Tag Archives: short story

‘Femme Fatale’ (La Femme de Paul) by Guy de Maupassant

Femme Fatale (a.k.a. ‘Paul’s Mistress’) was first published in 1881 as La Femme de Paul. This story is one of my favourite of Maupassant’s stories; it includes many of his favourite motifs, i.e. boats and the water, cruelty, sexuality. The story takes place mostly on and around La Grenouillère (‘the frog pond’), a popular bathing spot on the Seine near Chatou, which may be familiar to us via the paintings by Renoir and Monet.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

The story opens with some brilliantly descriptive writing; ‘strapping great fellows’ and ‘women in light spring frocks’ are getting into their skiffs making for La Grenouillère, watched, enviously perhaps, by a crowd of suburbanites, boatmen and working men. The only ones left behind are Paul and Madeleine, a young couple apparently very much in love. They are on their way to La Grenouillère as well but they’re not in so much of a rush as they have only eyes for each other.

Paul and Madeleine finally make it to La Grenouillère; it’s three p.m., and it’s crowded.

On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.

The crowd arrive at the floating restaurant, they’re noisy, singing away and occasionally brawling, most are drunk and there’s someone banging away at the piano with his feet as well as his hands.

The place reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society in all its rottenness gathered there: cheats, conmen and cheap hacks rubbed shoulders with under-age dandies, old roués and rogues, sleazy underworld types once notorious for things best forgotten mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps, and racketeers. Cheap sex, both male and female, was on offer in this tawdry meat-market of a place where petty rivalries were exploited, and quarrels picked over nothing in an atmosphere of fake gallantry where swords or pistols at dawn settled matters of highly questionable honour in the first place.

The weather is hot and many are bathing in the waters. Everyone is looking out to see who the next arrivals are. When a boat containing four women approaches, two in men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, a shout rises up ‘Aye-aye! Lesbos!’ and they’re cheered as they come onto the island. The narrative now returns to Paul and Madeleine, and just as Paul is declaring his disapproval of the women and their lifestyle Madeleine recognises them and leaves him to join their party. It becomes apparent that Paul is besotted with Madeleine but Madeleine, it would seem, is just after a good time and enjoys Paul’s attention and money when there is nothing better to do.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Paul goes off on his own and mopes about a bit but eventually they reconcile and go off for a walk in the country where they can be alone. But Madeleine has arranged to meet the Lesbos crowd later in the evening, much to Paul’s disgust, and she’s not going to let Paul stop her from having some fun. Paul realises that Madeleine is shallow but that doesn’t stop him from loving her. Madeleine doesn’t understand his intensity of feeling and feels suffocated by it. They both attend the evening’s revelries.

People were dancing. Couples faced each other and capered about madly, kicking their legs as high as their partners’ noses. The women, who appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips, leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts, flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility. They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures.

Paul, the Romantic, appears to be out of place in this riotous palace of pleasure whereas Madeleine is quite at home here. I won’t reveal how the story ends but Maupassant rarely fails in giving us a satisfying ending to a story. But, as with many of his stories, it’s not just about the ending, the descriptive elements of the story are beautiful and Maupassant sketches out characters with only a few words; he chooses a few elements of their character to show us and it’s enough for us to feel that we know them.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Although I’ve been reading the collection 88 More Stories (1950), in which this story appears as Paul’s Mistress, the quotes above are from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004) which was translated by Siân Miles. Although there is nothing wrong with the older translation I think that Miles’s more modern style suits this story.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.

The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.

When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.

“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”

So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.

And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.

The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.

And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.

This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.

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‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ by Stefan Zweig

Zweig-Collected-StoriesI recently read The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig and although I enjoyed the collection I didn’t get round to posting about any of them, even though I wanted to post about every one. One of my favourites was Mendel the Bibliophile (originally published as Buchmendel in 1929), which is really ‘just’ a thirty-page character study of the extremely bookish Mendel.

The story begins with the narrator describing a return to Vienna after being absent for several years; it is raining heavily and he dives into a café, he soon settles down and falls into a state of lethargy as he waits for the rain to stop. He begins to have the feeling that he’s been there before but doesn’t recognise anything in particular.

But suddenly, and in a curious way, I was brought out of my drowsy state as a vague impulse began to stir within me. It was like the beginning of a slight toothache, when you don’t know yet if it is on the right or the left, if it is starting in the upper or the lower jaw; there was just a certain tension, a mental uneasiness. For all at once—I couldn’t have said how—I was aware that I must have been here once before, years ago, and that a memory of some kind was connected with these walls, these chairs, these tables, this smoky room, apparently strange to me.

It is annoying for the narrator not to be able to remember the place and he racks his brain to try to discover the connection with his past. When he walks around the café it dawns on him where he is; it’s the Café Gluck and the table in the corner is where Jakob Mendel, the bibliophile, used to sit.

I saw him at once as he had been, always sitting at that rectangular table, its dingy grey marble top heaped high at all times with books and other writings. I saw the way he persistently sat there, imperturbable, his eyes behind his glasses hypnotically fixed on a book, humming and muttering as he read, rocking his body and his inadequately polished, freckled bald patch back and forth, a habit acquired in the cheder, his Jewish primary school in eastern Europe.

Mendel was largely oblivious to his surroundings as he read his books and it was often difficult to attract his attention as the narrator discovered when he was introduced to Mendel one time when he was trying to find some books on Mesmer. Mendel had an incredible memory for books and was able to find any that were required; he could remember all the publisher details, where and when it was published, the different editions and so on. During this period, before WWI, he used the café as his office for trading in books; he was accepted and looked after by the owner and the employees of the café.

So, the narrator starts to wonder what happened to Mendel. No one seems to even remember who he was until the narrator asks Frau Sporschil, the ‘toilet lady’, who reveals that he died seven years ago and explains to the narrator what happened to him. With the onset of WWI, which Mendel seemed not to notice, he attracted the attention of the police who were shocked to discover that he was a Russian citizen who was unknown them. Things take a downward turn, but I won’t reveal any more of what happens so not to spoil things for potential readers of this story. There is no real plot to the story, instead we find out more about Mendel from Sporschil and the narrator discovers just how unwordly Mendel was. The narrator and Sporschil form a temporary, but compassionate, bond as they discuss the tribulations of Mendel and it is this as well as the remembrance of Mendel that makes the story heartwarming.

And yet we understood one another wonderfully well as we sat at his old table, now abandoned, in the company of the shades we had conjured up between us, for memory is always a bond, and ever loving memory is a bond twice over.

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‘A Child’s Heart’ by Hermann Hesse

Hesse_Klingsors-Last-Summer-fcXC-700pxA Child’s Heart is a short story included in the Picador collection Klingsor’s Last Summer – uh! what a cover! but hey, it was the ’70s. The collection also includes the title story and Klein and Wagner. A Child’s Heart is beautifully told but it starts ominously, talking of fate and the effects that decisions can have on one’s life. The adult narrator is discussing an event that involved the narrator’s father and which happened thirty years before, when he was a child. The narrator had had a guilty conscience since the morning, despite not being aware of any wrongdoing. As he enters ‘his father’s house’ at lunchtime he is pondering his natural wickedness and his longing to be good. Looking back, the narrator describes his feelings that day:

If I were to reduce all my feelings and their painful conflicts to a single name, I can think of no other word but: dread. It was dread, dread and uncertainty, that I felt in all those hours of shattered childhood felicity: dread of punishment, dread of my own conscience, dread of stirrings in my soul which I considered forbidden and criminal.

On this day the narrator decides to see his father. He goes to his father’s study, enters, but no-one is there. A compulsion to steal comes over him, as it has done before, and he steals a few pen nibs. After nosing about further he finds some dried figs hidden away in a drawer and without thinking, he eats a few and pockets some more. The fear then returns and he joins the others at the meal table.

Now the misery was upon me. I would have let my hand be chopped off if that could have restored my figs to the drawer. I decided to throw the figs away, to take them to school and give them away. If only I were rid of them, if only I never had to see them again!

But he doesn’t throw them away. After lunch he absentmindedly eats a few and hides the rest behind some books. Nothing good is going to happen on this day—he thinks of his own inadequacies, he bunks off school and gets in a fight with his friend…but still the sense of dread, of being discovered pervades his thoughts.

This story effectively describes the thoughts and feelings that a child has when contemplating the world. At times the narrator feels powerful, ready to stand-up to anyone: his father, bullies, God; and then the realisation hits that he’s still a child and is powerless in the adult’s world. The narrator wonders if maybe his ‘crime’ won’t be discovered by his father but other times he seems to want to be found out.

The ending is great. It has a subtle twist and a bit of a ‘fuck you’ vibe to it – brilliant stuff! I won’t spoil the ending as you’ll want to read this one.

hesse-revisedI read this as part of the Hermann Hesse Reading Week hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Karen at ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’. Check out some of the other posts at the links above.

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‘Boule de Suif’ by Guy de Maupassant

Boule de Suif is one of Maupassant’s more famous stories and it is the one that first made him famous. The story first appeared in the 1880 collection of stories called Les Soirées de Médan which were all centred around the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The collection also included stories by Zola and Huysmans. When Flaubert, Maupassant’s mentor, read it he was ecstatic, he wrote:

I am impatient to tell you that I consider Boule de Suif a masterpiece. Yes, young man! Nothing more, nothing less. It is the work of a master. It is original in conception, well constructed from beginning to end, and written in excellent style.

I think that most people who read the story today will agree with Flaubert as did the readers at the time of publication.

The story opens with the defeated French army passing through Rouen. The Prussians soon occupy the town and the soldiers are billeted with the townspeople. Le Havre is still in the hands of the French and several of the wealthy inhabitants of Rouen, with the Prussians’ permission, arrange a carriage destined for Le Havre. They leave at daybreak while snow is still falling. The occupants of the coach consist of a petits bourgeois couple, a bourgeois couple, an aristocratic couple, two nuns, a democrat Cornudet and hidden away in the corner is someone that the others disapprove of:

The woman, one of those usually known as a good-time girl, was famous for the premature portliness which had earned her the nickname Boule de Suif. Small, round as a barrel, fat as butter and with fingers tightly jointed like strings of small sausages, her glowing skin and the enormous bosom which strained under the constraints of her dress — as well as her freshness, which was a delight to the eye — made her hugely desirable and much sought after. She had a rosy apple of a face, a peony bud about to burst into bloom. Out of it looked two magnificent dark eyes shaded by thick black lashes. Further down was a charming little mouth complete with invitingly moist lips and tiny, gleaming pearly-white teeth. She was said to possess a variety of other inestimable qualities.

The respectable women disapprovingly discuss her presence in the carriage whilst the businessmen talk of business matters. The carriage makes slow progress through the snow and because of the war there are no inns open. Everyone becomes hungry, and it turns out that Boule de Suif is the only one who has brought along provisions. Slowly, they accept her offers of food and as a result they become friendly towards her. Although the others are leaving Rouen mostly for monetary reasons, Boule de Suif is leaving because she can’t bear to see the sight of Prussian soldiers occupying a French town.

They arrive at Tôtes in the evening. They are greeted by a Prussian officer and allowed to take rooms in a hotel. Once they are settled the innkeeper tells Boule de Suif that the officer would like to see her. She reluctantly goes but returns, cursing the officer. The following day the travellers are prevented from continuing their journey by order of the officer. It turns out that the officer will only allow them to continue their journey once Boule de Suif has slept with him. The officer sends the innkeeper to find out if she has changed her mind but she indignantly refuses to capitulate:

Boule de Suif remained standing. At first very pale, she suddenly turned crimson, choking so much with rage that she was unable to speak. Finally she burst out: ‘Tell that bastard, that sod of a Prussian, that I never will, d’you hear? Never, never, never!’

If you don’t want to know the ending of the story you may wish to stop reading at this point.

The others are initially shocked and angrily disapprove of the officer’s uncouth behaviour and sympathise with Boule de Suif’s position. But, as the days drag on they become less sympathetic towards her. They begin to resent her, a lowly prostitute, preventing them from continuing their journey. After all, they reason, all she’s being asked to do is what she does for a living anyway. They try to convince her to give in to the officer’s demands but have little luck at first. When the nuns reveal that they are trying to get to Le Havre to nurse French soldiers Boule de Suif eventually goes to see the officer. Meanwhile, the other travellers celebrate, getting drunk and telling risqué stories. Only Cornudet, the democrat, seems to be concerned over the way they’re behaving.

The following day the carriage is allowed to leave. Boule de Suif enters the carriage timidly and everyone is embarrased.

At first no one spoke. Boule de Suif dared not look up. She felt simultaneously angry with her neighbours, humiliated by having given in to them, and defiled by the caresses of the Prussian into whose arms they had so hypocritically thrown her.

But her humiliation is not over yet. Now, with normality restored, they can ignore Boule de Suif completely and to really dig the knife in they all get their parcels of food out and start tucking in. Boule de Suif of course has not got any food with her; the others ignore her as they eat and chat away. Their incredible hypocrisy angers her but she is soon overcome with tears; Mme Loiseau tells the others that she’s crying ‘from shame, that’s all’.

The travellers are a good cross-section of French ‘civilised society’, with the exception of Boule de Suif of course, but it is only she that is patriotic, honest and honourable. The others are revealed to be mean-spirited, callous, greedy and self-centred. Even the nuns are shown in a bad light as it is their story of helping the wounded soldiers that was the final argument that convinced Boule de Suif to go against her own decision. And in the final scene no-one, not even Cornudet, shows her any compassion or shares any food with her. Instead, she just sits in the carriage sobbing ashamed of herself and angry at the others.

The Flaubert quotation was taken from Maupassant (1950) by Francis Steegmuller and the Boule de Suif quotations were taken from Siân Miles’ translation from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004).

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘The Lost Reflection’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann

GLM-V 2015The Lost Reflection is a story from the 1932 collection of tales ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ published in 1932 by Dodd, Mead & Co. I started posting reviews of the stories from this collection earlier this year, which was really an excuse to show the lovely illustrations by Mario Laboccetta. I have already posted reviews on The Entail and The Sandman. I thought I’d use GLM V as an excuse to post some reviews and images of the other stories in the collection.

The story reviewed here, The Lost Reflection, is also known as The Night of New Year’s Eve or The Adventures of New Year’s Eve. The original German title is Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht and was published in 1815. Sometimes the story contained within this one (i.e. Erasmus’s story) is published separately as The Lost Reflection or The Story of the Lost Reflection. It’s all a little confusing, I know, so I hope I’ve got it correct.

So, the story begins on New Year’s Eve and it’s worth quoting the opening sentence:

I was delirious with fever: the cold of death pierced my very heart, and heedless of the fury of the storm I ran through the streets hatless and cloakless like one escaped from a madhouse.

Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-01-500pxThe narrator recounts how he came to be running throught the streets like a madman. He’d attended a ball hosted by the counsellor of justice where he met Julia, a woman he’d previously been in love with. He acts like an ass, bumps into people and when he finally gets to talk to her he faints. When he awakes he discovers that Julia is married. This totally freaks him out and he rushes through the streets until he reaches a tavern. He settles down and orders some beer and tobacco. Before long a tall, thin man comes in, keeping his back to the wall, and sits down at the narrator’s table. Then a short man enters the tavern and he asks the landlord to cover the mirror. The two men know each other and argue about obscure topics. By the time the tall man leaves, the narrator realises he is Peter Schlemihl, the man who sold his shadow to the devil.

The narrator seeks out a room for the night at another tavern. In the room there is a large mirror and when he looks into it he sees Julia’s image and cries out ‘Julia!’. Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-02-900pxHe realises that there is another person in the room and is surprised that it’s the short man from the other tavern. He’s having a bad dream and is calling out ‘Giulietta!’. The narrator wakes him and the man asks him to cover the mirror. The narrator is curious about the man and it turns out that he has no reflection, but rather than selling it like Schlemihl, he gave it away for love. He promises to tell the narrator his story but they are both too tired. The narrator has vivid dreams and in the morning he finds the man has gone. He has, however, left some written pages. The man was called Erasmus Spicker and we now switch to his story.

Erasmus had decided to leave his family to go travelling and so he heads for Italy. In Florence he makes friends and frequents parties. His friends all take mistresses but Erasmus loves his wife and wishes to remain faithful. The others mock him and they decide to test him by calling in Giulietta. Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-04-900pxErasmus is intoxicated with desire and declares his undying love for her to the astonishment of his friends. Upon returning home he encounters a strange man called Signor Dapertutto who mocks him. His friends think he’s making a fool of himself and decide that he should return home before he does something foolish but Dapertutto convinces him to meet with Giulietta before he leaves. He decides to stay. Erasmus ends up getting in a fight with an ugly Italian over Giulietta and inadvertently kills him. Somehow he escapes with Giulietta. In her boudoir she says he must leave or he will be arrested, but he must leave his reflection with her as a sign of his love for her. Although confused by this request, he agrees, and his image is detached from himself and he sees Giulietta disappear into the mirror with his image.

Erasmus leaves but soon finds that it’s difficult moving about as he is mobbed whenever it’s discovered that he has no reflection. He finally gets home to his loving wife and child and hopes to forget about what has happened. However, one day his missing reflection is noticed and both his wife and child are Hoffmann_Lost-Reflection-03-600pxhorrified. He flees from his house in a distraught state and Dapertutto appears before him. He says that Giulietta still loves him and will be happy to give his reflection back if only he will poison his wife and child. Giulietta also appears to him later in a vision in an embrace with his image. She says if he can’t poison his wife then he should sign a contract in blood allowing Dapertutto to do it. He nearly signs but is prevented by the ghost of his mother. Giulietta and Dapertutto disappear but his reflection is still missing. His wife says that he can only return to her when he has found it. He now searches the world for his reflection along with Schlemihl who is looking for his shadow.

This probably isn’t the best Hoffmann story as it’s all just a bit too manic and contrived, even for Hoffmann, but that may have something to do with the translation. I’m not sure who the translator is but I’d love to compare it with a new translation. The translations of two of the other stories in this collection, ‘The Entail’ and ‘The Sandman’, seem to have parts missing from the stories so I wonder if something similar has been done with this story. Still, if read in the right mood it is quite a fun tale and has all the obsessions of Hoffmann: stories-within-stories, identity problems, magic, madness, coincidences, obsessive love etc. You can’t really go wrong with that combination, can you?

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‘The Rats in the Walls’ by H.P. Lovecraft

1924-ClubThe Rats in the Walls is a short story by H.P. Lovecraft which was first published in Weird Tales in March 1924. I decided to re-read this as part of The 1924 Club‘s fortnight of blogs centred around works published in 1924. This is hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

H.P. Lovecraft is a favourite author of mine but his overblown style and ‘cosmic horror’ subject matter is not to everyone’s taste. The Rats in the Walls, for example, clips along at a steady pace and initially seems like a pretty standard ghost story until we descend further into a more typical Lovecraftian world of cannabilistic atavism and subterranean worlds…oops, I’ve given the ending away…never mind though as the real fun with Lovecraft is reading him rather than trying to work out the ending, especially as most of his stories end with the main character descending into madness.

The story begins in July 1923. The narrator recounts how he bought, then renovated Exham Priory (possibly in Northumberland) which was an old ancestral building that had fallen into another family’s ownership after the narrator’s ancestor, Walter de la Poer, fled the building and the country to New England in the seventeenth century, following accusations that he’d murdered several members of his household.

The ancestral links go further back in time; the castle was built in 1261 on the temple’s foundations and it is claimed that the site had been used as a place of worship in the Roman period and further back possibly even to the Celtic druids. The locals look upon the narrator’s restoration of the castle with horror. Over the years there have been many horrific stories attributed to the castle:

There was, for instance, the belief that a legion of bat-winged devils kept Witches’ Sabbath each night at the priory—a legion whose sustenance might explain the disproportionate abundance of coarse, vegetables harvested in the vast gardens. And, most vivid of all, there was the dramatic epidemic of the rats—the scampering army of obscene vermin which had burst forth from the castle three months after the tragedy that doomed it to desertion—the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.

After two years restoring the castle the narrator moves in. Within a week the cats start to act a bit strangely, staring at the walls and roving about the house. The narrator starts to have nightmares and when he wakes he can hear the sound of mice or rats scurrying about behind the walls of his room. On subsequent nights the noise intensifies and can be heard all over the house—but only the narrator can hear the noise. It appears to him that the rats are descending to unknown depths and so he investigates the cellar. He asks his friend, Norrys, to assist him and when they find a draught of air coming from the base of an altar they decide to bring in a team of archaeologists to investigate further.

If you really don’t want to find out what happens next then you may prefer to skip to the last paragraph of this post. It’s at this point that the story really becomes Lovecraftian as the team manage to tilt the altar and reveal some stone steps that are littered with human and human-like skeletons that have been gnawed by rats…and possibly gnawed by something larger. As they descend the steps and venture further they come across a large grotto with buildings and a floor that is completely covered with bones. Amongst these they find skeletons of humanlike quadrupeds that appear to have been raised like cattle for consumption, presumably by his ancestors. The narrator and Norrys become separated from the others and when the narrator hears the scurrying of the rats he panics and tries to escape.

He is later discovered crouched over the half-eaten corpse of Norrys and is subsequently shut away in a cell in an asylum. He refuses to believe that he could commit such an act and the story ends with the narrator pleading with the reader to believe him:

When I speak of poor Norrys they accuse me of a hideous thing, but they must know that I did not do it. They must know it was the rats; the slithering, scurrying rats whose scampering will never let me sleep; the daemon rats that race behind the padding in this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls.

I love the way this story turns from a quite ordinary ghost story into a much darker, more typically Lovecraftian story. In some ways it’s more restrained than some of his other stories as it does not involve alien beings or any creatures from his Cthulhu mythos; the horror is purely human as even the rats only appear to be in the narrator’s mind. The horror is that of slavery and cannibalism—and madness.

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