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The de la Poer Madness:
Before and After Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls”

[1]2,686 words

Robert M. Price, ed.
The Exham Cycle
Selma, North Carolina: Exham Priory, 2020

The de la Poer madness was so singular, opening up new lines of inquiry into the much-debated question of ancestral memory, that no men of the psychological sciences could in good conscience fail to try to resolve it.

— Robert M. Price, “Exham Priory”

Robert M. Price [2] is (among other things, I suppose) both an academic, specializing in New Testament studies — in which capacity he is a leading voice in the resurgent Christ Myth theory [3] — as well as a Lovecraft enthusiast — in which capacity he has participated both as an author of new or continued Lovecraftian tales, and as an editor of such works. [1] [4]

Moreover, this is one of those rare cases where an academic’s avocational interests — unlike, say, beekeeping [5] or tentacle porn [6] — dwell in a fruitful equilibrium, with insights into the Cthulhu Mythos providing further insights into the remarkably similar Christos Mythos and vice versa, as demonstrated by the collection here.

The publishers tell us that:

The Exham Cycle is the latest volume in Robert M. Price’s long-running series of weird fiction anthologies (begun by Chaosium in 1993), each one collecting stories that inspired a major tale by H.P. Lovecraft, plus subsequent tales by other writers inspired by that Lovecraft yarn. This time the focus is on HPL’s classic tale “The Rats in the Walls [7].” An introductory essay begins the book, and each tale thereafter starts with its own mini-essay aiming to enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of the text. 

“Tale” is a bit misleading, as the collection, after Price’s introduction, begins with excerpts from James George Frazer and Sabine Baring-Gould, providing scholarly background that Lovecraft would have had in mind when writing “Rats,” then tales by Fiona Macleod, Irvin S. Cobb, and Edgar Allen Poe, which provide further background to Lovecraft’s tale. We then have the tale itself, followed by three recent tales that expand or comment on various themes within — one by Price himself — and then a delightful little surprise in the Appendices (of which more anon).

The book itself seems to have had a curiously circuitous career, rather like the New Testament, which might itself be worth exploring on another occasion. The core of the book seems to have appeared as an issue of the fanzine Crypt of Cthulhu (vol. 9, no. 5, Roodmas 1990) with cover art by the legendary Gahan Wilson. Various more or less expanded versions have been announced over the years — in 2010, for example — each accompanied by a slightly revised Table of Contents; at various times works by Bram Stoker (“The Burial of the Rats”) and Stephen King (“Skeleton Key”) have been included.

Price’s introduction (titled, with typically impish humor, “The Rat Race,” and signed off as of “The Hour of the curious bulging of the wall paper”) already shows signs of that fruitful equilibrium I just spoke of.

Though the chief literary source of “The Rats in the Walls” can be found in Poe’s “Ligeia” [included here], we also detect a species of Neo-Platonic metaphysical horror characteristic of one of Lovecraft’s other “gods of fiction” (the real “Old Ones”), Arthur Machen. . . . As in Greek Mythology, a being with no one, stable form, has no real form at all. [2] [8]

Here, as the narrator suffers a mental breakdown when “overcome by a flood of ancestral memory,” he “regresses toward ever more bestial, less civilized ancestral, albeit human, forms.”

He has “made the inner as the outer” as the Gospel of Thomas tells us to do, adjusting the microcosm of his own soul, with its awakening of ancestral memory, to the successive stages of inhabitation of the complex beneath Exham Priory.”

It is this “chaos that civilization seeks to confine within a suit of clothes” that “was one of the chief points of difference” between Lovecraft and his colleague Robert E. Howard [9]: “Howard considered civilization as inherently jaded and decadent” while Lovecraft “regarded raw humanity as a set of stones that with difficulty, had [served] as the rough-hewn building blocks” for civilization. Readers might recognize two very different styles of “conservative” to be found on the Dissident Right today.

Finally, “how are we to understand the hereditary taint of the de la Poers?” Dismissing easy ideas of “genetic matter containing memory data” as “bogus,” Price draws an interesting parallel to “Jack Torrance and his fate” in The Shining: “Jack was assimilated to the drama that the Overlook [Hotel] always sought to replay. He became a character.” In the same way, de la Poer “is not voicing his own ancient memories, now reawakened; he is rather mouthing the lines assigned him by the ‘shining’ of the place.”

Like de la Poer, we now move back to some ancient sources, or rather, accounts, contemporary with Lovecraft, of such ancient practices as the worship of Attis and the Great Mother. First up is J. G. Fraser; in an excerpt from The Golden Bough, Fraser narrates how the myth of the dying and resurrecting god developed from the “rudeness and savagery” of antiquity, where the king was ritually murdered, through increasingly genteel symbolic substitutes — first mere cuts, then a scapegoat or King Fool, [3] [10] ultimately perhaps mere consumption of bread and grape juice.

Sound familiar? Indeed, we see here another version of the Lovecraft/Howard schism: when is “going back” a return to a Golden Age of pagan “innocence,” or a period of barbarity (or perhaps a kind of “higher degeneracy”)? [4] [11] In any event, the rites of Attis “remained bloody, entailing genital mutilation” (Price) and Lovecraft’s revulsion is dramatized in the degenerate de la Poer family.

Sabine Baring-Gould is new to me and likely to you but deserves to be known better: a kind of doppelgänger of M. R. James — cleric, antiquarian and ghost-story writer, “he was the author of both the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and The Book of Were-wolves. Now that’s my kind of clergyman!”

His Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, known to Lovecraft, supply the excerpts “Bishop Hatto”: who, after trapping and burning alive the peasants who had begged him for bread, is pursued and consumed by an army of rats, presumably the souls of the murdered; and “S. Patrick’s Purgatory,” the door to which apparently lies behind the altar of an abbey in Ireland (Price thinks readers may find this “quaint,” but perhaps not if they have seen the 1977 horror classic The Sentinel, where the gateway to Hell is in a Brooklyn townhouse). In both instances, Barring-Gould traces the story back to the classical period and up through other pagan mythologies; non-Lovecraftians of the pagan persuasion may also find both excerpts of interest, as Odin figures in each: in Fraser as a divine sacrifice, and in Baring-Gould as the leader of an army of rats, and master of “Hell’s Abode,” Niflheim.

[12]

You can buy James O’Meara’s book The Eldritch Evola here. [13]

We now enter the realm of fiction proper. After the familiar “Ligeia” of Poe, which provided Lovecraft with much of the atmos’ for his Exham Abbey, we return to the Celtic scene with Fiona Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” which Price illuminates as yet another mythological attempt to deal with the conundrum of Christ’s “saving” death: if Christ makes it possible to be saved, but only if you accept it, then what enables you to accept it (being so willfully evil and all)? Apart from being another instance of the conjunction of sin and feasting, it provided Lovecraft with some of his Gaelic curses. [5] [14]

Our final fictional foray comes from Irvin S. Cobb, a popular writer of the early 20th century, best known to horror fans for “Fishhead,” an obvious influence on Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth. The story here, “The Unbroken Chain,” seems to echo Lovecraft’s “Arthur Jermyn,” although Cobb’s tale was published some three years later (in a very pre-Helen Gurley Brown version of Cosmopolitan)[6] [15] and here the ancestor in the woodpile is merely an African, not an actual ape. Having attracted Lovecraft’s attention, he in turn borrowed a few minor elements, at least according to S. T. Joshi, such as the protagonist being uprooted from the South and raised in the North, and his atavistic reaction to stress.

The reader, however, is no such uprooted cosmopolitan; having been fully briefed on this background, we can then dive into “The Rats in the Walls” with new eyes. Price, though, provides us with one more twist: as Barton Levi St. Armand observed, there is a dream recounted by Carl Jung that provides a surprising parallel to de la Poer’s doomed descent, making the latter seem like both a dramatization and commentary.

The very convergence of images between Jung’s dream and Lovecraft’s story corroborates Jung’s belief that on the deepest level of human consciousness dwell a set of archetypes that resurface throughout the race, spontaneously, again and again.

What follows are three tales, later extrapolations from Lovecraft’s original. Michael Harrison is another new name to me, and after reading “Some Very Odd Happenings at Kibbelsham Manor” I will certainly be seeking out more of his weird fiction, this example of which puts me in mind of Ramsey Campbell’s Mythos tales, such as “Cold Print.” Harrison takes off from the brief mention of the cult of Attis at Exham Abbey, and creates a modern tale (well, for 1969) that like Lovecraft’s original, and The Shining for that matter, will disabuse you of the idea that a building’s evil can be dealt with by a little urban renewal; it will also put today’s obsession with gender reassignment in a new, even more troubling light.

The well-known Lovecraftian scholar and writer Peter H. Cannon brings his satirical eye to “Cats, Rats, and Bertie Wooster,” apparently one of a suite of such in which Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster gets mixed up with the eldritch world of Lovecraft, with the unflappable Jeeves there to pull him out of the abyss just in time. [7] [16] As Price says, it shouldn’t work, but by Yuggoth, it does! The confrontation between Bertie’s inanity and de la Poer’s dark, portentous mutterings takes the usual Lovecraftian juxtaposition of oblivious narrator and lurking horror up a few notches, and rather reminds me of how Wodehouse himself took Oswald Mosley down a few notches with his league of Black Shorts. [8] [17]

And with Jeeves:

“Atys? Isn’t he one of those chaps one reads in third-year Latin?”

“Atys is not an author, sir, but I have read Catullus and know something of the hideous rites of the Eastern god, whose worship was so mixed with that of Cybele.”

“Catullus.” The name had an ominous ring. “No connection with cats, I hope?”

“None, sir.”

“Ah, that’s a relief.” [9] [18]

Next is the longest piece here, Price’s own offering, “Exham Priory,” and we are fortunate that Price dismissed what he calls the “editorial etiquette” that would “prevent an editor from including one of his own stories.” It was the centerpiece of the original Crypt of Cthulhu collection, and has been called “absolutely the finest pastiche of Lovecraft ever done.” I wouldn’t be equipped to confirm or deny that, but it’s a damn good read. The experts assembled originally by de la Poer regroup (except for one who’s gone missing) and return to the scene, plunging ahead yet deeper:

This could be none other than the primal and ultimate citadel of the awful entities from whose evil roots the poisonous mushroom of Exham Priory had sprouted.

This “Exham Redux” has the advantage of being able to greatly expand the expedition and conduct it with a knowledgeable team rather than a fatally naïve and already half- gaga civilian, [10] [19] making it resemble more the late Mythos tales like The Shadow out of Time or At the Mountains of Madness. Our narrator even gets to hang out in that dream locale of all Lovecraftians, a vast library assembled over the millennia by the demonic denizens, including such delights as “a kind of paleo-Sanskrit common basis for both the Odyssey and the Mahabharata.” Once more, Traditionalism meets cosmic horror! [11] [20]

Speaking of which: while I won’t, of course, “give away” the shocking conclusion, suffice to say readers of Lanz von Liebenfels’ Theozoology [12] [21] won’t be surprised.

As for surprises, Price has one last one for us, a reproduction of Lovecraft’s story, as reprinted as “The Greatest Horror Story Ever Written” in the January 1956 issue of Zest Magazine for Men, amid the expected “cheesecake shots of buxom models” and “typical sucker ads.” Would that Adam Parfrey [22] were around to see it!

While a book like this is self-recommending to Lovecraft fans, I hope I have provided some evidence for the claim that almost anyone here will find this a worthwhile read.

And as it happens, the book has a kind of “ripped from the headlines” angle as well, at least if you live in Australia [23]:

“You Can’t Escape The Smell” – Mouse Plague Of Biblical Proportions Overruns Eastern Australia  

New South Wales and Queensland are being overwhelmed by a biblical wave of mice, which have taken over homes, stores, farms, hospitals, and automobiles. These nasty little rodents are eating everything in sight, leaving a path of destruction. 

Reuters [24] said, “the Australian state of New South Wales is suffering their worst plague of mice in decades after a bumper grain harvest.” 

“At night… the ground is just moving with thousands and thousands of mice just running around,” farmer Ron Mckay told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“Biblical”? Or Lovecraftian? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

 

Notes

[1] [25] I reviewed his “human Bible” in “Lovecraft’s Bible: Robert M. Price & the [Un]-Making of the New Testament [26].” Readers of Counter-Currents may be interested to know that he is also a Republican, a Trump supporter, and, on a recent Mythvisions podcast [27], compared Joe Biden to a foolish Middle Eastern king needing to be led about by his priestly advisors.

[2] [28] One might usefully consult Collin Cleary’s recent series of essays here on Heidegger and Greek metaphysics.

[3] [29] See my forthcoming Passing The Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians (Melbourne, Australia: Manticore, 2021) for examples of this in cult cinema. See also, as Price notes, The Wicker Man [30] (the original, not the Nicolas Cage abomination) and Eye of the Devil (and my review of the latter here) [31].

[4] [32] See my “Forward — Into the Past! Circling the Cosmos with Herr Prof. Dr. Ludwig Klages [33].”

[5] [34] I thought this was the source of a Night Gallery episode that scared the bejeebus out of me back in the 70s, but research shows that “The Sins of the Father [35],” though dealing with the same legend, was supposedly based on a short story by one Christina Brand (of Nanny McPhee [36] fame). Sondra: “I am merely using the meaning. No credit required. You can check it out with my lawyer.” (Absolutely Fabulous 2.2, “Death.”)

[6] [37] 

The sexual revolution in America was an attempt by women to realize their own utopia, not that of men. Female utopians came forward publicly with plans a few years after Kinsey and Playboy. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl appeared in 1962, and she took over Cosmopolitan magazine three years later. Notoriously hostile to motherhood, she explicitly encouraged women to use men (including married men) for pleasure. 

F. Roger Devlin, “Sexual Utopia in Power, Part One [38].”

[7] [39] See Screams for Jeeves (Necronomicon Press, 1994).

[8] [40] 

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags [41]! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher? 

Bertie Wooster in The Code of the Woosters (1938). See my “Reflections on Sartorial Fascism [42].”

[9] [43] Speaking of cats, neither Price nor anyone else makes a fuss about Lovecraft’s infamous cat [44], but he does appear in this story as “Snow-Man.”

[10] [45] Not unlike Joe Biden, in fact.

[11] [46] See the title essay of my collection The Eldritch Evola. . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture [47]; ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[12] [48] See my review, “Beast Men & BLM: Lanz von Liebenfels’ Prophetic Visions [49].”