The Rat King: On the Fascinations (and Revulsions) of Rattus



Great article. Any idea on the official explanation of the mummified rat-king? Hoax?

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Excellent & informative article. I’d also highly recommend Jonathan Burt’s book “Rat”, in the Reaktion Books animal series, which has a long section on the Rat King, and the rat as the “shadow of the human.”

“and a dead rat, and a string to swing it on!” I love this line. Is it just me, or do I detect an echo of Masefield’s “Sea Fever”?
(“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”)

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I attended a dinner in which an artist presented a handful of rat dishes, most of which was pretty delicious. It led to my being misquoted in the NYTimes and looking like a total asshole:

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Whoa, what the hell is ostrich doing on that Paris-under-siege rats-dogs-and-horses menu? Did they just happen to luck into a shipment of really big poultry smuggled past the blockades? Or were ostriches somehow as common as mules in 1870s Paris?

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No definitive ruling, but if I anthologize this (as I hope to, in a collection of essays on “Gothic Naturalism,” as I call it), I’ll run the truth to ground. As I say in the BB piece, I’m inclined toward skepticism; since rats have tremendous bite strength, and since exterminators routinely report finding legs in snap traps (chewed off in desperation by trapped rats), the presumption that tangled rats wouldn’t simply chew off their tails, rather than starve to death, strains credulity. Two of my main sources accept the Rat King on faith, but neither, as I note, is a scientist.

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As the siege dragged on, the unfortunate inhabitants of the Paris zoo began to look more and more appetizing, and soon found their way onto the bill of fare at Parisian restaurants.


Fascinating. Thanks for reminding me of this. I’d considered mentioning it, but–my dedication to the felicitous digression notwithstanding–couldn’t quite figure out how to tie it into the tangled thread of my thought.

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Very kind of you to say, Mikita. If I revise this for inclusion in a book-to-be (on Gothic Naturalism, my variation on the academic cottage industry of Animal Studies), I’ll certainly give the Burt book a glance. As for the Masefield allusion, I didn’t have it in mind, but the (ironically) archaic, poetic syntax–inspired, in my case, by Twain–does indeed echo Masefield.

A recent TV example came to mind when I was reading this: the nanos that took over Priscilla’s body in “Revolution” created a fun house of horrors for their edification and amusement. At one point a bedroom door is opened and we see, similar to what was quoted in the article, “a bubbling, flowing carpet of brownish-gray fur.” I believe the exact quote is “yes, we have a rat room” spoken deadpan by Priscilla’s still-human husband Aaron to their friend Rachel. Sums up the situation perfectly.

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Making rat stew somewhere in Asia

And then there’s Monty Python on the subject of desert

-Whats for afters?
Rat cake, rat sorbet, rat pudding, or strawberry tart.
-(eyes lighting up) Strawberry tart?
Well, it’s got some rat in it.
-how much?
Three. A lot, really.
-Well, I’ll have a slice without so much rat in

If it doesn’t chew its way out, then its been tied in properly.

Always a pleasure to read your work, Mr. Dery. I’ve been a fan since the late-80s/early-90s when I realized that most of the clippings I had made from Keyboard Magazine were penned by you.

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