Part “Three Skeleton Key,” part “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Burial of the Rats” has the distinctive flavor of an Edwardian gentleman’s magazine thriller, and it features all the necessary tropes for this genre: a young man forced to prove his manhood through his mental prowess and physical stamina, a white-knuckled chase scene, last minute escapes, themes of Social Darwinism and Nietzschean philosophy, a sense that the struggle is a coded rite of passage, a distant lover, degenerate villains without mercy or scruples, a battle against the natural elements, and a seemingly hopeless race against time.
This type of story would become even more popular after World War One (its heyday being the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s) and revived after World War Two (where these sorts of action thrillers – the lone man fighting for survival against Nature and mankind alike – were beautifully adapted for male-centered radio programs like “Escape” and “Suspense”). Although he was preceded in the man-on-the-run thriller by Ambrose Bierce (“An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Suicide Club”), and Rudyard Kipling (“The Man Who Would Be King”), Stoker’s “Burial of the Rats” is among the first to perfectly epitomize the formula of the modern suspense thriller.
Like “Three Skeleton Key” (lighthouse keepers are besieged by a hoard of carnivorous rats) it includes a Darwinian Man vs. Nature element that reduces its hero to his basic, primal instincts (class, education, and money are useless to him) and like in “The Most Dangerous Game” (a castaway is saved by a Russian aristocrat only to be released into the jungle and hunted as the man’s prey) human beings are put in a predator/prey dynamic that forces them to rely on animal instincts and cunning to evade/capture one another. Suspenseful, disturbing, primitive, and bleak, it is among the best thriller stories of the Edwardian period.
Our story is told by a romantic young Englishman who is on a strange excursion requested by the parents of his betrothed. Doubtful of the seriousness of their relationship, the parents agree to let them marry if he spends a year apart from her. He chooses to spend this exile in – what better city for the love-smitten heart? – luminous Paris where he skulks about and steeps himself in Bohemian haunts loaded with passion, atmosphere, and melodrama. He is drawn to its rich history, but surprised to find the Imperial Paris of Napoleon, Hugo, David, and Chopin supplanted by a shadowy, industrial capital plagued by poverty and secrets.
One ill-fated day, he wanders to the outskirts of the city where rag-pickers (professional dumpster divers) sift through the vast city dump for rejected prizes to be pawned. A dusty shanty-town – like something out of a postapocalyptic fever dream – sprawls out across hills of dust and garbage.
One such shelter – a massive wardrobe converted into a shack – hosts six toothless veterans of the Napoleonic Wars – their blue uniforms faded and tattered into gray rags. The old men watch the well-dressed Englishman uneasily, trading glances and growing quiet. He walks away but senses their eyes on him.
His walk has burned up the afternoon, so he turns back towards the city as dusk darkens the hillocks of refuse and the shadows deepen in the sunset. He stops to ask an old woman for directions. She is impossibly ancient, lurking in a shack with three walls, but she quickly engages the narrator in fascinating stories of her youth (she was one of the Madame Defarge-types who sat knitting at the steps of the guillotine while the cobblestones of Paris ran red with aristocrat blood).
As he tales wind on, he is alerted to the noisome presence of the shockingly large rats that teem all over the place. Their eyes gleam red in the shadows (not unlike similar vermin in “The Judge’s House” and “Dracula”) and he is repulsed at the sight of a massive cleaver leaning against the wall, clotted with rat blood and entrails – or at least he thinks it’s rat blood. At the same time, he realizes that the woman is ogling his gold rings with their gleaming diamonds. At first he rebuffs his instinct of fear – she is an old crone, after all, and he a young man with hot, passionate blood – but then he remembers the peering eyes of the rats… and notices larger eyes gleaming in the darkness of the shanty town.
The woman’s already grisly tales now turn to her experience chasing a ring that fell into the sewer. She followed it down into the putrid darkness and found the steaming skeleton of a man who had been very recently overpowered and devoured by the city’s carnivorous rats. She found the bones still warm with living blood, and the mangled bodies of rats strewn about it (they had killed and eaten one another in their fight over the poor man’s body). The narrator considers himself warned: this is precisely what can be done to dispose of a corpse – his corpse, perhaps – in the Kingdom of Dust.
Two old friends of hers join them and he feels that a noose is tightening around his proverbial neck: surely, he imagines, there must be more rag-pickers hiding behind the walls of the shanty, waiting to murder him while the crone stalls. By paying attention to her movements, words, and eyes, he infers that one of the friends, whom she sent for a lantern, is actually waiting to strangle him if he leaves, while the crone is trying to hide a long dagger in her hand. Convinced that he is surrounded, he thinks about his fiancée and charges the back wall, which – rotten and old – caves the hutch in and permits him to flee into the night.
He tramples a hidden assassin in his flight, before racing up one of the hills of dust – the tallest of the trash mounds with the steepest sides. He gains the top, but hears the footsteps of his pursuers and realizes his escape has only just begun. As he runs, he narrowly misses a blow from the blood-clotted butcher’s axe, and finds that now a posse of women and young men have joined the old men from the crone’s hutch.
Evading the crowd, he sees the lights of the distant insane asylum, and – eager to encounter its armed guards – he bolts for them, flailing through heap after heap of grey dust and mound after mound of fetid trash. Watching the silhouettes of his pursuers, he eases his way across some soggy ground but suddenly falls, elbows deep, into a stinking cesspool of rancid liquid. Watching the old men – those toothless Napoleonic veterans – relentlessly follow his trail, he is reminded of the determination of their infamous, cutthroat regiments, and loses hope.
He is surrounded on three sides, but tries to outrun his pursuers. Noticing that each man is carrying a garrote, he decides to charge up the wall of a nearby dyke and through himself into the river on the other side. Plunging into the cleansing, cold water, he swims to the opposite shore and is chilled when he hears the sound of oars and catches a glimpse of his pursuers rowing after him in a rickety boat. He lets his hat float downstream, towards the boat, and is both gratified and sickened when he sees the leader take the bait, swinging down on the hat with the gleaming butcher’s axe.
Not wanting to waste anymore time, he plunges into the swampy ground on the other side of the river, and charges for the prison walls. Desperate, wheezing, and dizzy, he chugs his way forward, collapses at the foot of a sentry after bounding over the prison wall.
Lanterns are brought, shedding light on the darkness, and the glint of steel bayonets and rifle barrels ease his anxiety. He is now safe. The commissary of police is summoned and interviews the breathless foreigner. Disgusted by his story, he asks the narrator to guide a company of soldiers back into the Kingdom of Dust where they will round up his would-be-murders. Exhausted, but enthusiastic about revenge, he agrees, and the armed group cross the river (in spite of the rag-pickers’ attempts to sabotage a pontoon bridge) and trudge through the dust mounds towards the collapsed shanty.
There in the shattered remnants of the murder den, he finds the old woman – a victim of her treachery. She must have been killed when the walls collapsed and she fell on her own dagger, but her corpse is exactly like that of the one she encountered in the sewers: a steaming, red skeleton picked clean by the burial of the rats…
By the end of the 19th century, interest in human evolution, contact between Victorian colonists and pre-modern native cultures, the Master/Slave philosophy of Nietzsche, and the increasing middle class (which challenged concepts of class and status) had combined to drive up an interest in man’s animal nature, the illusion of civilization, and the power of our vestigial instincts. Chase narratives began to grow in popularity in the 1880s and 1890s (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” and H. Rider Haggard’s “She” are novel-length examples; Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and H. G. Wells’ “The Valley of Spiders” are prominent short fiction models), always involving a civilized gentleman finding himself reduced to his animal instincts in some desperate situation requiring him to abandon gentility (chivalry will do him no good other than to ensure his immediate destruction) in favor of cunning and savagery. These were works of naturalism and realism (as exemplified by Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and Stephen Crane) which viewed class, status, manners, chivalry, duty, honor, civilization, and culture as inventions used to falsely stratify mankind: trappings useful for soothing the ego, but useless in an emergency like surviving in a lifeboat (Crane), building a fire in the Yukon (London), or surviving the savage jungles of the Congo (Conrad).
Likewise, Stoker’s fiction – in all its phases – has a common Hitchcockian theme found in “The Castle of the King,” “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw,” “Dracula’s Guest,” “The Burial of the Rats,” among others. The idea that mankind is vulnerable, alone, helpless, and surrounded by predators permeates his fiction. No matter how secure we imagine ourselves to be: no matter how rich, how good, how middle-class, how respectable, how wise, how loving, how strong, how clever, or how educated – no matter how prepared we are to face challenges – we are always on the defense, always at the disadvantage, always moments away from destruction. It only takes a second for the fake comforts of status, education, or morality to become useless, and then we are left to fend for ourselves with only our animal instincts as a defense. As in many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock (e.g., North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew too Much), Stoker’s stories feature beleaguered everymen ensnared in the machinations of insidious forces which are not impressed by their morals or intimidated by their manly dignity.
“The Burial of the Rats” follows in this tradition, using the framing plot (the easily forgotten, paternally-driven hiatus between the narrator and his lady-love) as the raison d'être for this crucible. I’m certainly not suggesting that the disapproving father somehow rigged this trap to test the mettle of his daughter’s suitor, but literarily speaking, the trial serves as a very Homeric rite of passage. Indeed, there is something almost Herculean or Arthurian about this story: one could imagine a Greek myth (where the old hag is Medusa and the rats are the Hydra, and the lovers perhaps being Perseus and Andromeda), or a medieval romance (where the beldame is a villainous witch, the rats a snarling dragon, and the lovers some gallant knight banished by the king whose lily-skinned daughter he has courted) and the plot would be little changed.
As Carl Jung would note, there is a very human need to retell ancient myths in modern settings – to relive the old narratives in freshly updated scenarios – which do little to change the essential meaning. In this instance the ordeal proves the suitor’s manhood (at least to himself if not his prospective father-in-law) and his worthiness – by the genuine standards of Nature and evolution, not the fabricated scales of society – to wed the princess-like Alice. The trial tests his physical stamina, mental prowess, character, manhood, and endurance, and – like the surviving protagonists of “Three Skeleton Key” and ‘The Most Dangerous Game” he can rest easy knowing that he is considered a worthy man, whether by the standards of genteel Victoriana, or the jungles and plains of his primitive ancestors.