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.
Anyway, 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.