“The Rats in the Walls” (1956) by H. P. Lovecraft

Racist Language

The following article deals explicitly with racist language in a historical context. Frank discussion of these matters requires the reproduction of at least some samples of these pejoratives. As such, please be advised before reading further.

As I have said, I moved in on July 16, 1923. My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond. My eldest cat, “Nigger-Man”, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts; the others I had accumulated whilst living with Capt. Norrys’ family during the restoration of the priory. I moved in on July 16, 1953. My household consisted of seven servants and nine cats, of which latter species I am particularly fond. My eldest cat, Black Tom, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts; the others I had accumulated while living with Capt Norrys’ family during the restoration of the priory.
“The Rats in the Walls” (Weird Tales Mar 1924)“The Rats in the Walls” (Zest Jan 1956)

In January 1956, the premiere issue of Zest: The Magazine for Men debuted on the newsstands of the United States. Zest was one of a crowd of men’s magazines, from the upscale Playboy (which featured nude photographs of women) to men’s adventure pulps like Cavalier and Swank. Weird fiction in these magazines wasn’t unknown; Playboy had reprinted William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” in the July 1954 issue. The point of such magazines was not just titillation, but adult entertainment of a broad, masculine stripe—everything from frank articles about sex to lurid tales of escapes from Nazi death camps, real and imagined.

In that context, the decision of a new men’s magazine with a broadly scattershot tabloid approach to content reprinting an H. P. Lovecraft story isn’t necessarily that odd. “The Rats in the Walls” was broadcast on the cover as “The greatest horror story ever told!” and the copyright notice was to H. P. Lovecraft—by then dead almost 19 years, and with August Derleth and Arkham House acting in de facto control of the estate. Presumably, Derleth would have been happy to let them reprint the story for a modest fee.

What sets the 1956 version of “The Rats in the Walls” apart, however, is not the simple fact of its publication but the editorial changes that went along with it. The story was initially set in 1923, the year it was written, and features as background the Great War. In the Zest version, the setting is shifted to 1953, post-World War II. The story was also abridged, jettisoning some of Lovecraft’s verbiage, taking a hatchet to his paragraphs so that they would more easily fit in the three-column magazine format, and perhaps most notably, changing the name of the cat from “Niggerman” to “Black Tom.”

For all that Lovecraft has a reputation as a racist, much of that reputation is based on his private letters rather than his published fiction. Lovecraft used the word “nigger” just 31 times in five stories—”The Rats in the Walls” (19), “Medusa’s Coil” (6), “Winged Death” (3), “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (2), and “The Picture in the House” (1)—although he occasionally used other similar terms (“Nig” for the black cat in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “darky” and “darkies” once each in “Medusa’s Coil,” etc.). More important than how often or not Lovecraft used these terms was why and how he used them; in many instances, the terms are used by racist characters, and we know they’re racist because they use those terms; the use of pejoratives was a way for Lovecraft to establish that part of their character.

In the case of “The Rats in the Walls” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, however, things are different. The use of the terms “Nig” and “Niggerman” are very specific references to black cats, and rather than being narrative contrivances to announce a character as being racist, they are expressly drawn from Lovecraft’s own life:

I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!

H. P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Letters to Woodburn Harris and Others 49

Niggerman (or Nig) had been the name of Lovecraft’s own childhood pet, a black cat that the family had adopted and named at an unknown point. If the seven years given in the story is accurate, then about 1897 when young Lovecraft was seven years old. We don’t know if a young H. P. Lovecraft named the cat himself, or if one of the adults named it; we do know that whoever named it, the adults apparently tolerated the name, and in later life Lovecraft would refer to black cats by similar names:

When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—“Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, etc. 200-201

The cat vanished in 1904, the tumultuous year that saw the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather, which forced Lovecraft and his mother to move from the family home into reduced quarters, and began the long slide into genteel poverty. Lovecraft never again could afford a true pet, though he enjoyed neighborhood kitties like the above-mentioned Sam Perkins and remembered his former cat for the rest of his life.

Editor Edwin Baird had already published stories that contained the word “nigger” in Weird Tales, and the use of the name for black-furred pets was so common during the period as to be almost innocuous; no doubt he didn’t think twice about publishing “The Rats in the Walls” in 1924. Nor did editor Farnsworth Wright, who succeeded Baird, change the cat’s name when he reprinted “The Rats in the Walls” in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales. Twenty-six years later, however, the editor at Zest apparently thought differently. So it was that the 19 instances of the cat’s name were deftly replaced.

It would not be the last time.

In terms of textual traditions, the Zest text of “The Rats in the Walls” is largely a dead end, rarely reprinted and largely ignored by both scholars and readers, a curiosity for collectors but not much more. None of Arkham House’s reprints of “The Rats in the Walls” ever replaced the cat’s name. Three years later when another men’s magazine, Sensation, reprinted “The Rats in the Walls” it was somewhat garbled and chopped-up, but the cat’s name was intact. The main textual tradition of “The Rats in the Walls” kept the cat’s name, even as societal views on the acceptability of that name gradually shifted.

Before 1971, the resistance to changing the name came from Arkham House, who insisted they owned the copyrights to Lovecraft’s fiction and who handled licensing and reprints; after the death of August Derleth in 1971 the control Arkham House used fell apart—and, more importantly, a “pure text” movement grew within the burgeoning community of Lovecraft fans and scholars. They wanted to read what Lovecraft actually wrote, warts and all, rather than what editors had made of his stories. For example, the ending of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft was bowdlerized in its first publication, changing Lovecraft’s “a Negress” to “a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.”

In adaptation and translation, however, English-language scholars and editors had less sway, and subtle shades of meaning came into play. In Maria Luisa Bonfanti’s Italian translation “I ratti nel muro,” the cat becomes Moro (“Moor”) and Jacques Papy’s French translation “Les rats dans les murs” calls it Négrillon (“Pickaninny”); Bob Jennings in adapting “The Rats in the Walls” to comics for Creepy #10 (Jul 1968) re-named the cat Salem; Richard Corben in Skull Comix #5 (1972) it was Nigaman; Vicente Navarro and Adolfo Usero in Lovecraft Un Homenaje en 15 Historietas (2013) it was Negro (“Black”); and Horacio Lalia in Le Manuscrit oublié (2000) used “Blakie” or “Blackie.” Dan Lockwood in The Lovecraft Anthology Vol. 1 (2011) simply left the cat’s name out, though the puss otherwise retains its accustomed role. The picture is further complicated when various of these adaptations are themselves translated into other languages, but the examples illustrate the very general point: some translators and adapters attempt to capture the essence of the name, some deliberately sidestep or avoid the issue.

This idiosyncratic approach to handling Lovecraft’s material is understandable. In the context of the story, the name has no particular significance to anyone except Lovecraft himself, it doesn’t matter whether the cat even has a proper name, as far as its narrative purpose is concerned. Where translators and adaptors have kept the name or something close to it, the reason must be a very conservative approach to the material—a desire to be as true to Lovecraft’s original text as possible.

There are those for whom that represents a fundamental issue. For example, when compiling a collection of Lovecraft’s most Gothic tales, “The Rats in the Walls” was left out. The reasoning given was:

[…] some of his most famous Gothic stories, such as ‘Herbert West—Reanimator’ (1922) and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ (1924), are disfigured by casual racist remarks or allusions that make contemporary reprintings problematic.*

*It is broadly acknowledged, even by his fas, that Lovecraft espoused racist views in his writing; and there are references in this collection which readers are likely to find offensive. Their inclusion in this edition in no way implies endorsement by the editor or publisher.

Xavier Aldana Reyes, introduction to The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (2018) xi

“Problematic” in this context has to be read as “potentially offensive to today’s audience”; it cannot mean “an actual difficulty in reprinting the story” because “The Rats in the Walls” is one of Lovecraft’s most-reprinted stories, and is now in the public domain and freely available to read on the internet (link). There has been considerable clamor on the internet lately about the censoring or sanitization of works by dead authors—Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie have all come up—and each case is a little different. For example, Christie authorized some changes to her works while still alive—it being remembered that the original title of And Then There Were None (1939) was Ten Little Niggers, named after an 1869 minstrel song, and that the original title persisted until 1980 in some editions.

What these authors share with Lovecraft is literary longevity. They were all born in a world where racism, antisemitism, and sexism were much more prevalent, pervasive, open, and accepted; these views influenced their work, unlike many of their contemporaries that work is still being published and read. Though they have all long since given up the ghost, their literary works are still in print, still marketable, and still in demand by new generations of readers. Editors of new editions who cover up or erase the racism and antisemitism of yesterday are not doing the historian’s duty to preserve and accurately represent the past…but neither are they historians: they’re businesspeople, trying to sell a product to the widest possible market, and to give that market what they think it wants.

As the Zest version of “The Rats in the Walls” shows, such efforts do not tend to amount to much in the long run. Well-meaning as folks like Reyes might be in their effort to protect the innocent eyes of contemporary readers from historical racism, failing to reprint Lovecraft’s most Gothic story in a collection of Gothic stories is simply an act of cowardice. If editors and publishers, scholars and critics, are to be good stewards of the past and honest with the reading public, then we have to deal with historical racism honestly and openly—and if the words and themes are offensive, to explain their original context, and why and how Lovecraft used them, and how his original audience would have read and understood them.

Reprinting Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” is an educational opportunity to teach readers more about this story and Lovecraft. Removing the cat’s offensive name removes the opportunity to engage with that aspect of the text. At the same time, now that the story is in the public domain, anyone can play with the text freely. Scholars and fans will no doubt continue to strive for accuracy to Lovecraft’s original, but there is no reason why anyone appropriating the text of the story of its characters cannot make their own decisions about what is appropriate in this day and age—if anyone has a desire to write the further adventures of Black Tom.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on ““The Rats in the Walls” (1956) by H. P. Lovecraft

  1. We won’t understand the past if we censor works from it. Historic events don’t spring out of nowhere: they come about from attitudes, beliefs, politics, and religion.


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