There’s just something about cats. We own them, viralize them, buy sweaters and calendars and mugs with them on it. They are points of fascination and obsession. Videos of their reactions to commonplace things like snow, cucumbers, and TVs flood our newsfeeds – and we like and share them. There is something tremendously human about them: they are flawed, cynical, relatable, self-involved, vain, needy, aggressive, and sensual. While dogs – servile, loyal, and trusting to a flaw – represent mankind’s best version of ourselves, cats represent the reality (perhaps, I’ve often wondered that’s why so many extroverts favor dogs while introverts – already given to distrust humans, and self-critical introspection – are so comfortable with these judgmental, demanding tyrants).
Our relationship with Felis silvestris catus began some 9,000 years ago when farmers in the Near East and Mesopotamia began tolerating them in exchange for a lower rodent population, which prevented grains and vegetables from being raided. The result was a shift in cats’ DNA which led to the distinction of the domestic cat from his cousins: the bobcat, lynx, wild cat, and others. Cats were being cared for on farms and in houses around 5,500 BCE in China, 8,000 BCE in the Fertile Crescent, and became deified by the Ancient Egyptians sometime around 3,100 BCE. Since then they have become the third most popular pet in the United States and Britain (behind fish and dogs), and continue to thrive as a species at 600 million strong.
Cats have left a deep paw print in our collective consciousness, appearing in art, music, folklore, idiom, and films. Art lovers will easily remember Theophile Steinlen’s iconic print “Le Chat Noir,” Salvidor Dali’s acrobatic “Dali Atomicus,” or one of the several portraits Renoir painted of smiling females holding tabbies. Music has an immense relationship with felines, where they’re frequently featured as a symbol of femininity, sexuality, lust, power, elegance, grace, and evil. Just think of the wide-ranging songs referring to them: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Year of the Cat,” “Alley Cat,” “What’s New Pussycat?,” “Cat People,” “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Like a Cat,” “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “The Stray Cat Blues,” and the entire musical “Cats.”
In cartoons and movies they are often either celebrated for their independence, grace, and intellect (“That Darn Cat,” “The Cat from Outer Space,” “The Incredible Journey,” “The Aristocats,” “Milo and Otis,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Cat Returns,” “Oliver and Company,” “Thomasina,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Garfield,” “The Cat in the Hat,” etc., etc.) or vilified for their selfishness and bloodlust (“Tom and Jerry,” “Sylvester and Tweety Bird,” “Garfield (again),” “The Lady and the Tramp,” “Cats and Dogs,” etc., etc.). They feature prominently in our vernacular, where they have become emblematic of virtues and vices (cats have nine lives; tomcats are prowling Don Juans; catfights are passionate bouts between women; cats can “get your tongue,” are antsy when on a hot tin roof, and be killed by curiosity; it can rain cats and dogs; you can have no room to “swing a dead cat”; and a malicious person may be a “cat among the pigeons”).
In folklore cats are almost exclusively the ally of mankind (with one important exception – more later). There is the famous story of Dick Whittington’s cat, wherewith the future Lord Mayor of London owes his success to the luck and aid of his feline; the very similar Perrault fairytale, “Puss in Boots,” where a pathetic man is made a success through his cat’s machinations; they were considered extremely lucky by sailors, were used to represent cunning and intelligence in Aesop’s Fables, and were considered the holy consorts of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Of course, there is also a dark side to feline folklore – one which stems from their solitary nature, nocturnal disposition, and wide, intelligent eyes. In European culture, they quickly became associated with witches (as did all night-loving animals: bats, rats, owls, possums, wolves, wild dogs and felines all owe their Hallowe’en popularity to an evolutionary preference for darkness), and were considered familiars (shape-shifting, demonic helpers) to the devil’s concubines. It is bad luck for one to cross your path ahead of you, and black cats (to my surprise) continue to be the least likely to be adopted from animal shelters – possibly due to the fact that they are still associated with the occult. While they were worshipped and legally protected from harm in Ancient Egypt, in Medieval Europe felines were often killed on sight or ritually executed during the dark days of the witch trials. One dubious theory even holds that the Black Plague was spread by the massive drop in the cat population during the witch trials (leading to a surge in plague-carrying vermin).
Today we adore, obsess over, and honor cats once again. They have massive Instagram followings, make up a hefty portion of YouTube videos, and have become emblematic consorts of introverts, females, feminism, autumn-loving/tea-drinking/sweater-wearing book-readers, geekdom, and intellectuals everywhere. It is no wonder, either, that they attract such indoorsy, studious fans: cats are excellent company when you are on the couch with a blanket and a cup of tea steaming off to the side. For dogs, time spent in such cozy sloth may be the necessary rest-up before venturing outside to run, poop, and chase squirrels, but for cats, this is the main feature. They are quiet, cozy companions for scholars, intellectuals, and homebodies who would rather not get off of the couch to take the dog outside in the sleet of a January morning.
Even though the 21st century has rejected the ailurophobia of previous centuries, returning cats to the godhood of Ancient Egypt, we still recognize their power to suggest the dark side of nature. Outside cats leave their human’s property at dusk and venture out into the darkness, returning in the morning with the corpses of birds and rodents. They step out of the comfort zones of most humans, plumb the hours of night when humans feel most alone and vulnerable, and – gosh darn it – they own that space. I am always reminded of how H. P. Lovecraft treated cats in two of his most memorable stories when I think about the way that cats mesmerize us today. Early in his career he wrote “The Cats of Ulthar” about a sadistic elderly couple who tortured cats for fun on the outskirts of their village. One day they made the mistake of murdering a gypsy boy’s kitten, inspiring his supernatural wrath – executed with military precision by all the neighborhood cats. In the middle of his career, Lovecraft wrote “The Rats in the Walls” about a man who refurbishes his dilapidated ancestral home – formerly the temple of a cannibal cult. His cat leads him to discover this unsavory history by clawing at the walls until a secret passage to an underground dungeon is discovered, littered with the bones of devolved human livestock. Before devolving into madness, the man is fascinated by how at home his cat seems – how in his element, how eternal, how timeless: “Then there came a sound from that inky, boundless, farther distance that I thought I knew; and I saw my old black cat dart past me like a winged Egyptian god, straight into the illimitable gulf of the unknown.” As a cat owner, I can deeply identify with this mystical description. Both stories underscore the primal, violent side of cats – a nature which is timeless, brutal, and unstoppable.
Cats have featured heavily in horror fiction like Lovecraft’s – particularly during the Golden Age of Horror during the 19th century. Two masters of the genre – Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker – wrote two of the most famous cat stories ever penned. Poe’s “The Black Cat” heavily influenced Lovecraft’s “Cats of Ulthar”: it too is about the vengeance of an abused cat. Poe’s feline may or may not be a ghost, or even a reincarnation returned to haunt its killer. Stoker’s black cat is a grieving mother who monomaniacally seeks out the slayer of her kitten – and engineers a brilliant and gruesome demise for him. Both cats act as agents of Old Testament justice and unquenchable guilt. Poe and Stoker each use the symbol of the cat – solitary, nocturnal, intelligent, vengeful – to represent the unconscious mind. For Poe the cat is a guilty conscience haunting a self-loathing sinner, while for Stoker it is a brutal Super-Ego punishing a careless Ego.
PURRING GHOSTS: These five stories all come from Elliott O'Donnell's "Animal Ghosts" and tell veridical reports of spectral cats. "The Haunted Manor House," "The Mystic Properties of Cats," "The Cat on a Post," "The Headless Cat," and "Some Ghost Cats" all describe incidents where O'Donnell's interviewees described encountering the spirit of a dead cat -- sometimes in very disturbing manners.
FELINE REVENGE: The most famous cat horror stories all seem to be of this nature: stories of cats fighting back at human abuse. It seems natural in cats to be viewed as rebels -- independent, spiteful, and assertive -- and the following stories all feature a wronged cat making their abusers regret taking liberties: E. Nesbit's "The Cathood of Maurice," Lovecraft's "Cats of Ulthar," Stoker's "The Squaw," Poe's "The Black Cat," and two folktales: "The Enchanted Cat of Bantry" (Ireland) and "Tailypo" (Appalachia).
CREEPY KITTIES: Like O'Donnell's veridical stories, these fictional tales depict feline ghosts, spirits taking feline form, or felines navigating other dimensions. Some are spirits, some utterly tangible, and some a combination of the two, but all act as messengers (usually bringing tidings of doom) of dark realms beyond human understanding. They include Le Fanu's "White Cat of Drumgunniol," Chambers' "The Street of the Four Winds," and "The Repairer of Reputations," M. R. James' "Stalls of Barchester Cathedral," Bierce's "Boarded Window," and excerpts from Lovecraft's "Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath."
TRANSFIGURING TOMS: These stories all tell of shapeshifting cats: were-cats if you will. These tales feature feline vampires, witches, warlocks, doomed women and cursed men who changed shape under particular circumstances. One of the shapeshifters is under a spell, one has it in her blood, and one uses it as a mode to harvest the blood of her victims. Included here are Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries," Bierces' "Eyes of the Panther," E. F. Benson's "The Cat," Barry Pain's "The Gray Cat," excerpts from Le Fanu's "Carmilla," and a Norwegian fairy tale called "Lord Peter."
IT'S REIGNING CATS:
Especially after the abused cats of Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft, I enjoyed closing this collection with a cluster of triumphant supernatural cats living the good life. These are folktales usually of a humorous or satirical nature that spoof cats' lordly nature, percieved wisdom, and unquestionably love of comfort. They include "Puss in Boots," Zola's "The Paradise of Cats," Saki's "Tobermory," Andrew Lang's "Colony of Cats," Washington Irving's "Sir Walter Scott's Cat," and -- the earliest memory I have of a Halloween story, and a great favorite of mine -- the British folktale, "The King of the Cats."
Cats’ role in supernatural fiction, horror, and folklore is likely due to their perceived liminality: they seem to be able to access an alternate plane of experience that is just outside of humans’ comfort zone. They jump at unseen things, smell unsmelled odors, ogle at invisible movements, perk up at distant sounds, slink knowingly when nothing special is going on, and have an uncanny instinct for sensing danger or change. They venture into the murky, liminal spaces of life – the spaces where we are afraid to go alone, too big to fit, too high to climb, and to dark to see. Can a more fitting metaphor for the afterlife – for magic, for the spiritual, for the unknown – possibly be concocted? Cats plumb the depths that we fear and emerge time and time again, staring at us with their huge, yellow, knowing eyes that have gazed from heights that we would spurn and into darknesses that would have been impenetrable to our eyes. Their personalities may be selfish, vain, and cynical, but they are also adventurous, brave, and noble. We own them, feed them, clean their waste, and all for what? For the chance to live with a soul that feels older than time, with a heart that is courageous, a mind that is quick, and a brain that is consumed with curiosity.