Not a supernatural story this week – sometimes man, or in this case woman, can be a scarier proposition than any ghoul. Especially when they have found a way to make use of rats…
So join me in the Paris of 1850, for this week’s excursion into…
The Burial of the Rats
by Bram Stoker
Leaving Paris by the Orleans road, cross the Enceinte, and, turning to the right, you find yourself in a somewhat wild and not at all savoury district. Right and left, before and behind, on every side rise great heaps of dust and waste accumulated by the process of time.
Our narrator is a young Englishman, who has been asked by the parents of the young girl he loves to stay away for a period of a year. He is spending his time in Paris and, having seen all the usual sights, has widened his walks into some of the parts of the city not usually seen by tourists. One day, his wanderings take him to an area close to Montrouge, a place where the chiffoniers of the city live and work – the rag-pickers, who go through the waste of the city looking for any discarded items of value. It is a poor place, a shanty town, and the accumulated waste is piled in heaps on the streets.
In the midst of these huts was one of the strangest adaptations – I cannot say habitations – I had ever seen. An immense old wardrobe, the colossal remnant of some boudoir of Charles VII or Henry II, had been converted into a dwelling-house. The double doors lay open, so that the entire ménage was open to public view. In the open half of the wardrobe was a common sitting-room of some four feet by six, in which sat, smoking their pipes round a charcoal brazier, no fewer than six old soldiers of the First Republic, with their uniforms torn and worn threadbare.
The old men look at him curiously and then put their head together in a whispered conference. He feels a little uneasy but sees no real cause for fear. However as he continues on his walk, he occasionally comes across an old soldier and each time wonders if it is one of these old men. The men seem to be watching him.
As it is getting late in the afternoon, our narrator decides to turn back, but finds he has lost his way. He continues on hoping to find someone from whom he can ask directions, and eventually comes upon an old woman in a shanty with three walls and open at the front. At first the old woman seems friendly and, in answer to his questions, regales him with tales of her life. She had been alive at the time of the French Revolution and had been one of those who sat daily at the Guillotine. But as they talk, he first notices the rats…
In one corner was a heap of rags which seemed to move from the number of vermin it contained, and in the other a heap of bones whose odour was something shocking. Every now and then, glancing at the heaps, I could see the gleaming eyes of some of the rats which infested the place. These loathsome objects were bad enough, but what looked even more dreadful was an old butcher’s axe with an iron handle stained with clots of blood leaning up against the wall on the right hand side.
Now darkness is falling. The old woman has noticed the golden and bejewelled rings on his fingers, and an avaricious gleam has come into her eyes. He is not yet afraid, for he is young and strong and she is old and frail-looking. But in the darkness he sees the gleam of the eyes of the rats, and then through the rickety walls of the shanty, he sees other eyes gleaming too… human eyes. It is then that he suspects the old men have surrounded the shanty waiting only for the woman’s signal to attack. But meantime the old woman continues with her stories… she tells him of a time she had gone down into the city’s sewers to look for a lost ring and while there had come upon the corpse of a dead man…
There was but little water, and the bottom of the drain was raised with brick, rubbish, and much matter of the kind. He had made a fight for it, even when his torch had gone out. But they were too many for him! They had not been long about it! The bones were still warm; but they were picked clean. They had even eaten their own dead ones and there were bones of rats as well as of the man.
Our narrator realises that she is telling him of his own future – once they have murdered and robbed him, the rats will perform the task of disposing of his body, so that he will vanish without trace. His only hope is to flee…
* * * * *
This is an awfully jolly little story, full of filth and sucking mud, silent pursuers and, above all, the ever-present threat of the rats. The old woman is beautifully evil and the relentlessness of the pursuit is excellently done. The descriptive writing is great, in that old-fashioned style that works so well for gothic horror, and Stoker creates a wonderful feeling of tension. There are tiny touches of humour, mainly around the idea of the pride of the Englishman abroad, but mostly this is just a straight tale of a terrifying adventure. Though the porpentine and I didn’t have to worry about ghostly apparitions for once, we checked carefully under the bed for rats before we went to sleep…
It’s slightly longer than I usually pick for this slot at about 10,000 words, but if you’d like to read it, here’s a link. You may want to set some traps first though…
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀