Vintage Treasures: Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats”

Vintage Treasures: Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats”

weird-tales-march-1936-coverThis is the latest of my short fiction reviews, following my recent reports on Howard Waldrop’s “The Ugly Chickens,” George R.R. Martin’s “Nightflyers,” and others.

In honor of the recent release of the massive Henry Kuttner collection, Thunder in the Void, I thought I’d talk about Kuttner’s first published story, “The Graveyard Rats,” which appeared in the March 1936 Weird Tales — alongside The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard, Edmond Hamilton’s “In the World’s Dusk,” Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” and “The Crystal Curse” by Eando Binder.

Quite auspicious company! I found echoes of both Howard and Lovecraft in the opening paragraphs. Here, see what you think:

Masson… recalled certain vaguely disturbing legends he had heard since coming to ancient, witch-haunted Salem — tales of a moribund, inhuman life that was said to exist in forgotten burrows in the earth. The old days, when Cotton Mather had hunted down the evil cults that worshipped Hecate and the dark Magna Mater in frightful orgies, had passed; but dark gabled houses still leaned perilously towards each other over narrow cobbled streets, and blasphemous secrets and mysteries were said to be hidden in subterranean cellars and caverns, where forgotten pagan rites were still celebrated in defiance of law and sanity. Wagging their grey heads wisely, the elders declared that there were worse things than rats and maggots crawling in the unhallowed earth of the ancient Salem cemeteries.

And then, too, there was this curious dread of the rats. Masson… had heard vague rumours of ghoulish beings that dwelt far underground, and that had the power of commanding the rats, marshalling them like horrible armies. The rats, the old men whispered, were messengers between this world and the grim and ancient caverns far below Salem. Bodies had been stolen from graves for nocturnal subterranean feasts, they said.

What a great opening. I especially enjoyed the promise of a tale of eldritch and powerful subterranean evils… although truthfully, he had me at “frightful orgies.”

The story centers on Old Masson, the caretaker of one of Salem’s oldest and most neglected cemeteries, who also happens to be a grave robber. When you set him up like that — and simultaneously drop hints in the first paragraph of “worse things than rats and maggots crawling in the unhallowed earth” — you know your protagonist is going to meet a bad end. This guy is wearing a red shirt, and no mistake.

25-modern-stories-of-mystery-and-imaginationAnyway, Old Masson is cracking open a fresh grave late one evening, when what does he spot but the corpse hastily being dragged away through a hole chewed in the bottom of the coffin. Grabbing his trusty flashlight, Masson gives chase, squeezing into the tight warren of tunnels under the graveyard, thinking only of the gold cuff links he glimpsed on the dearly departed during the funeral.

Masson, as everyone will have gathered by this point, is not going to return to the surface with the cuff links. The only question is exactly what’s going to ultimately do him in, and just how gruesome it’s going to be.

Pretty gruesome, as it turns out.

“The Graveyard Rats” is very much a 1930s-era slasher flick, albeit a very compact one at only 8 pages. That’s really the chief weakness of the story, at least for a modern reader. Other than the horrific final paragraph, in which Masson is gasping desperately for air in the dark as the horrors begin to chew, the tale is pretty predictable. Even the “ghoulish beings” promised so poetically in the opening paragraphs make only a brief on-stage appearance, and we’re never really sure what they are.

Still, for an 8-page story, “The Graveyard Rats” packs quite a wallop. Since a copy of the original issue of Weird Tales is a bit beyond my budget, I read it in The Other Worlds: 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination, Phil Strong’s 1941 anthology, which I bought for two bucks as part of Martin H. Greenberg’s enormous collection.

You can read the complete tale online here. Well worth your time.

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Henry Ram

“This guy is wearing a red shirt, and no mistake.”

Well put.

By the way, I wouldn’t have thought that “dark gabled houses still leaning perilously towards each other over narrow cobbled streets” would have automatically constituted an evil danger in the way that Kuttner seems to imply.

Anyway, going into a tunnel full of cat-sized rats in the middle of the night seems like an ill-advised thing to do, but then there wouldn’t be any story if he had done the safe thing and stayed at home.

Barbara Barrett

John,
When I read your article about Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats, I began intrigued because Robert E. Howard also wrote a short story entitled “Graveyard Rats” that appeared in the pulp magazine, Thrilling Mysteries in February 1936. It’s a horror story wrapped up in a Steve Harrison mystery. Among its many reprints is Wildside Press’: Graveyard Rats and Others and more recently, in the REH Foundation Press’ The Steve Harrison Casebook.

Both Kuttner and Howard were part of the Lovecraft Circle. That REH’s story was published first doesn’t really say much since stories are bought months in advance of publication.

Here is an excerpt from Howard’s version of the title:

“For three days the hard clay soil had baked in the hot sun above the coffined form of John Wilkinson.
“Yet from the mantel John Wilkinson’s face leered at him—white and cold and dead.
“And before the fireplace, up and down, up and down, scampered a creature with red eyes, that squeaked and squealed—a great grey rat, maddened by its failure to reach the flesh its ghoulish hunger craved.
“Saul Wilkinson began to laugh—horrible, soul-shaking shrieks that mingled with the squealing of the grey ghoul…They were the screams of a madman. The horror of what he had seen had blasted Saul Wilkinson’s reason like a blown-out candle flame.”

Between Kuttner’s “grim and ancient caverns far below Salem” and Howard’s “soul-shaking shrieks and grey ghouls,” these guys really knew how to write. Interesting that they both settled on the same title and the stories were published so close together…

Wild Ape

I think the Lovecraft circle was as big a circle as the Shelley/Byron group of old.

westkeith

This story is also available in Terror in the House, the Haffner Press collection of Kuttner’s early horror stories. While a lot of his early work is a bit rough, Kuttner wasn’t afraid to experiment and push himself. By the time he hit his stride in the early 40s, he was one of the top practitioners in the sf/fantasy/horror fields.

andy

I’m currently in the middle of Terror in the House and enjoying it quite a bit, and this particular story is one of the standouts despite being his first. Kuttner is one of my favorite writers, because even when he’s not as his best he’s still very readable and fun.

andy

I’m not sure I would say they’re so different from many other weird menace stories. There is one particular story, I believe it’s the second in the collection, that I found uncommonly trashy and brutal, although maybe I haven’t read enough of these. I think it’s called The Devil Rides or something like that (my copy of the book is at home). But the book also includes some Lovecraftian stories and some science fiction starts coming in midway through. It’s certainly not entirely weird menace stories, although there are plenty of those, for what that’s worth.

Henry Ram

Mein Gott, that’s a lot of letters. He must have spent a small fortune on stamps. This is money he might have spent on food. I mention this because it so happens that he died in part from malnutrition.

Henry Ram

This rat-related story is the first that I’ve read by Henry Kuttner, and it tempts me to want to read more of his work. For my money, however, Robert E Howard is much superior.

I don’t ever remember reading anything by Howard that defied logic the way Kuttner’s story does.

For example, why would the rats, after having burrowed their way to a dead man’s coffin, not have eaten the body right there in the coffin? For what purpose would they drag the body back through their tunnel? (So the young’uns could join in too?) That’s a lot of work for the little dears when they might have enjoyed their well-earned treat right there on the spot. There is also the physical impossibility of any one rat or group of rats working together to pull a human body from a coffin. They wouldn’t have the strength to do it. Perhaps something like a hundred or more rats could do it together, but there wouldn’t have been room enough for all of them there in that enclosed space.

Another thing I didn’t understand was the presence of the flesh-eating ghoul crawling around in the tunnel. He was referred to as a former corpse from one of the coffins. How is it that his flesh was not consumed by the rats long ago? Surely he should be in a skeletal state.

It also puzzles me why the main character waited so long to dig up the corpse for his gold cufflinks, etc. Kuttner mentioned that there was a grieving relative that kept coming to the grave in the days following the burial and this prevented him from digging up the body. Fine. But then some days later he has him digging up the body at night-time, saying that there would be no likelihood of the relative visiting then. But if the relative never visited at night anyway, why didn’t the gravedigger just dig him up on the first night following the burial? Presumably, he would then have got to the body long before the rats did.

I wonder, could it be that the ghoul was just thrown in for sensationalistic purposes? Well, at least we can give Kuttner credit for resisting the temptation to employ a scantily clad hysterical female to be rescued in the tunnel.

Sarah Avery

I got stuck on the bit about Cotton Mather worrying about Hecate and the Magna Mater. Cotton Mather and his posse were mostly fixated on Satan. The idea that witches were worshipping pre-Christian deities in a gynocentric pantheon really starts with Margaret Murray in the 1920s.

So it looks like Kuttner was probably reading Murray. Since this story appears in 1936, I’d speculate that he read Murray’s The God of the Witches, published in 1933.

Thank you, by the way, for “The Ugly Chickens.” They were delicious.

Joe H.

Sarah — Ah! That would be the “Miss Murray” whose book (The Witch Cult in Western Europe, I think?) was mentioned in at least one Lovecraft story, I assume.

westkeith

Henry, don’t sell Kuttner short due to the flaws of his first published story. Much of his early work had problems, but so did some of Howard’s. (For the record Howard and Kuttner/Moore, along with Brackett and Bradbury, are my four favorites.) Very few writers are perfect right out of the gate.

The work he did in the 40s (often in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore), while more science fiction than fantasy/horror, was some of the best ever. Try “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”, “When the Bough Breaks”, “A Gnome There Was”, “We Kill People”, the Baldy stories (collected in Mutant), “The Twonky”, the Gallagher stories (collected in The Proud Robot), or the Hogben stories to see what Kuttner could do when he was at the top of his game. Just to name a few.

RadiantAbyss

On Kuttner –

Kuttner is a character of subtle ( even more so than CLM ) force in the history of early-modern WF.

Kuttner is not an awful writer. Through entire adventure in genre he is clearly derivative of those only a bit lonely pioneers HPL, CAS, REH, while largely ignoring their ancestors.

In a sense Kuttner is the first Robert Jordan, or Terry Brooks, or Joe Abercrombie.

Kuttner is one of the first writers to get published, be readable and all that while seeming to pretend that Weird Tales and it’s three musketeers are the ‘big bang’ + there was nothing before them.

Many, many ‘genre writer’ even some ‘very successful’ ones I reckon as types of Kuttner.

Avery + Joe –

Ah the controversial Murray!

The works are indeed “Witch Cult in Western Europe” ( 1921 ), and it’s follow-up is “The God of The Witches” ( 1931 ).

While those have always been controversial from an academic PoV, they are profound works in the popular PoV.

A big part of what people ‘do with witch-craft’ or ‘magic’ in general in genre today owes itself to Murrayite theories.

Mister_Alex

Haffner Press is doing great work reprinting Kuttner’s stories. I hope they will do the same for his and C.L. Moore’s novelette “The Fairy Chessmen”.

[…] the onyx and jade-encrusted editorial halls of Black Gate magazine. A mere day after John O’Neill extolled Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats,” I’m taking a moment to sing the praises of his “Dragon Moon.” Despite its brevity “Dragon […]

Henry Ram

“You think?

I suspect you’re right on. The opening of the story, with its promise of ancient mystery and heavy-handed supernatural dread, renders the ending a little pedestrian by comparison. Does’t seem he knew what to do with the ghoul.

And you’re absolutely right that the protagonist’s actions defy logic on multiple levels. It was very, very clear to me why he crawled into that hole in the ground: to get eaten by rats and give the story an ending. There was no other reason that made sense.”

Right you are. Kuttner was determined to get his protagonist down that hole, come what may. Even if there had been a sign at the entrance saying, “Look, dum-dum. You don’t want to go down here. There are rats, lots of big rats down here, your predecessor has already mysteriously disappeared and “the elders” have declared these grounds unhallowed and certifiably ghoul-infested,” he still would have entered that tunnel.

At this point I’d like to say a word about my boy Edgar Allen Poe. One reason he was so good was that in almost all his stories, you felt that whatever horrible thing was happening could really have happened. The progression was logical and there were no last-minute ghouls thrown in to spice things up. When he depicts one of his nightmare worlds, you usually feel as though he was there or could have been there. Just like the original Star Trek series never had a bad episode (the missing-brain episode was just a lark), EAP seemed incapable of writing a bad story.

Come to think of it, the subject of being prematurely buried was something he wrote about in several of his stories—The Cask of Amontillado, The Premature Burial, Berenice, Fall of the House of Usher, e.g.

In conclusion, EAP was great, damn it, so I think these stories should be read before “Graveyard Rats.” That’s not to say that Kuttner’s body of work is rubbish. I just think that when it comes to rats gnawing on your feet and the feel of the coffin lid above, Poe was the best.

And as for genius inventors, Tesla was really better than Edison. This comic proves it:

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla

westkeith

John, you’re right. I should have included “Vintage Season.” I’ve always preferred the Prince Raynor to the Elak tales (although not by much). They seem a little more polished that Elak. And let’s not forget one of his few novels, Fury. When you take a close look at Kuttner’s entire body of work, there are a large number of stories that could be included in such a list.

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