Graveyard Rats by Robert E. Howard Review (Novel, 1936)

The Wilkinson Brothers are dealing with tragedy. Their one brother, John, was shot dead three days ago by family rival Joel Middleton. What's more, brother Peter does not want the family to take the risk on a potential oil discovery on the family's property that could make them all wealthy. Relations are tense and the slightest provocation could push any of the surviving brothers over the breaking point. Robert E. Howard's Graveyard Rats is a short horror novel with a lot of punch. The dynamic between the brothers is much more realistic than many horrors of the time. The scares are so severe and gory that the lingering Gothic elements--chapter titles, stock characters, and scientific/logical explanations--are merely window dressings on a tale of brutal terror.

Even the problematic treatment of a Native American character and his culture is far more forward thinking for the time period. He is under developed and defined by a few stereotypes, but he is not treated as a blanket savage or inhuman beast. His reason for possible seeking revenge against the Wilkinson family is far more valid than most characters' motivations in the story. He is the largest victim in the tale and his cultural influence is taken as true by everyone else in the story. The folklore and spirituality of his tribe are as real as the mounting pile of bodies in the small town and that is a rarity for the time.

The titular Graveyard Rats are the real monsters of the tale. They are demons sent as tools of revenge by victims of extreme violence. Those who see and fall prey to them deserve their bloody punishment. Rats, long-believed to be filthy agents of death and destruction, have very sharp teeth and claws used to devastating effect here.

Robert E Howard's prose has a very natural flow. This greatly elevates the arguably misplaced logical explanation trope. The one consistency among the Victorian Gothic novel is that scientific explanation for why suits of armor walked themselves down hallways and all other paranormal occurrences. graveyard Rats really only falters because the small element of the story explained by logic undermines the lovingly crafted supernatural horror. Much like B-movie classic I Bury the Living, the purely unnatural alternative is far more rewarding than the tidy realistic conclusion.

Robert E Howard's Graveyard Rats is not the most readily available novel because of questions about copyright ownership. I originally believed it to be in the public domain, but that is in dispute for a number of reasons. A few of the budget eBook collections include Graveyard Rats and there's even a version available online for free. It's the legal grey area that really stops this from being as heavily studied as his weird fiction contemporaries.

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