The story is a first person account by a Virginian named simply Delapore (we never learn his first name) of the events that occurred after he moved to England to take up residence at his family's ancient demesne, about which there were unsavory legends.
On 16 July 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labours. The restoration had been a stupendous task, for little had remained of the deserted pile but a shell-like ruin; yet because it had been the seat of my ancestors, I let no expense deter me. The place had not been inhabited since the reign of James the First, when a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line.
With this sole heir denounced as a murderer, the estate had reverted to the crown, nor had the accused man made any attempt to exculpate himself or regain his property. Shaken by some horror greater than that of conscience or the law, and expressing only a frantic wish to exclude the ancient edifice from his sight and memory, Walter de la Poer, eleventh Baron Exham, fled to Virginia and there founded the family which by the next century had become known as Delapore.Once he moves into Exham Priory, Delapore -- or de la Poer, as he starts to call himself, after the fashion of his forebears -- discovers that the locals hold him in suspicion, on account of his ancestors.
This leads him, with the assistance of a friend, Edward Norrys, to look more deeply into the history of the Priory and the de la Poer family.
Piecing together the tales which Norrys collected for me, and supplementing them with the accounts of several savants who had studied the ruins, I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted, and there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele worship which the Romans had introduced ...
Likewise was it said that the rites did not vanish with the Roman power, and that certain among the Saxons added to what remained of the temple, and gave it the essential outline it subsequently preserved, making it the centre of a cult feared through half the heptarchy. About 1000 A.D. the place is mentioned in a chronicle as being a substantial stone priory housing a strange and powerful monastic order and surrounded by extensive gardens which needed no walls to exclude a frightened populace. It was never destroyed by the Danes, though after the Norman Conquest it must have declined tremendously, since there was no impediment when Henry the Third granted the site to my ancestor, Gilbert de la Poer, First Baron Exham, in 1261.
Finding out these and other facts only encourages de la Poer to delve further, as he is becoming near-obsessed with the mysteries of Exham Priory and, more immediately, his own family. It's around this time that the narrator begins to hear the "low, distinct scurrying, as of rats" behind the walls of his new home, even though neither he nor anyone else can find any signs of rodents in the Priory. Paying careful attention to the movements of these supposed rats, de la Poer concludes that they "were engaged in one stupendous migration from inconceivable heights to some depth conceivably or inconceivably below," which leads him into the cellars beneath Exham Priory, where he discovers Latin graffiti mentioning ancient deities even more sinister than Cybele. Nevertheless, he presses on, precipitating a revelation that brings the story to its fateful conclusion.Of my family before this date there is no evil report, but something strange must have happened then. In one chronicle there is a reference to a de la Poer as "cursed of God in 1307", whilst village legendry had nothing but evil and frantic fear to tell of the castle that went up on the foundations of the old temple and priory. The fireside tales were of the most grisly description, all the ghastlier because of their frightened reticence and cloudy evasiveness. They represented my ancestors as a race of hereditary daemons beside whom Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade would seem the veriest tyros, and hinted whisperingly at their responsibility for the occasional disappearances of villagers through several generations.
Though "The Rats in the Walls" is far from Lovecraft's greatest work of fiction, it's still very enjoyable, having the virtues of being both short in length and direct in its presentation. It's also, as I noted, something of a bridge between his early work and his later output, which makes it a very good introduction to Lovecraft for those unfamiliar with his writings and themes. The story occupies a fond place in my memories because, when I had exhausted all the Lovecraft books I could find at my local library, my father took me down to the Central Library on Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore, to look for more. Not only did I find many more books by and about HPL, but I also discovered a recording of David McCallum reading "The Rats in the Walls," to which I listened several times before having to return it to the library. It's one of the few Lovecraft stories I've ever heard read aloud, which may be why it has stayed in my imagination for so long.
(It's also worth noting that "The Rats in the Walls" is the story that prompted Robert E. Howard to write a letter of praise to Weird Tales, a letter that was then passed on to Lovecraft, thus initiating a lengthy and voluminous correspondence between the two writers, from 1924 to 1936.)