Tag Archives: The Rats in the Walls

A Few Final Thoughts on “The Rats in the Walls”

In completing the analysis of “The Rats in the Walls” there are a few more points I want to discuss. First, even prior to his knowledge of ancestral cannibalism de la Poer was having strange dreams of a “white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts.” In another dream he mentions “a Roman feast like that of Trimalchio, with a horror in a covered platter. Then came that damnable, recurrent thing about the swineherd and his filthy drove in the twilit grotto.” Trimalchio was a character in Satyricon, a work of Roman fiction written by Petronius. Trimalchio was known to host extremely lavish and elaborate dinner parties (S.T. Joshi’s notes in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 1999) and one can guess what the horror was under the covered platter.


Bearded daemon swineherd by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)


Fungous, flabby beast by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)

It is interesting to note that once deep in the twilit grotto de la Poer has an encounter with Nyarlathotep and his two amorphous idiot flute-players. Immediately subsequent to this encounter he attacks and feeds on Norrys. Even before this horrible incident, de la Poer notes that the only member of the expedition that he notices is the plump Capt. Norrys. In a previous article “Nyarlathotep: The Rats in the Walls” I suggested two hypotheses which may explain de la Poer’s attack on Capt. Norrys. The first was a genetic trait deeply embedded in the de la Poer genome that was triggered by the conditions experienced at Exham Priory and was then manifested as cannibalism. In an alternative hypothesis, it is suggested that Nyarlathotep influences a sub-set of humanity of a particularly genetic strain, again resulting in cannibalism. For more on this subject, please read that article.

De la Poer’s dream of the white-bearded daemon and the fungous, flabby beasst obviously represents the ancestral de la Poers handling and managing the ancestors of the Norrys as cattle. Was this predator – prey relationship the result of specific genetic markers in the Norrys as well as the de la Poers or was this large-scale, community-based cannibalism the result of Nyarlathotep’s tampering with humanity?

A third hypothesis suggested in this article is that the mechanism responsible for the cannibalism may be microbial in nature. The feeding of the Norrys, other humans and possibly other hominids may have a means of transferring a bacterial or viral carrier or possibly a prion. A prion is an infectious, misfolded protein.   Unlike other microbial agents such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists and parasites, prions do not contain DNA and/or RNA.   These infectious proteins are responsible for mammalian transmissible spongiform encephalopathies with the most well-known of these being bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease.”


A brain from a person with mad cow disease (left), caused by prions, compared to a normal brain (right) (www.sciencelife.uchospitals.edu)

In addition to mad cow disease, prions have also been known to infect isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea who practice a ritualistic form of cannibalism where the organs of the recently deceased are feed to family members. This ritualistic cannibalism included feeding on pieces of brain, which is the primary route of transmission of the prion and results in a disease called “kuru.” Over a period of six months infected individuals would begin to exhibit symptoms such as muscle tremors, uncontrollable laughter, slurring of speech and finally the inability to move or swallow (www.sciencelife.uchospitals.edu). The mechanism behind these symptoms was the prion binding to intracellular components resulting in the death of cells within the nervous system. Is it possible that a less virulent form of prion is responsible for the madness that overtakes de la Poer? We have prions normally in our tissues but we know very little about what function they serve. Do the de la Poers have an alternate “semi-misfolded” prion in their brain tissue that is possibly triggered or initiated to conduct accelerated neurological damage once one occupies Exham Priory or has direct contact with a Norrys?


Exham Priory from the H.P. Lovecraft Tarot Card Deck

Finally, before we leave Exham Priory I want to note that the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast did a great couple of shows on “The Rats in the Walls” with Kenneth Hite as a guest contributor. As usual they did a great job discussing the story and Kenneth’s comments were very informative. For example, going back to the theme of isolation fostering cannibalism, Kenneth notes that de la Poer was essentially cut off from his past due to his ancestral family’s nefarious activities and loss of land, and cut off from his future by the death of his only son. Thus, while the de la Poer blood line is essentially isolated in time, the Norrys blood line flourishes on lands once owned by the de la Poers. Again, this is another example of cannibalism being the outcome of the isolation of an individual or community.

Next time we begin a discussion of HPL’s tale “The Colour Out of Space” starting with HPL’s first scientific love – that of chemistry.  Thank you – Fred.

Pliny the Elder and Cannibalism in “The Rats in the Walls”



Exham Priory by Matteo Bocci (www.pnakoticatlas.com)

Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, lived from AD 23 to 79. He was a solider in the Roman army, holding a number of procuratorships (type of military financial officer) in Gaul, Africa and Spain. Returning to Rome he spent the rest of his life writing, in particular compiling the knowledge of the known world; of the seven works Pliny wrote, only one survives and that is Natural History (from John Healy’s introduction and notes in Pliny The Elder’s Natural History: A Selection, Penguin Classics Edition, 1991). In a sense Pliny was a precursor to the scientist or proto-scientist. In a way, he died as a scientist; killed while investigating the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

While similar to a scientist Pliny compiled and described both the natural world and Roman technology, he did not run experiments or, more importantly, did not confirm most of the reports and observations that were given to him as second hand accounts. Thus, you can find accounts on how bees make honey as well as how the one-eyed people called the Arimaspi would battle with griffins for lands where mines existed that contained gold. Indeed, HPL even cites this mix of actual and fanciful accounts by Pliny in his tale “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” There when talking about strange hybrid creatures that live in the Congo jungle HPL states, “…of creatures half of the jungle and half of the impiously aged city – fabulous creatures which even a Pliny might describe with skepticism…”


Pliny recorded battles between the Arimaspi and griffins over gold as shown in this piece of pottery (www.theoi.com)

Pliny did mention cannibalism a number of times in his Natural History: A Selection. Pliny cites that Scythian tribes fed on human bodies and even states that, “This might perhaps seem unbelievable if we did not bear in mind that such monstrous people have existed in the central part of the world – namely the Cyclopes and Laestrygones – and in very recent times Transapline tribes have practiced human sacrifice, which is not short of eating human flesh.” So here again Pliny is mixing actual accounts with fantasy (travelers’ tales). The Scythian tribes were an equestrian people who lived on the steppes of central Eurasia, while Transalpine tribes lived through the alps and northern Italy. In contrast, the Cyclopes were one-eyed giants while the Laestrygones were giants, both documented to feed on humans. Again, there is the mixing of reality and fantasy but Pliny cannot be blamed for such accounts. He was compiling travelers’ tales and had no way of verifying these stories himself; he simply recorded them. Thus, instances of cannibalism recorded by Pliny probably included a combination of actual accounts and fictional elaborations. It is interesting that HPL clearly recognized this mixing of the real and the fantasy in Pliny’s accounts.

Getting back to cannibalism in the stories of HPL, as mentioned in the previous article, the old man in “The Picture in the House” was similar to the deranged family in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” That is, individuals isolated from society and civilization that have to fend for themselves, which includes feeding on other human beings in order to survive. In the case of “The Rats in the Walls” the cannibalism is far more serious and pervasive both in scope and in duration.


The Rats in the Walls by Herb Arnold

As de la Poer, Edward Norrys and the others of the expedition enter the depths of Exham Priory, they find a “twilight grotto” littered with bones of humans, semi-humans and ape-like species. More horrific, is the fact that apparently de la Poer’s family were members of an ancient cult that practiced cannibalism and near-cannibalism (feeding on very closely related species or sub-species) for quite some time and on a large, processing scale. The subterranean ruins included a butcher shop and kitchen among the monoliths, tumuli, and pens that housed the “livestock.” In reference to the livestock, varying types of hominids were identified by the bones. This included humans as well as species “lower” in evolutionary scale than the Piltdown man and some half-human species. HPL also makes reference to pithecanthrpopid, which was Ernst Haeckel’s hypothetical link between man and ape (S.T. Joshi’s notes in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 1999). In a past article I have identified that the Piltdown man, which was supposed to be an example of a “missing link” between man and ape, turned out to be a hoax in the 1950’s. Obviously, in Lovecraft time it was considered to be real fossil evidence of human evolution. In addition, I have mentioned in several past articles Ernst Haeckel’s distorted view of evolution and how it was used to support racist views relative to humanity. However, relative to “The Rats in the Walls” the point is made that the cannibal cult of the de la Poers was feeding on variety of species within the family Hominidae, which included Homo sapiens.


The Twilit Grotto in The Rats in the Walls by Steve Fabian

From a long-term perspective it appears that the prehistoric, ancestral line of the de la Poers has been feeding on other hominids up until the early 15th century. Thus, other genera of Hominidae, and possibly other species of Homo, may have existed much later than originally thought. Since these branching lines of humanity are no longer known to exist, did humanity eat these other potentially competitive hominids to extinction? Is it possible that certain tribes or groups of humanity were feeding on other hominid species throughout the world?

There is a hypothesis – the hunting hypothesis – proposed to explain the mass megafaunal extinction during the Pleistocene. This hypothesis proposes that humans hunted megaherbivores to extinction, which results in a collapse of megafaunal predators and scavengers for lack of food. This is a fairly controversial hypothesis in science, having some supporting evidence but with a large absence of data in other aspects of it. More than likely if over hunting contributed toward the extinction of megafauna such as wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers, other factors contributed as well such as changes in climate, “hyperdisease” and others. However, in the case of other hominids, is it possible that competing hominids, including others species within the genus of Homo, were driven to extinction due to the cults that arose in some part of humanity including the de la Poers? If this is true is this a case of cannibalism or as I described earlier near-cannibalism? What happened when these other species were driven to extinction through predation? Did the de la Poers then resort to pure cannibalism to feed their ritualistic and ancestral needs?


A scene from the movie “The Decent” from 2005, which is about some underground creatures that feed on humans

Next time I will wrap up the discussion of “The Rats in the Walls” with a few more concluding points and then we will move to “The Colour Out of Space.” Thank you – Fred.

Cannibalism and H.P. Lovecraft

Cannibalism is considered one of the more abhorrent acts by humans and HPL has utilized this concept in a number of his tales. While briefly cited in stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Herbert West: Reanimator,” and an important component associated in the study of ghouls, these stories and subjects will be covered sometime in later the future. This article will focus primarily on a scientific, sociological and cultural decision of cannibalism with upcoming articles focusing on the subject of cannibalism in “The Picture in the House” and “The Rats in the Walls.”


Depiction of cannibalism by Theodore de Bry

Cannibalism is quite common in nature but data on the extent and importance of it in ecological interactions has been ignored and even suppressed due to the general attitudes on this subject (Perspective’s in Ecological Theory – editors Jonathan Roughgarden, Robert M. May and Simon A. Levin, 1989). Indeed many species utilize cannibalism as a means maximizing sexual selection, recycling nutrients and ensuring the survival of the reproducing individual or offspring. However, cannibalism tends to be more common when resources are limited, which increases intra-specific competition (that is, competition between individuals within the same species).

Cannibalism can also be practiced by parents when resources are low or under added environmental stress. For example, it has been shown that based on environmental changes the male sand goby, a small fish that protect and cares for the fertilized eggs, will consume some of the eggs as dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations decline. The lower the DO concentration, the more eggs he will consume. This is to make certain that there is a sufficient amount of oxygen for the existing eggs. This maximizes the changes of a successful hatch of fewer individuals, rather than having a lower change of a successful hatch for a larger number of individuals (The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer, 2010).


Eastern spotted goby (www.portphillipmarinelife.net.au)

Many species of spiders exhibit cannibalism, where the male is eaten by the female immediately after sex. While this is obviously detrimental to the individual male spider, it does substantially increase his chances of transferring his genes to the next generation. Thus, one can see from an evolutionary point of view, where natural selection operates at the level of the population and not the individual, how such a strategy can be considered successful. Other animals known to exhibit cannibalism include praying mantises, scorpions, Mormon crickets, snakes, and rats. Sibling cannibalism has been documented in baby sharks while they are still in the womb and varying degrees of cannibalism have been documented in other animals including saltwater crocodiles, lions and even chimpanzees (www.discovermagazine.com).


Cannibalism among Mormon crickets

As previously mentioned, humans consider cannibalism to be a particularly heinous act, similar to incest and murder. While this repulsion is rooted in the evolutionary make-up of our species, it also has large social connotations. Thus, when cannibalism occurs it is extremely shocking and disturbing, even when humans are not involved. An example of this is the stocking of Nile perch in Lake Victoria, located primarily in Tanzania and Uganda but also boarders Kenya, Africa. The Nile perch were originally stocked in Lake Victoria to provide the local communities with a stable source of fish; however, the stocking of this species has had a devastating impact on the large community of native cichlid fishes as well as having other ecological and economic impacts. More to the point the Nile perch exhibit a high degree of cannibalism and when many Tanzanians learned of this they were horrified and decided not to eat the fish for the fear that cannibalism is contagious (Darwin’s Dreampond by Tijs Goldschmidt, 1996). Ironically, as reported in August 2014, illegal fishing and overfishing have put the Tanzanian Nile perch on the verge of extinction (www.busiweek.com).


A large Nile Perch caught in Lake Victoria, Africa

In the essay “Loathsome Objects: George Romero’s Living Dead Films as Contemplative Tools”, Matt Cardin makes the case that the occurrence of cannibalism associated with zombies has three sociological / cultural impacts (Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin, 2010). First, there is the loss of one’s “self” – that is, the boundary between you and “the other” is lost. Second, there is the embodiment of the most basic, animalistic primitive urges of humanity – that is, the need to feed. Third, the horror of opening up ourselves to show we are nothing more than tissue and organs. In a society that frequently places a high value on appearance over substance, exposing this beauty as nothing more than blood and gore elevates the level of the horrific. Essentially, the value of the outside beauty means nothing since inside we are all the same, composed of the same meat and organs.


Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin (www.mattcardin.com)

Based on HPL’s tales, particularly the two we will be discussing in upcoming blogs, there is a fourth sociological / cultural impact associated with cannibalism. In both “The Picture in the House” and “The Rats in the Walls,” as well as other tales of HPL’s, cannibalism was an outcome of being isolated from society from both a sociological and genetic perspective. Part of this came from his perception of Puritans and how they seemed to isolate themselves from the world. In particular HPL saw the Puritans as being “the only really effective diabolists and decadents the world has known; because they hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living.” (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2013).

To HPL completely cutting off one’s self or family from the world breeds decadence, which included cannibalism; this will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming blog articles. However, to conclude, it is also important to point out that many of the instances of cannibalism in HPL’s stories are associated with either staying home or going back home. This idea of finding horror in one’s backyard was identified in Kenneth Hite’s briefly essay on “The Picture in the House” in his Tour De Lovecraft: The Tales (2011). However, more on this subject in the next article. Thank you – Fred.

On a final note if you are interested in more Lovecraftian Science, please support our Kickstarter at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/lovecraftian-science-volume-1.  Thanks again – Fred.


Based on many of HPL’s stories isolating one’s self or family from the rest of the world can lead to extreme decadence, including cannibalism

Nyarlathotep: The Rats in the Walls

“It was the eldritch scurrying of those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors, and determined to lead me on even unto those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players.” – H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls”


Nyarlathotep by ECT Monster (www.deviantart.com)

The quote above is the only time Nyarlathotep is mentioned in HPL’s early tale “The Rats in the Walls.”  While it is the only time Nyarlathotep in cited, it stands out for three reasons.  First, the description of Nyarlathotep as a “mad faceless god” howling in the darkness revealed another form of this entity.  In “Nyarlathotep” this entity appears as a dark-skinned human from Egypt while in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” he appears as a satyr-like, medieval interpretation of the devil.  In “The Rats in the Walls”  Nyarlathotep appears less anthropomorphic.  In addition, this vague description has stimulated the imagination of a number of artists, giving rise to a variety of unique interpretations (see below for a few examples).

Nyarlathotep by Ant’lyndaer Barri’ana

Nyarlathotep by Chaos DS (www.deviantart.com)


Howler of Evil by The Apostle Green (www.deviantart.com)


Nyarlathotep by Sam Reynolds (www.deviantart.com)

The second reason this mention of Nyarlathotep in “The Rats in the Walls”  stands out is that the appearance of Nyarlathotep initiates Thomas de la Poer’s descent into madness.  As de la Poer moved deeper into the caverns with the realization of what his ancestors were doing with the locals, his sanity began to crumble.  With the loss of his sanity de la Poer runs deeper in to the caverns, following the scurrying of the rats, hoping they will lead him to Nyarlathotep.  So why is de la Poer looking for Nyarlathotep?  There is no mention of Nyarlathotep up until that point in the story and there is no other mention afterwards.  del la Poer appeared to have no knowledge of Nyarlathotep or other entities.  So why was he seeking Nyarlathotep?

I hypothesize that this is a genetic trait deeply embedded in the de la Poer genome and was triggered by the conditions he was experiencing at Exham Priory.  The unspeakable rites and feeding habits of the de la Poers may be a means of summoning Nyarlathotep to this reality.  Conversely, an alternative hypothesis is that Nyarlathotep influences certain genetic lines of humanity and the actions of the de la Poer ancestors is a response.  Similar to Cthulhu, where certain individuals seem to be more susceptible to Cthulhu through dreams, Nyarlathotep may be attempting to enter our reality by influencing a genetic sub-set of humanity.  The de la Poers and their rites may have been preparing the Earth for Nyarlathotep the way the cultists in the swamplands of Louisiana were preparing the Earth for Cthulhu.   Being in his ancestral home, these recessive genetic markers could have been triggered in Thomas de la Poer, which included an ancestral memory of Nyarlathotep.  These ancestral memories will be discussed in a little more detail in the next article.


Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.com)

Finally, the third reason is to recognize the presence of the two piping amorphous idiot flute-players associated with Nyarlathotep.  Again, why mention them?  What purpose to these entities serve?  Such beings tend to be associated with Azathoth but in this case their association with Nyarlathotep may serve to open the portal from their reality to ours.  As previously mentioned traveling intergalactic distances or from one dimension to another may be possible but require vast amounts of energy, far more than our technology can generate.  However, if Nyarlathotep has access to such energy, the idiot flute-players may serve as a means of channeling, concentrating or focusing that energy to open such an inter-dimensional wormhole.  In fact some of the more recent ideas associated with string theory and the existence of multiverses interconnected through “branes”, collective known as M-theory (The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene, 2011), may explain the need for these “idiot flute” players.  The term “idiot” may refer more to ideas associated with chaos, while the “flute” may represent a means of making the “strings” in string theory vibrate at a different frequency to allow an opening of a bane between two universes.  However, more on that in a future article.

Next time we will discuss the science of cannibalism in “The Rats in the Walls.”  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s Use of Evolution, Part 1 the Early Tales

Combination of human evolution and the future food chain for the planet (from Lovecraft eZine; http://www.alanbao.tumblr.com)

Evolution is frequently an important factor in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.  At times he display’s astonishing insight into the mechanisms of evolution, at least how it was understood at the time.  In other instances his use of evolution is not close to being a reasonably accurate interpretation of this biological process.  However, the misuse of evolution in fiction is extremely common and even today the basic concept and operation of evolution through natural selection is misunderstood.

Some of these points I have discussed in a previous article (The Mismeasure of Lovecraft – the “scientific” origins of his racism) so I will not dwell on them too long.  First, simply put, evolution is change over time.  In addition, the terms “primitive” and “advanced” should only be used within the context of time and not for interrelationships among organisms.  While we may think we humans are more “advanced” than jellyfish, a jellyfish living today is just as “advanced” as a human living today.  However, a jellyfish of today is more advanced than a jellyfish living 100 million years ago.  While they may look exactly alike, genetically, the jellyfish living 100 million years ago is more primitive than a jellyfish living today.  What we can say is that humans are a more complex organism with more differentiated cells relative to jellyfish.

A fossilized jellyfish and a living jellyfish.  While morphologically they look very similar, genetically they were probably very different, making the fossilized one “primitive” and the living one “advanced.”  For more details on the genetics of both forms and how the Cambrian environment gave rise to more complex organisms please see the article by  John Timmer, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research at http://www.arstechnica.com.

Another important point to make is that unlike Haeckel’s idea of the Tree of Life, moving ever upward with humans as the pinnacle of evolution, Darwin did not see the progression of evolution as one moving onward and upward to “better” organisms.  Thus, just because humans are on top now does not mean that they will be in the distinct future.  For example, dinosaurs were on Earth for approximately 160 million years (Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman, 2005), while Homo sapiens have been around for under a million years.  This is why Darwin drew his “tree of life” more like a shrub.  HPL had a fairly good understating of this, particularly in his later stories where he talked about humanity eventually being replaced as the dominant organism on Earth by a race of beetles.  In this case the future of Earth is not a super-intelligent form of humanity colonizing the stars.  Instead it is the extinction of one life form and replaced by another, just like the mammals expanded in dominance after the dinosaurs when extinct, most likely due to a meteor that hit the Earth approximately 65 million years ago.

A member of the beetle race by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.com)

In many of HPL’s earlier works the concern was one’s own genetics coming back to “haunt” ones’ self. In “The Rats in the Walls” once de la Poer realizes his ancestors were a strange tribe of cannibalistic creatures, he becomes one himself.  In “From Beyond” all of humanity has a dormant organ, the pineal gland; when exposed to a particular type of radiation this gland triggers a series of mutations, switching some genes on and some genes off, in a spectacular form of human metamorphosis.  In HPL’s juvenile story “The Beast in the Cave” a strange blind creature living in Mammoth Cave turns out to be a man. In each of these cases, among others not mentioned (e.g. “The Lurking Fear” – to be discussed at a later date) the genetic variation within in the individual is large enough to produce substantial alterations from what we perceive as human, triggered by a particular set of environmental or other external forces.

In “Pickman’s Model” or more appropriately cited in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Richard Upton Pickman reverts or becomes a ghoul. Such instances may be thought of as evolution, however, natural selection does not occur within the individual. Evolution occurs over generations of breeding populations with an inherent amount of genetic variability that is occasionally impacted through mutations. Thus, does Pickman “evolve” into a ghoul? No, the potential of being a ghoul was already in his genetic “catalog” and it took a specific external stimulus or factor to bring it to the surface. In these early stories that is the horror conveyed by HPL. No matter whom you are, your status in life or where you live, you cannot run away from your genetic destiny.

Something called “Modeling for Mr. Pickman” found in an article “Our Ghouls Are Creepier” on tvtropes.org

The previous photograph of a fossilized and living jellyfish was obtained from an article, Misperceptions meet state of the art in evolution research, written by John Timmer (www.arstechnica.com, February 2008).  In that article it mentions studies that have identified genes responsible for the development of complex, bilateral animals in organisms that are not complex, bilateral animals such as Cnidarians (which includes jellyfish).  In other words the genes for a bilateral body plan predates the bilateral animals themselves!  Thus, it was only when specific environmental changes  occurred in the Cambrian that opportunities arose for these genes to be selectively advantageous and be manifested in the phenotype (appearance) of the organisms.

Are similar genetic changes triggered when the pineal gland is exposed to the resonator or when humans convort with ghouls?  Possibly, but such changes can not be thought of as Darwinian evolution – at least for now – since it is not known if such traits can be pasted from one generation to the next.  However, if a recessive “ghoul” gene exists, then maybe this is a portion of human evolution that has not be actively explored.

Next time we will discuss how the concepts of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial evolution play an important part in the later tales of HPL.  Thank you – Fred.

H.P. Lovecraft and the Piltdown Man

Probably the biggest find in 20th century human evolution and paleoanthropology was the 1974 finding of a 40% complete skeleton in Ethiopia of one of our fossil ancestors named  Australopithecus afarensis, better known as “Lucy.”  This discovery was obviously decades after HPL died.  However, one of the most “infamous” findings in human paleoanthropology was the discovery of a “big-brained proto-human” in 1912 at Piltdown, England.

 An artist’s interpretation of the Piltdown Man (www.bizarrebytes.com)

The finding of the Piltdown Man in 1912 was suppose to provide evidence that brain size, and not an upright gait, led the way in human evolution (Evolution by Edward J. Larson; 2004).  Also, the fact that the fossil was conveniently found in England was almost like a informal means of establishing recent human evolution to be of Anglo-Saxon origins.  This is certainly something that HPL could identify with being an anglophile.

The Piltdown discovery was a partial skull and incomplete mandible  made by a local lawyer – Charles Dawson (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years; edited by Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis; 2009).  However, since the discovery was first publically announced, there was a fair amount of skeptism over the presented evidence by the scientific community.  By 1953, over 15 years after HPL’s death, some detailed analyses revealed that the Piltdown was a fake – a fabrication.  Turns out the skull was clearly human but that the mandible was that of a female orangutan.

The Piltdown skull – combination of man and orangutan (Adolf Reith, Trans. by Diana Imber – http://www.clarku.edu)

HPL was obviously familiar with the Piltdown man since he mentioned it in his stories; however, as shown below he only cited it in two of his earlier tales.  The first time he cited it was in Dagon and the second was in the Rats of Walls.  In Dagon while the protagonist was examining the bas-reliefs that rose from the ocean depths, he noted that the structure must have been carved out by some ancient seafaring tribe that went extinct “before the first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal Man was born.”

 Sketch of the monolithic bas-relief in Dagon (artwork by Death Dragon111)

In The Rats in the Walls as Dr. Trask, an anthropologist, was inspecting some of the skulls in the twilit grotto, he notes that most of them were “mostly lower than the Piltdown man in the scale of evolution, but in every case definitely human.”

The Rats in the Walls – the Twilit Grotto (from i.ytimg.com)

In Dagon HPL mentioned the Piltdown man, and Neanderthals, to convey the age of the monolith that emerged from the sea.  In The Rats in the Walls, HPL mentioned the Piltdown man again to convey age; here the issue is that this subterranean community has been feeding on humans and other similar species for hundreds of thousands of years.  While I am sure there was some public debate over the Piltdown man in HPL’s time, I don’t think there were any direct accusations that it was an outright hoax in the 1920’s and 1930’s

What makes the Piltdown man situation so unnerving is that it was an intentional and fabricated hoax. This wasn’t a hypothesis that was proved incorrect and that some in the scientific community were still clinging to; this was an outright lie.   Knowing how HPL would adjust his fiction to ensure that the most up-to-date scientific information were included (e.g. At the Mountains of Madness), I’m sure he would have been disgusted over the hoax.

Next time, I will more than likely initiate discussions on  The Shadow Out of Time.  Thank you – Fred