It was a damp winter’s evening, I clocked-off around five o’clock and got ready for my journey home. As I walked towards the railway station, a medium-sized black cat ran across my path. Except it wasn’t a cat. It was a rat. (This was in London by the way, home of rats). It was completely unafraid, and even looked slightly annoyed that I was in its way.
Rats are scary things, they are big and wild and often have plague. They sell rats in pet-shops which are small and white with pink eyes, they smell a bit weird but are pretty cute. They are not really “rats” in the true sense. Unless it looks a bit like Satan, it’s not ratty enough to be a rat.
If you are lucky enough to live in or visit an old building, one of the most noticeable things can be the unidentified noises. I remember once listening to a sermon on the theme of materialism, the priest spoke about entropy, and the temporary nature of physical things. “If you lie awake at night, you will hear odd creaking sounds”, he said, “this is the sound of your house slowly falling apart”.
In Bram Stoker’s The Judge’s House, the hero, looking for solitude, stays in a dilapidated house once belonging to a judge. Each night he is disturbed by the sound of rats behind the wainscots. The story is told from the point of view of the young man, how he is haunted by a rat-like demon in the house. But equally, it could have been told from the point of view of the villagers, where a suicidal young man turns up in the village, wanting to be alone. At the beginning of the story the hero is desperately looking for a town where no one knows him, or any of his acquaintances. He selects the town of Benchurch, randomly, by simply buying a ticket for the first railway station on the list that he has not heard of. This is what brings him eventually to the judge’s house. Does the demon have some control over this destiny, or would the story have had the same end regardless of which town he had chosen?
Another story which uses a similar theme is H P Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls. Here the hero visits his ancestral home, to restore the buildings which date back to pre-Roman times. He is haunted by a sound of rats inside the castle walls, which only he can hear. Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, The Rats in the Walls is about inherited guilt. Again there is a sense of the unavoidable, the hero cannot escape from his family history.
Both authors use the idea of peasant superstition, a fear of the upper classes and the strange mansions they inhabit. There is also a suggestion that the buildings themselves are somehow alive, obviously not in the literal sense, but that the building develops a character of its own.
Lovecraft’s story displays a rather American fascination with all things old-world. The hero travels from America to purchase his old family home and research his family history, after his papers on the subject are mysteriously destroyed in a fire. He is also the only survivor of his line, many of his ancestors and relatives having died in unexplained circumstances. This is a theme often used in Lovecraft’s stories, the idea of a cursed or evil family, and how this line is preserved (or not). In one of his tales (I won’t say which one, so as not to spoil it for anyone) the hero commits suicide on discovering who his ancestors were, in order to finally end a line of monsters.
I think authors use rats in stories because they aggravate our fear or disease and decay, they are frightening, chaotic animals, who wander fearlessly into the human world. I don’t know if Lovecraft copied Stoker’s idea of having the noise of rats coming from inside the walls, but it is certainly very eerie, and has made me very aware of strange noises coming from this building.