Vermin Literature

They form multitudinous swarms, teem with fleas and terribly infectious diseases. They infiltrate our homes, pilfer our food, and invade our beds, biting us even as we sleep. Rats are undeniably nightmarish creatures, so it is no wonder that this bane of human civilization has been featured often in horror fiction. Consider this exemplary six-pack of rat terror (note: I am focusing here on works of American literature, and thus exclude British efforts such as George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks [basis of the film Willard], and James Herbert’s The Rats from the survey)…

 

1.“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)

Ironically, rats come to the rescue in Poe’s story of the various terrors rained down upon the narrating prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition. This tormented protagonist uses the vermin’s voracious appetite to personal advantage, strategically smearing food all over his entrapping bandages. The promptly overwhelmed narrator recounts: “They pressed–they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half-stifled by their thronging pressure […].” Desperate times call for disgusting measures.

 

2.“The Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft (1932)

Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” might be the more widely-known and more influential tale, but those titular infesting pests seem like lovable pets compared to the furry figure of Brown Jenkin (a diabolical, hyperspace-traveling witch’s familiar) in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Possessing fiendish intelligence and disturbingly anthropoid features, this long-toothed sidekick of an old crone commits some heinous acts of violence–including the wrist-gnawing sacrifice of a stolen child. And what Brown Jenkin does to the main character Gilman at story’s end represents arguably the ghastliest moment in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

 

3.“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner (1936)

The prolific Kuttner’s first-published and remarkably Lovecraftian story (in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales) is set in an ancient Salem cemetery and deals with “ghoulish beings that dwelt far underground, and that had the power of commanding the rats, marshaling them like horrible armies.” Readers are taken on a terrifying subterranean excursion when a grave-robbing caretaker gets in over his head. Anyone with a fear of premature burial had best avoid the climax, which finds the villain trapped in a coffin, suffocating, and subjected to the cacophony of rats’ triumphant squeals.

 

4.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

Wright’s classic novel also landed in my post last month on variations on Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but long before any feline frightfulness unfolds in Native Son, a rodent gnashes its way into the narrative. The book opens with an unforgettable scene of Bigger Thomas and his family being terrorized in their tenement apartment by a giant black rat. Bigger’s violent reaction to the attack (he “took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically”) sets the stage for further fearful outbursts later in the novel.

 

5.“Graveyard Shift” by Stephen King (1970)

In his essay “The Horror Writer and the Ten Bears,” King readily admits to a fear of rats, a phobia that is reflected time and again in his horror fiction. The Lovecraft-evoking “Graveyard Shift” forms his first foray into rat-plagued territory, and proves to be one gruesome endeavor. “Mischief” is the technical term for a group of rats, and that’s exactly what the creatures get up to here as a hapless cleaning crew ventures into the subcellar of an old textile mill. These mutants are awful in their own biting right, but pale in comparison to the shocking sight of their queen, a monstrous rat “as big as a Holstein calf.” In writing this tale, King might not have exorcised his personal dread, but he certainly succeeded in infecting his readers with the exact same fear.

 

6.The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)

In Dracula, Bram Stoker (who also dealt with vermin in “The Judge’s House” and “The Burial of the Rats”) establishes the Count’s psychic command of “meaner things” such as rats–as witnessed in the scene where thousands of the furry minions are called to the vampire’s swarming defense at Carfax Abbey. Rats are also central to the plot of Del Toro and Hogan’s modern, more-realistic revision of Dracula, but cut against Stoker’s mythological grain. The rats here enact a mass exodus to the daylit streets of Manhattan, fearfully displaced from their underground lair by worse “things that burrow and hide. Creatures who nest. Who feed off the human population.” Impressively researched, The Strain owes a debt not just to Stoker’s vampire epic but also (as the authors acknowledge) to Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

 

But enough already about rats–it’s time to turn to turkey. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the Macabre Republic!

 

 

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