After his son dies from wartime injuries, Delapore begins rebuilding and refurbishing his old family home of Exham Priory in England. It was from his son’s letters that he had learned of the house after his son had heard the sinister stories about the place from Captain Edward Norrys, a wartime friend living close by.
The house had stood empty since the time of James the First, when Walter de la Poer (an obvious jumbling of the names of two writers) had murdered his father, five siblings and several servants, escaping to America, where he founded the family from which the narrator had descended.
Delapore is startled from a dream one night by the behaviour of his cat, the abominably-named black person Man, who becomes excited by sounds of rats which seem to be coming from the very walls. Next day he learns that all the cats in the place have reacted similarly. The dream had been a disturbing one in which he had seen a ‘daemon swineherd’ in a shadowy grotto herding strange and revolting ‘funguous beasts’. Later the dream recurs and as the details become clear, he thinks that the swineherd has his own face, while one of his filthy beasts also has a human face which is terrifyingly familiar.
Determined to trace the rats to their lair, Delapore and Norrys descend to the crypt, where evidence of ritual sacrifice is found. Then they find that the trail leads deeper – below an ancient altar and into the earth.
The story, although quite short, now takes on some of the qualities of an epic. An expedition of seven men descends into a subterranean nightmare world where steps take them down into a sea of human and animal bones. There are buildings from earlier times in this night world: Roman, Saxon and English.
“Horror piled on horror as we began to interpret the architectural remains. The quadruped things – with their occasional recruits from the biped class – had been kept in stone pens, out of which they must have broken in their last delirium of hunger or rat-fear. There had been great herds of them, evidently fattened on the coarse vegetables whose remains could be found as a sort of poisonous ensilage at the bottom of huge stone bins older than Rome – would to heaven I could forget! The purpose of the herds I did not have to ask.
...Norrys, used as he was to the trenches, could not walk straight when he came out of the English building. It was a butcher shop and kitchen...”
Study of the bones reveals the disturbing possibility that “some of the skeleton things must have descended as quadrupeds through the last twenty or more generations”.
Was evolution reversed in this place? Had a once-superior race reverted to the status of cattle?
Delapore and Norrys do not have much time to ponder this question as a dreadful scurrying sound reaches them out of the darkness.
I was prompted to re-read this when I listened to a 1964 recording of the story for the radio series The Black Mass. I thought it an excellent adaptation. If you want to hear it, click the link (left-click for streaming radio or right-cliff to save it to your desktop):
Post by David A. Riley on Nov 20, 2007 12:35:12 GMT
I think one of the most impressive things about this story is how Lovecraft uses the degenerating speech of the protagonist as he regresses to the dim, distant past. Lovecraft is often criticised for lack of characterisation, but his use of speech is frequently one of his strongest devices, and not only in this story.
This morning, I took another look at Stephen Jones' H. P. Lovecraft in Britain. To my surprise, I found that I'm mentioned in the booklet (although he gets my middle initial wrong - it's F, not J). He even describes me as eagle eyed - which was more true than he could have suspected. In those days, I had astonishingly good eyesight. I recall standing at a bus stop with a friend and saying here comes a number... well - I can't recall the route number. My friend couldn't even see the bus!
This morning, I took another look at Stephen Jones' H. P. Lovecraft in Britain. To my surprise, I found that I'm mentioned in the booklet (although he gets my middle initial wrong - it's F, not J). He even describes me as eagle eyed -
Congratulations! I wasn't eagle-eyed enough myself to spot that! des
I found that I'm mentioned in the booklet (although he gets my middle initial wrong - it's F, not J).
I spotted this in the booklet and was thrown off course by the mistaken "J", thinking it was someone else.
I'll amend my copy with pencil and insert the appropriate "F" !
Thank you for amending your copy, Mark. I was definitely the eagle-eyed one. I still have the letters from John Bush. (He wrote to me twice, once to say that they'd ask Arkham House, and a second time to tell me how it should have read.) John Bush was Chairman and Joint Managing Director - I'm amazed that someone so important in the company answered my query.
I would like to know more about how "Lovecraft developed near-perfect structures for the horror story." One type of structure that occurs in more than one story seems to me closely related to the M R Jamesian antiquarian investigation that ends horribly, and is thus not entirely original.