revelation (stalls for once-bipedal herd animals, butchering set-up, family seal on a terrible recipe) and losing a third of his sanity. Once he’s thoroughly crazed, the rat army herds him back to Norrys. Plump, succulent Norrys.
Norrys confides to his returned friend that he’s been “thinking of how scared I am of abyssal expanses filled with incomprehensible truths man was not meant to know.” He hopes no one has gone insane and is going to do cannibalism on him after he faints. Which he promptly does.
Delapore promptly starts chomping. Between bites of plump succulent human flesh, he spews out a mixed stream of archaic languages which can only represent his regression through the ages to his earliest ghoulish ancestors. This is quality madness!
Three archaeologists appear to deplore that Delapore is doing cannibalism on Norrys, because consuming human meat is just so wrong. The authorities lock Delapore up in an asylum, where he claims it wasn’t he who ate Norrys. No, it was the rats! The rats he still hears! The…the…
The rats in the walls!
What’s Cyclopean: Delapore is a bit unsettled by this “gothically grotesque chthonic chasm,” filled with “frenetically repellent revelations.”
The Degenerate Dutch: There are four inexplicably informative bas-reliefs on the northern wall. Three of them explain how to work the game mechanics; the fourth suggests that when writing a short story, you should avoid including gratuitous racism—after all, it could ruin an otherwise classic tale of eldritch horror! (The Cat With an Unfortunate Name is happily absent here.)
Libronomicon: South of the inexplicably informative bas-reliefs, there are also terrible, parallel inscriptions in Latin, Greek, and the tongue of Phrygia, revealing a shocking ritual (and also shocking dietary guidelines).
Madness Takes Its Toll: Delapore predicts that if he explores all three buildings and learns the truth about his family’s past, it will destroy his sanity. This proves accurate, and he describes the result as “quality insanity.”
Sometimes even the eminently mockable is challenging to mock well, let alone with a good balance of love, eye-rolling, and well-earned critique—ideally with an edge of whatever made the original appealing in the first place. Lovecraft seems like he ought to be easy to parody, but good Lovecraft parodies are rare. “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” is one of the few that comes to mind. To the short list, we can now add this delightful 20-minute epic not-really-an-8-bit-Nintendo-game.
“Rats in the Walls” is a good choice for parody, because it’s actually an effective horror story, ruined (as the back wall of the cavern warns) by gratuitous racism. But the effective horror also has an edge of absurdity, turned up to 11 here with a side dish of thoroughly roasting the “sanity points” approach to eldritch encounters. There is scary architecture. There is scary family history. There is scary vocabulary. There’s a maddened Delapore “doing cannibalism.” What more could you ask? Besides overanalysis from game-playing rereaders, obviously.
So, that sanity points thing. I was introduced to Lovecraft via Call of Cthulhu jokes, so practically the first thing I knew about the Mythos was that Cthulhu and the Necronomicon lead inevitably to madness™. While Lovecraft was irrationally terrified of mental illness, that sometimes-offensive terror at least drew on (and was probably a symptom of) personal experience. His characters suffer from recognizable PTSD and anxiety disorders, and they fear descending into madness far more often than they actually descend—Delapore is one of the few to do so. The idea that elder gods and eldritch tomes work like radiation exposure, something where you can carry a card quantifying your precise level of risk, comes later. (The more recent Fate of Cthulhu role-playing game, feeling understandably that this meshes poorly with modern understanding of, and empathy for, mental illness, replaces the infamous mechanic with a more purely supernatural “corruption.” Presumably to be followed by doing cannibalism.)
Blechman’s critique, following an alternate route, takes sanity points to their logically ridiculous extreme. Delapore and Norrys calmly (or at least articulately) predict the precise exposures required for 100% insanity, and the precise (cannibalistic) effects. How they know the end result when they haven’t yet received the revelations remains unclear. Then, every time you successfully nip Delapore’s heels into a new architectural horror, he gets his revelatory dose and announces that he’s now 1/3rd, 2/3rds, or 100% insane.
This precise quantification of madness comes with a deeper literary analysis. Lovecraft never resolves why only Delapore (and accompanying felines) perceive the rats—though since most of his horrors turn out to exist, I’ve always assumed the rats are ontologically legitimate as well. But Norrys suggests, quite reasonably under the circumstances, that Delapore’s initial sanity is an illusion, and the rats are devised by his “diseased mind” to represent his “subconscious urge to embrace madness.” And they do indeed lead (in the original) and chase (in the game) him into just such an embrace.
To which one can only say: Thank you for succumbing to madness. Play again?
Rats can’t help it if they carry a plethora of pathogens highly deleterious or deadly to humans. They can’t help it if they have a thing for chewing on electrical wiring in cars and homes. They can’t help it if they like to eat the same things we do and so take up residence near or with us. In some localities they also attract to human habitations such unwanted visitors as venomous snakes, but do you think they WANT to attract venomous snakes? Or to be proximate causes of death to your pets too stupid to leave rodent poison alone?
Guys, like every other species, rats just want to have fun. Mostly the basic kind of fun that includes eating, drinking, breeding, pooping and scratching exoparasites. But rats also like to play games, and games well beyond the dumb human lab varieties like running mazes. You’ve run one maze, it’s been there, done that, didn’t even get a tiny rat-sized T-shirt, only these tasteless pellets. You want to know what constitutes real rat fun? That’s right, eating Ernest Borgnine, which still stands as the pinnacle of Rattus amusement. Otherwise, rats like playing video games. You don’t think they hung around arcades for the stale popcorn droppings and Snickers wrappers, do you? Okay, those were a bonus, but the real attraction was Pac-Man. Rats loved Pac-Man because they identified strongly with the so-called “ghosts” that chase Mr. and Ms. P around. There was also this revenge thing about being bosses of the maze instead of its hapless victims. And if Pac-Man ate the ghosts (rats), they instantly regenerated and surged forth to commit further mayhem. Try instantly regenerating after a cobra’s swallowed you.
Alex Blechman, rats everywhere salute you. Ever since one came upon a discarded copy of the March 1924 Weird Tales and both figuratively and literally devoured it whole, “Rats in the Walls” has been a ratkind favorite, the tale passed down verbatim from litter to litter. In addition, there’s a huge body of rat-scratched fanfic for Lovecraft’s little masterwork. Now, to be the protagonists in a video-game based on “Rats?” What could be nicer, apart from eating Ernest Borgnine again, or Stephen King publishing a revised ‘Salem’s Lot in which the junkyard rats get to eat Dr. Jimmy Cody alive instead of him getting lamely impaled on a bunch of lame kitchen knives, Carrie-redux.
I myself, though not technically a rat, greatly enjoyed Blechman’s game. Even before the four wee rat avatars appear, there was the treat of Delapore and Norrys explaining the goals of the game via richly meta dialogue about the dangers of insanity in the face of the unthinkably uncanny. I’m not sure why the Delapore avatar wears that funky hat and beard-guard-thingie, but Captain Norrys looks cute in his sailor’s cap. So what if Norrys was in the Flying Corps instead of the Navy? Who would wear aviator helmet and goggles into a twilit grotto? No one with fashion sense, that’s for sure.
I’m also not sure why, when the rats nip Delapore’s heels, he emits a kind of muted elephant trumpeting. No biggie—I had the rats nip his heels frequently to enjoy the reaction, even though his terrified jumps could mess up the herding process. The time to nip was when the rats had him on a one-square wide straightaway, or better, trapped in a corner where he could do nothing but squeal.
I see from the game details that it’s in development. Can we hope for more acts? I’d love to play the rats running around within the walls of the Priory and scampering invisibly out to sway tapestries and spring traps and drive cats impotently frantic. I’d also love an option to play the lead-feline of the piece, whom Ruthanna and I have dubbed CWUN, or Cat with the Unfortunate Name. In a multi-player option, CWUN could try to thwart the rats from herding Delapore, or maybe join in the fun to get back at Mr. D for giving him such an unfortunate name.
In the original text, it’s psychic investigator Thornton who keeps fainting, not Norrys. Again, no biggie for the game as it stands, but it could be fun to have a Thornton player-option, with a racking-up of points for each face-plant taken, especially if it caused Delapore to trip over his senseless body into one of those putatively bottomless pits or to get swarmed by the rat-swarm, aaaaaaaaah. Jeez, man, stay calm and carry on, will you? Stiff upper lip and all that. Madness is not an option.
Except in our cozy Mythosian world, it always is the principal option, isn’t it, and one worse than death by having cannibalism done on you. Especially if you faint really hard first and thus don’t ever realize said cannibalism is being done.
Off to do some veganalism on hapless tofu pad thai. Then maybe I’ll chase Delapore some more—rats ftw 4evah!
Not quite ready to leave our rodent friends behind, we’ve picked Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” for next week.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.