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 reading Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats,” first published in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“Wagging their grey heads wisely, the elders declared that there were worse things than rats and maggots crawling in the unhallowed earth of the ancient Salem cemeteries.”
Old Masson is caretaker of one of Salem’s oldest—and most neglected—cemeteries. The previous caretaker disappeared, but Masson’s not likely to abandon his post—his side gigs of stealing burial jewelry and selling the occasional cadaver to unscrupulous anatomists are much too lucrative.
His biggest problem is the rats. The graveyard obviously agrees with them, for they’ve grown abnormally large and plump—Masson’s seen some the size of cats, and gravediggers uncover tunnels big enough for a man to crawl in.
The ships that sailed into Salem generations back brought strange cargoes. Masson’s heard whispered tales of “a moribund, inhuman life that was said to exist in forgotten burrows in the earth.” The days of Cotton Mather may be past, but oldsters declare that there are worse things than rats and maggots haunting the cemetery depths. Far underground, the “vague” rumors declare, dwell ghoulish beings that employ the rats as messengers, soldiers, even grave robbers to supply their nocturnal feasts.
Masson is incredulous of the legends. In public, he downplays the rat situation. It wouldn’t do for the authorities to start opening graves and discovering depredations that couldn’t be blamed on rodents. The size of their burrows does trouble him; so does the way they steal whole corpses by gnawing coffins open at the end, as if under the direction of an intelligent leader.
This night, protected from fond relatives by the rain, Masson’s digging for especially rich treasure—the cadaver in question was interred with fine cufflinks and a pearl stickpin. As he exposes the coffin, he hears stirring and scratching inside. Rage replaces his moment of superstitious fear—the rats are once more beating him to the prize!
He wrenches up the lid just in time to see a black-shod foot dragged through the breached end of the sarcophagus. He snatches at it, hears the squealing thieves who tug it from his grasp. How the hell big must these rats be? Never mind, he has a flashlight and revolver and sufficient greed to drive him into the burrow after them.
The narrow tunnel’s slimy wet and stinks of carrion. Side tunnels open out from the main one. Masson crawls on and almost catches up to the rat-drawn corpse before he notices how clods of earth are falling in his wake. What if the burrow should collapse? The idea’s terrifying enough to make Masson retrace his steps.
Wrong move. A dozen rats attack from behind, misshapen and big as cats. In the darkness beyond, something even bigger stirs. Masson manages to draw and fire his revolver, but the rats retreat only briefly. He fires again, shouts, crawls onward, pauses. At one elbow is a side tunnel. In the main tunnel before him is a shapeless huddle that he gradually recognizes as a human body, a brown and shriveled mummy. The mummy moves, crawling toward him!
In the pale glow of his flashlight, Masson watches a “gargoyle face” thrust toward his own, a “passionless, death’s-head skull of a long-dead corpse, instinct with hellish life; and the glazed eyes swollen and bulbous betrayed the thing’s blindness.” It groans. It stretches its “ragged and granulated lips in a grin of dreadful hunger.”
Masson flings himself into the side tunnel. Both the Horror and the rats pursue him. He empties his revolver, driving them back. He squirms under a rock that protrudes from the tunnel ceiling, and has the bright idea of tugging it down after himself to block his pursuers’ advance. The dislodged rock crushes something that shrieks in agony. Unfortunately its displacement also starts dislodging the rest of the roof.
Earth cascading down at his heels, Masson wriggles forward eel-fashion. His fingers suddenly claw satin, not dirt. His head strikes a hard surface, not dirt, and he can go no further. Nor can he raise himself more than a few inches from his stomach before hitting an immovable roof. Panic follows his realization that he’s crawled to the end of the side tunnel: a coffin previously emptied by the rats!
There is no turning around in the coffin’s confines, nor could he claw his way to the surface even if he could push open its lid. Behind, the tunnel continues to subside. Masson gasps in the fetid, hot airlessness. As the rats squeak exultantly, he screams and thrashes his way through the remaining oxygen.
And as he sinks “into the blackness of death,” he hears “the mad squealing of the rats dinning in his ears.”
What’s Cyclopean: Ravenous hordes. Malodorous tunnels. Blasphemous horror. Maggot-like fears. Also abyssmal fear.
The Degenerate Dutch: In the Mythos, nothing good ever comes from Salem. (Though if the black pits of Avernus really bring forth hell-spawned monstrosities, they’ll have a lot of digging ahead to get to Massachusetts for this story, since the underworld in question usually opens on either Italy or a particularly unpleasant D&D setting.)
Mythos Making: Cotton Mather hunted down evil cults that worshipped Hecate and the dark Magna Mater—as we know from last week, he missed the Magna Mater cultists at Exham Priory.
Libronomicon: Greed-motivated grave robbers aren’t much for reading.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Cotton Mather also missed Salem’s subterranean cellars (as opposed to the walkout kind, we guess), where forgotten rites are still celebrated in defiance of law and sanity.
Connoisseurs of the weird must universally acknowledge that it doesn’t matter how often certain folks warn against preternatural perils lurking in the dark corners of the earth and the far-flung voids of the cosmos. Such Cassandras come in many flavors, simple or compounded: the Oldster, the Youngster, the Lunatic, the Drunkard/Drug Addict, the Immigrant, the Indigenous Person, the Rustic, the Hysterical Female (or Male). Protagonists either ignore these characters or take their tales with enough grains of salt to gag a Deep One. This includes protagonists like Masson, who know from their own observations how unnaturally big the rats are, how unreasonably spacious their burrows, how downright uncanny their grave-robbing savvy. But as Lovecraft so memorably opines in “Call of Cthulhu,” the world’s greatest mercy is “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” facts with fables and conjecture, personal experience with the experience of others.
Never mind. We readers know the Cassandras are always right, and what fun would it be if the Weird-Tale protagonist took gossip, legend, folk wisdom, musty-tome lore, and conspiracy theory at face value? Masson would have concluded it wasn’t worth the extra income to delve into an earth tenanted by monstrous rats and ravenous ghouls. His story might then have read: “Old Masson quit his job as Salem cemetery caretaker after seeing his first cat-sized rodent and correlating the experience with local superstitions. Selling lottery tickets at the neighborhood convenience store just made more sense as a long-term occupation.”
“The Graveyard Rats” recalls several Lovecraft stories, “The Rats in the Walls” perhaps the most superficially. Both have rats, very bothersome rats, rats with deplorable appetites. Both have underground climaxes. That’s about it. Kuttner doesn’t even gift his lead with a faithful feline companion. Not that any self-respecting cat would stay with Masson, and pretty much every cat is self-respecting, yes? That’s their glory and allure.
“Graveyard Rats,” in general structure and theme, has more in common with “In the Vault,” which also features an unsavory cemetery caretaker who in the end GETS WHAT HE DESERVES. Lovecraft’s George Birch cares little for mortuary ethics. If there’s costly laying-out apparel to be had, he’ll have it. If the corpse doesn’t quite fit its clumsily built coffin, he’ll, um, adapt the corpse, not the box. Birch has this advantage on Masson—also the sole mortician for his community, he doesn’t have to exhume corpses to rob them; he just has to wait until the mourners are done looking to relieve Dearly Departed of his or her valuables. I suspect that lazy, boozy Birch would have left the burial baubles alone if he had to do any digging. Nor does it seem he sold cadavers. It could be, however, that in his rural seclusion, the scarcity of medical students and researchers (not morality) was the preventative factor.
Old Masson is certainly the more vigorous malefactor, and even less squeamish than Birch. If we rank a coffin-trapped death higher than maimed ankles and shattered mind, then his greater punishment fits his greater crimes. Howard might have ranked the shattered mind higher than swift decease. For me, with its meticulously detailed build-up to horror, “In the Vault” is the superior squirm-inducer, but Kuttner did get me good with Masson’s “premature burial.” The twist makes for a clever take on the conte cruel. Lifestyle and mindset direct Masson’s fate. They contribute to Birch’s, but Lovecraft gives us the added chill of a malevolent corpse avenging a specific offense, two ankles for two ankles.
“Graveyard Rats” also recalls “The Lurking Fear,” in which our narrator opens a grave to discover a network of tunnels delved from the malodorous mould and home to unnameable creatures. Cemeteries serve as portals to subterranean realms of horror in “The Outsider” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” as well. In “Pickman’s Model,” ghouls rather than rats are the busy tunnelers.
In Kuttner’s Salem, rumor has it that “moribund, inhuman life” and “ghoulish” rat-masters dwell deep under the ancient residences and boneyards. Masson’s hungry “Horror” resembles the thing the Outsider saw in the ballroom mirror, which could be one sort of ghoul. Are there also Pickmanesque ghouls down below, feasting on the provender their rat allies provide?
According to the Salem elders, there are “worse things than rats and maggots crawling in the unhallowed earth.” Maggots? Oh. What about Lovecraft’s “Festival,” then, in which the narrator follows “abnormally pulpy” throngs into the “catacombs of nameless menace” that underlie Kingsport? He’ll eventually review a passage in the Necronomicon that claims the “charnel clay” of wizards “fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it.”
Well, if maggots eating cursed flesh are things that “have learnt to walk that ought to crawl,” what hideous enhancements might eating corpses bestow on rats? What mental or spiritual bonds might the diet have wrought between them and ghouls and maggot-mages?
Poor old Masson doesn’t live to contemplate the questions. Or would that be lucky old Masson?
Something to ponder while I go check out that pattering and squealing in the basement. I don’t mind, really. Just don’t expect me to crawl into any mouldy, malodorous tunnels.
I just washed my hair.
Death is scary—but as various weird fiction authors have occasionally pointed out, also kind of mundane. After all, it’s ultimately as inescapable as the hounds of Tindalos. The only question is how it will get you. What happens after, on the other hand… there are all sorts of possibilities, terrible because they are optional, and yet impossible for you to do anything about. The desecratory horrors range from the spiritual to the simple idea that after you’re done with your body, someone else might have a use for it.
Grave-robbing comes in low on the horror scale relative to, say, getting eaten by baby ghouls or recombined with other corpses in new and disturbing forms. And yet, it’s a persistent fear, winding through all manner of others across Lovecraft’s original stories. The angsty goths of “The Hound” rob graves for the lulz and for the aesthetic, eventually robbing the grave of a grave robber—who turns out to be a monster who eats grave robbers who rob their grave, so presumably someone in that story will get a snack out of this week’s selection. Ghouls and Delapores treat graves as pantries. Herbert West and Joseph Curwen are more interested in gathering research material. And what the unnamed narrator of “The Loved Dead” does… doesn’t bear thinking about.
Somehow, this regular obsession of HPL’s has become only a minor thread for those he influenced. Stolen bodies are an old and familiar fear, both predating Lovecraft—not one of his areas of wild creativity—and tapering over the 20th century as other sources of cadavers for medical research (not to mention easier ways of snaffling jewelry) became more common. But Kuttner, following closely on Lovecraft’s heels, is the guy who managed to rewrite “Dreams in the Witch House” with all the cool bits taken out. Unlike his protagonist, he doesn’t exactly have a keen eye for the true treasures of the dead. So, Masson’s grave robbing is not for fiendish consumption, gothic thrills, or unholy imprisonment via essential saltes, but for simple greed.
Ah, but I’m being unfair: the grave robbing isn’t the real horror here. That’s merely motivation for Masson to be out in a graveyard, in the rain, competing with giant rats for bodies. The rats, in fact, do have more sinister plans for those bodies. Probably “turned into an undead mummy-thing” comes closest to the West/Curwen model, though it doesn’t seem like there’s so much research involved. Honestly, they just seem to be creating a giant rat/mummy warren beneath Salem. So maybe this is ultimately more like ghouls?
But, Kuttner being Kuttner, Masson’s ultimate demise is more poetically symmetrical than truly terrifying. He escapes the rats and mummies, and in doing so buries himself alive in a rat-emptied coffin. Cue blackened tongue, fading consciousness, and the faint sound of squealing rats. We never do get dreadful confirmation of the rats’ roles with respect to the mummy-things. We just know they’re down there, tunneling beneath Salem like marsupial moles beneath Australia, only less eldritch. (Warning: creepy image at link—an unidentifiable insect being eaten by something that just might be a Brown Jenkins.)
ROUSes? I don’t think they exist. Or at least, I’m kind of dubious that they hang around in subterranean Massachusetts.
Next week, we wrap up the parade of rats with Steven King’s “Graveyard Shift.”
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.