The Graveyard Rats
by Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard may be best known to pulp fiction fans for his Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, and Solomon Kane tales, but he also authored a number of one-off old-school horror stories. The best of these is his untouchable "Pigeons From Hell", to which "Graveyard Rats" is a second cousin.
Both stories begin with a man waking up from a nightmare, only Howard defies expectations here and the man does not turn out to be our protagonist. Sure, he might have been if things had gone differently--if he hadn't woken up to find himself trapped in a pitch black room with a vicious little bastard of a rat and the severed head of his recently deceased (and already interred) brother John Wilkinson. But as things played out, he did wake up to such a scenario and it was too much for his weak country boy psyche to withstand. His mind snapped like an old man's hip bone.
"Saul Wilkinson began to laugh--horrible, soul-shaking shrieks that mingled with the squealing of the grey ghoul. Saul's body rocked to and fro, and the laughter turned to insane weeping, that gave way in turn to hideous screams that echoed through the old house and brought the sleepers out of their sleep. 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."With one brother dead and one brother mad, only two Wilkinson boys remain. They believe that both the death and the subsequent incident were the work of Joel Middleton, the sole surviving member of a bloodline with which their family had been feuding for years. Looking out for their safety and hoping to bring Joel in is private detective Steve Harrison, whose no-nonsense gumshoe ways make him the real hero here.
As Harrison investigates this case, things just get stranger and stranger. Police procedural gives way to supernatural thriller (of sorts) as stories of vengeful Native American ghosts are invoked, as well as the urban legend of the titular Graveyard Rats, whose unseemly eating habits turn them into vicious, demonic creatures of the night.
"The Indians used to tell strange tales about them! They said they were not beasts at all, but evil, cannibal demons, into which entered the spirits of wicked, dead men at whose corpses they gnawed!"No matter who is behind the murder, no matter who has desecrated the corpse of John Wilkinson, and no matter how many warrior spirits show up to fulfill an age-old blood curse, the rats are the real villains here. They are an ever-present menace, crawling in the walls and watching you with their blood red eyes. Howard knows that the fear of vermin is innate in many people and so he ratchets up the terror, taking an almost perverse pleasure in detailing their carnivorous exploits.
"The graveyard rats abandoned the head with rasping squeaks, scattering before him like darting black shadows. And Harrison shuddered. It was no face that stared up at him in the lantern light, but a white, grinning skull, to which clung only shreds of gnawed flesh."As stated previously, "The Graveyard Rats" is the kissing cousin of "Pigeons From Hell", and although it doesn't quite match up to the subtle genius of that other tale, the more graphic sensibilities on display here are ready to be rediscovered by a new generation of literary gorehounds.
This story has lapsed into the Public Domain, so click here to download it for free or read it online courtesy of ManyBooks.net.