Horror is a strange genre in that it is more like a literary technique that can be taken to an extreme and thereby rendered into an independent story. Almost any genre can incorporate elements of what is today considered the horror genre: dark fantasy, dark urban fantasy, suspense science fiction, supernatural mystery…all of these are examples of other subgenres created by mixing horror with another, dominant genre. Flip the order, and you have straight horror.
I don’t read a lot of horror, probably for the same reason that I don’t ride a lot of rollercoasters: they don’t do very much for me. I’m too analytical to really appreciate what these adrenaline, shiver-inducing forms of entertainment primarily provide. Of all the book reviews we’ve posted on the site, I think the only one that can be classified as horror is The Stand. You can now add Rats in the Walls to that very short list.
If I don’t enjoy horror, don’t get much from horror, and don’t really read horror, then why did I choose to read this short story? Well, aside from a handwaving explanation of “I like to read broadly,” this got on my reading list because, while horror as a genre does not hold much interest for me, horror as a subgenre, and as a literary tool, is of great interest to me as a writer. The techniques involved in writing horror are akin, and sometimes identical to, those involved in crafting suspenseful scenes, frightening situations, and emotive action sequences. At the risk of sounding like Donald Maass, horror can be thought of an especially potent form of tension.
This, however, is not intended to be a post about horror as a literary technique or a genre, and lest you think that I am descending into a peculiar kind of madness that hopefully does not involve eating my friends and speaking in ancient tongues, I should probably get into my review of the actual story. Rats in the Wall is a classic piece of horror by Lovecraft from 1924 and is often referenced and recommended as epitomizing the techniques and practices that make that genre and style function. I am inclined to agree.
The art of horror is perhaps as much about what is not said as what is said. This tale is told with a framing story, but not one that is explained until the end. This might be thought of as relieving the tension, since we know that the narrator survives, but the nature of the story and horror within is such that mere survival would constitute low stakes. Exactly what happens, we will never know, because it is told from the perspective of a man slowly descending into madness, and much is left unexplained.
If horror can be used as an element in other genres, elements of other genres can be used in horror, and it was those elements that made this story work for me. Delusions of rats in the walls and strange, psychic echoes from the distant past, even retellings and descriptions of horrors from that past, and a descent into madness, are the elements that can be thought of as pure horror in this short story, and alone they would be passable. They are propelled, framed, enhanced, and given life by the other elements Lovecraft included. There is adventure and exploration in this story, mystery, character. Looking at the MICE quotient, I would say the dominant pillar is milieu, followed closely by character.
Character is of fundamental importance to making horror work, which is why it tends to be written so often in the first person, or a very tight third person limited. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to craft a good horror story in third person omniscient, although I would be very interested to see someone try; I wonder if you managed to strike the right narratorial voice if you could make it work. In Rats in the Walls, the narrator’s native skepticism makes the story work. Had it been told from another perspective, from one that isn’t both relatable and descending into madness, the story would not have been so much horrific as gruesome. It is not the fate of the cannibal’s victims, or the discovery of rituals far, far darker than anything I cared to include in Blood Magic that horrifies the reader: it is the narrator’s fate, and the way it seems like it would be so easy for it to become our own. In that sense, the supernatural element almost detracts from the horror instead of amplifying it.
It’s difficult for me to decide how to recommend this book, since it’s not something that I would have personally sought out to read if it weren’t in the pursuit of improving my own writing. However, having read it, I can appreciate it as a truly well-crafted story in its own right, and while “enjoyable” may not be the right word, I’m glad that I read it, and not just because it illustrates points and techniques that might help me hone my craft. Plus, it’s a classic in the genre. I think, therefore, that even if you’re not into horror, and not looking to improve your writing, you should still consider reading this short story. With the lights on, in a clean house.