What is it about ‘cats’ that is so mysterious and compelling? Needless to say, they’ve been the object of contemplation, poetry, literature, philosophy, and even worship for thousands of years. We are all familiar with the stories of Bastet, the Egyptian feline goddess, as well as the stories of cats as witches’ familiars. It might be because of their perceived haughtiness, their apparent self-sufficiency, the manner in which they stare and stand so still at times, and their supposed cruelty that seems to convince us that they are ‘up to something’. Of course, rational thought will demonstrate that cats are not anymore mysterious or strange from any other animal (or rather from any other pet). Indeed, dogs, which are usually regarded as ‘opposite’ of cats, can be just as ‘moody’ and self sufficient as any cat. Moreover, many a time I have seen a pack of stray dogs ‘cruelly’ attack another dog (or cat or bird) with as much viciousness as any cat might. Likewise, on many occasions I have seen cats demonstrate affection to their ‘owners’ (yes, I am aware of the phrase ‘Dogs have owners, Cats have slaves’) as well as hyperactive playful antics.
Yet superstition regarding the ‘mysteriousness’ of cats persists, and I wonder whether it is a product of ‘story’ rather than any demonstrable ‘real-life’ facts. In other words, is the sheer amount of stories about evil/supernatural felines the reason we continue to hold this notion of the ‘power of cats’. Rather than any actual quality in them, it is the perpetuation of the superstition through fiction that puts us in this metal state.
I put forth as examples four short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman. While there have certainly been many more stories about supernatural cats (not even considering films and television), I will focus on only these four mostly for reasons of convenience (they’re short, succinct, and I’ve read them), as well as because historically they mark a direct progression. By this I mean, Poe inspired Lovecraft and both inspired Gaiman. It has a nice linearity to it.
Poe’s story is, of course, ‘The Black Cat’, which was first published in 1843 in an edition of The Saturday Evening Post. As its Wikipedia entry rightly suggests, it is “a study of the psychology of guilt” in which “a murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes himself unassailable, but eventually breaks down and reveals himself, impelled by a nagging reminder of his guilt.” Because the narrator is unreliable, we cannot be certain whether the cat that returns is truly the cat he killed (Pluto) or whether it is simply another cat (which is really the more logical explanation). Whatever supernatural aspects the cat seems to possess are entirely attributed by the unhinged narrator, and yet the reader’s own awareness of the superstitions surrounding cats fuels their slight sliver of doubt and induces terror.
Lovecraft’s story, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’ (1920) is equally vague; leaving it up to the reader to believe whether the cats have supernatural powers or not. In the story, an old couple from the town of Ulthar delight in torturing and violently killing cats, but the townspeople are too frightened to do anything about it. One day a caravan arrives in town with a young orphan boy who owns a small kitten. The kitten disappears one day, and the child learns the story of the old couple. That night he offers a prayer, and the following day all the cats in Ulthar disappear. After the caravan leaves, the townspeople discover that the cats have returned, but the old couple have vanished, and upon searching for them, they discover their skeletons, picked clean, in their house. From that day on, the town of Ulthar decrees that no person may ever kill a cat again.
At no point in the story does the narration out rightly say that it was the cats who did it (indeed, it might have been other people from the caravan revenging the orphan boy), and yet the townspeople of Ulthar, like the main character from ‘The Black Cat’, believe the superstition. Similarly, the reader readily accepts this proposition eagerly, agreeing in the mysterious power of the cats.
Gaiman’s stories, interestingly, leave no room for doubt with regards to the supernatural element. This is curious because one would have thought that the 1843 and 1920 stories would be more accepting of the supernatural than a more contemporary story. On the other hand, perhaps now we are less superstitious and therefore more eager to read blatantly fantastic stories. On the other other hand (of this Lovecraftian beast), I don’t believe the 19th and early 20th centuries were particularly superstitious, so this theory might be completely inaccurate.
The first Gaiman story is ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ (1991) from the Dream Country collection of The Sandman. In the story, a cat discovers that cats ruled the world once before humans discovered that dreams shaped the world, and thus dreamt themselves into being the dominant species on the planet. She decides to go around the world, preaching to other cats, to convince them all to dream of a world where cats are once again the dominant species.
It is not surprising that in Gaiman’s story cats talk with each other and share their stories and dreams, particularly considering all the other supernatural elements and characters that appear in The Sandman. What I find interesting, however, is my own reaction to it, that out of all the ‘impossible’ things that happen in The Sandman, cats who were once the dominant species and are now dreaming to regain that power is one of the least ‘weird’ ones. Storywise, considering the mythology and superstition surrounding cats, it seems perfectly reasonable to imagine such a story.
Nonetheless, it might be argued that because no human sees the cats’ meeting or hear their revolutionary call, that it might all be a matter of perspective and a way of anthropomorphizing feline behaviour.
The final story, also a Gaiman one, is ‘The Price’ (1998), in which a man finds a cat who comes every day to his house covered in bruises and cuts. Every night he hears hellish noises coming from the front of his house, and one night he decides to stay up on the porch to see what happens. He discovers that each night the devil comes to his house, and the cat battles him, so that the man and his family might live in peace.
This story seems to be a purpose reversal of the classic ‘cat’s might be evil/dangerous’ trope (it even refers to the cat as ‘the Black Cat’). Instead of the vague possibility of a cat that comes back to haunt a guilty man, or take revenge upon an old evil couple, or even to dream change into the world, in this story the cat clearly has supernatural abilities and is clearly ‘good’. There is little doubt for the reader to question the cat’s nature, other than to say that the narrator is crazy. However, unlike in ‘The Black Cat’, the narrator does not appear to be mentally unstable, so there is little reason to question his story.
I am not certain what these various narratives mean, other than the fact that they clearly draw on older myths and superstitions and that they rely on the reader’s knowledge and interpretation. They all seem to challenge the views on superstition (whether they are the product of a mad person’s paranoia, or a town’s superstition) as well as the reader’s own views. They, however, do not entirely answer the question of why we find cats to be mysterious. On the other hand, the answer may simply be that it does not matter when it started or where it comes from, but rather that it is a part of our culture, and that it enables us to reflect different aspects of our own psyche.
From the deepest caverns of Delapore family mansion, I bid thee adieu,
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat’ (1843). http://www.online-literature.com/poe/24/
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’ (1920). http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cu.asp
Neil Gaiman, ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’, Dream Country, 18 (1991).
Neil Gaiman, ‘The Price’, Smoke and Mirrors (New York: Avon Books, 2005). http://www.bitchwick.com/amacker/bean/price.html
‘The Black Cat’ Wikipedia Entry, < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Cat_%28short_story%29> [accessed 1 May 2012]