Monday, July 22, 2013

The Rats in the Walls

The Rats in the Walls is an adaptation by 19 Nocturne Boulevard (why do I always want to write Avenue??) of an H.P. Lovecraft tale with which I’m unfamiliar (and frankly, there’s a lot of Lovecraft with which I am unfamiliar).  To be honest, I had rather mixed feelings about the only other 19NB play I listened to, Puppets, so that is what has taken me so long to give them another try (which is ludicrous, considering their output and importance and doubly so, considering Julie Hoverson does a great deal of the work herself, and we female audio drama enthusiasts must support each other).  To say I was pleasantly surprised would be partially true but might detract from the fact I thought this was a damn good play.  Again, I don’t know how faithful it is to the source material, but I don’t really care.  It’s very well-told, suspenseful, and wicked fun.

The play concerns Mrs Delapor, an American widow who in 1926 moves to Exom Priory in Anchester, England, where her invalided son, Alfie, stayed before he left for active duty—she has bought the place and intends to “lavish my remaining time and money” on it.  Rats in the Walls concerns itself with the horrors of the First World War, but tangentially, not in-your-face, helped in large part because of the oblique way it invokes Alfie’s voice, and its unreliable narrator.  Blackie is another important character, Mrs Delapor’s faithful cat, and so is Captain Norris, Alfie’s best friend during the War.  

The story is complex.  Alfie is available to us only in his letters, performed by the actor and backgrounded by ragtime music to signify they come from 1918.  Mrs Delapor is made aware by Cap. Norris of Exom Priory’s “evil past,” and while one might be tempted to lump Rats in the Walls with the works of Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton, it is not that interested, satirically speaking, in American pragmatism versus British, old-world credulity backed by aristocratic tradition.  Exom does have its share of gossips/historians who would be at home in The Canterville Ghost or “Afterward,”[1] Laura and Eugenie, who give Mrs Delapor the full history of her star-crossed ancestors:  In 1600, a Delapor murdered his entire family, then fled.  The workmen who are fixing up the place for habitation are well-aware of the rumors, as in “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon or, for that matter, Louis Noura’s Echo Point[2].  Furthermore, Mrs Delapor does have her moments of pigheaded American expediency:  “I wonder if they installed that creak with the door”—if she didn’t, it wouldn’t make a very entertaining story.  (Alfie is more apt to comment on Anglo-American relations.  “If anyone ever offers to talk Freud at you, show them the door.”)

Mrs Delapor will need her pragmatism as her staunch allies are not able to offer her much assistance.  When she starts hearing rats in the walls—very confidently and creepily evoked by the production sound effects—and Blackie, as well as the other Priory cats, start going berserk, one might forgive Cap. Norris for thinking she’s a bit crazy.  “I’ve been at war, ma’am,” he assures her.  “I’ve had all the ‘terrified’ clean knocked of me.”  No doubt he has, but there is much more to come.  Mrs Delapor has terrible dreams.  She follows the sounds of the rats—“a lean, filthy, ravenous army”—to the lowest cellar, and though she sets up traps, “all were sprung, yet all were tenantless.”  Eventually, she and Norris find a crevice between the floor and the pagan altars in the cellar, the Temple of Cybele[3], about which “the antiquarians have been very enthusiastic.”  

When I think of Lovecraft, I also tend to think of Mike Mignola, for the reason that they both seem to like when antiquarian adventurers find skeletons in grottos that are neither wholly human nor animal.  I won’t spoil too much of Rats in the Walls as it is the kind of play you need to experience for yourself and about which you want to know as little as possible before setting out.  There are antiquarians, there are bones, there are creepy children, voodoo priests, and rats aplenty.  It’s clear that Hoverson and her cast had a good time while making this play, and it’s a great, creepy thriller.  To tell you more would do you a disservice, but I enjoyed it very much.

[1] The BBC has done a very good reading of the former by Alistair Macgowan and a full-cast play of the latter, broadcast as part of The Female Ghost series.
[2] One of my favorite plays broadcast on the BBC in 2012.
[3] I’ve just learned in The Ancient Guide to the Modern World that frenzied followers of Cybele occasionally would self-castrate.  ‘Nuff said.

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