top of page
08_john_atkinson_grimshaw_edited (1).jpg

The

CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

S U B S C R I B E:

Our sincerest thanks for your subscription.

We will be haunting your inbox soon...

H. P. Lovecraft's The Cats of Ulthar: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Lovecraft was a famous admirer of cats. In his essay “Cats and Dogs,” he explains his predilection in the following terms:

“Between dogs and cats my degree of choice is so great that it would never occur to me to compare the two. I have no active dislike for dogs … but for the cat I have entertained a particular respect and affection ever since the earliest days of my infancy. In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered; and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown.
"The dog appeals to cheap and facile emotions; the cat to the deepest founts of imagination and cosmic perception in the human mind. It is no accident that the contemplative Egyptians, together with such later poetic spirits as Poe, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Swinburne, were all sincere worshippers of the supple grimalkin…
“A dog is a pitiful thing, depending wholly on companionship, and utterly lost except in packs or by the side of his master. Leave him alone and he does not know what to do except bark and howl and trot about till sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep. A cat, however, is never without the potentialities of contentment. Like a superior man, he knows how to be alone and happy. Once he looks about and finds no one to amuse him, he settles down to the task of amusing himself; and no one really knows cats without having occasionally peeked stealthily at some lively and well-balanced kitten which believes itself to be alone.”

II.

Cats famously feature in “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (where they shuttle between the earth and moon during their naps, are organized into militaristic battalions, and bravely defend Randolph Carter from an ambush of treacherous Zoogs), but their most noteworthy appearance in the Mythos takes place in the following story. It is inspired by the laws of Ancient Egypt, which famously deified and protected cats from abuse. While cats were not considered gods themselves, they were believed to be the vessels of gods – forms which they might chose to inhabit for a time, and animals whose characteristics reflected the gods’ solitary, watchful nature.


Added to this was the fact that cats hunted plague-carrying, pantry-raiding rodents, and their obvious relationship to big cats (themselves seen as symbols of divinity and royalty), and the Egyptian people easily adopted a warm relationship with these seemingly divine emissaries. By at least 60 BC it was a capital crime to kill a cat – even by mistake. The belief was so firmly held, that people accused of cat-slaughter were often lynched by furious mobs before they could even be arrested and allowed a fair trial: the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus related that:


 “if one kills [a cat or an ibis], whether intentionally or unintentionally, he is certainly put to death, for the common people gather in crowds and deal with the perpetrator most cruelly, sometimes doing this without waiting for a trial.”

He goes on to describe how one Roman citizen was slaughtered like this by a crowd who “rushed to his house” and were not dissuaded from lynching him by either “the officials sent by the pharaoh … nor the fear of Rome … even though his act had been an accident.” In Lovecraft’s Mythos, however, cats don’t bother to wait for human intervention to avenge themselves...

 

SUMMARY

 


“It is said,” the story begins, “that in Ulthar … no man may kill a cat… For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which can cannot see.”


The narrator notes that this, however, was not always the case. Many years before an elderly couple lived in a lonely cottage in Ulthar – a sadistic couple who “delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors.” It isn’t clear what motivated them to do this (though, perhaps, they hated the sound of cats calling to one another in the night), but in any case, they loved nothing better than to torture cats to death, and the screams of the animals were so long-lasting and painful that it was imagined that the secret methods by which they killed the pets must be “exceedingly peculiar.”

 

No one did anything to stop them because the people were all afraid of them and intimidated by the sinister setting of their house, which was situated far from the road under dark trees.

 

One day a caravan of gypsies stopped in Ulthar to tell fortunes and sell their wares from their colorful wagons decorated with strange, animal-headed gods. Among them was a small orphan boy named Menes whose only joy in life was his pet kitten. He loved playing with the little creature, but was distressed when – on the third day of their stay – it failed to appear in the morning. The locals tried to comfort him, but eventually explained that it had almost certainly fallen into the hands of the cotter and his wife.

 

At first Menes sobbed at his loss, then he meditated, then he began to pray fervently, and as he prayed the villagers were frightened to watch the clouds overhead forming themselves into “shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs” (although the narrator explains it away saying, “nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.” Before nightfall, the gypsies leave town never to be seen again.

 

That night, the villagers notice that all of the local cats (who are usually studiously locked up) have disappeared, and rumors spread that the gypsies have spirited them away out of revenge for Menes’ cat. One boy, however, Atal the innkeeper’s son, reports having seen the cats of Ulthar streaming towards the old cotter’s house at twilight where they eventually formed themselves into a double file and began marching around the cottage menacingly. Now the rumor spread that the old couple had mesmerized the animals, drawing them to their deaths. No one confronted them, however, preferring to wait to “chide the old cotter until they met him outside his dark and repellent yard.”

 

Morning brought new surprises, however: the cats were all back at home, safe and sound, happy and well-fed – “very sleek and fat … and sonorous with purring.” In fact, they refused their food and milk for two whole days while they slept in the drowsy contentment of an apparent food coma. A week later, the first villagers began to notice that the cotter’s few lights were no longer being lit, and that they hadn’t been seen since the night the gypsies left.

 

After a second week, a delegation of the town’s aldermen were dispatched to check on the couple and found “two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen flood, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.”

 

After weighing the evidence, calling forth witnesses, and connecting the dots between the disappearance of Menes’ kitten, his passionate prayer to the shifting sky, the strange behavior of the cats, and the deaths of the cotter and his wife, it was decided that something marvellous and fearful had taken place here.

 

“And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travellers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.”

  

ANALYSIS

 


Tales of vengeful cats are far older than Lovecraft. Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw” – the likeliest model for Lovecraft’s effort – concerns the relentless hatred of a mother cat for the vulgar American tourist who accidentally, if recklessly, killed her kitten with a stone while he is exploring Nuremburg. The feline stalks him to the museum of torture where she watches him bribe the guide to try out an iron maiden (the man is also a sexual masochist), and while he is bound inside the spiked cabinet, the cat blinds the guide with her claws, causing him to release the open lid, impaling the horrified Yankee through the eyes.


In the most famous story of feline revenge, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” an abusive drunk kills his pet cat during a bender and is shortly after hounded by its doppelganger – an exact model of the dead feline, save that it has a white blaze on its chest in the shape of a noose. Ultimately, he descends into psychosis, kills his wife (his intended victim all along), bricks her corpse up in the basement, and almost escapes suspicion until a party of policemen hear a cat yowling from the cellar: he has accidentally walled up the doppelganger cat along with the corpse.


Other notable entries in this trope include the cat-like goblin in the American folktale “Tailypo,” Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries,” Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” E. Nesbit’s “The Cathood of Maurice,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Eyes of the Panther,” E. F. Benson’s “The Cat,” and M. R. James’ “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.”


II.

It is in fact James, however, whom I suspect of having the least recognized influence on this story. It has the very recognizable formula of a classic Jamesian revenge story: a cruel nonconformist spurns the society and morals of their community, ruthlessly violate a local principle (usually mercy, humility, or reverence) – all with an air of superiority and a belief in their exceptionality – and find themselves called upon by supernatural agents sent to collect the toll for their sacrilege. Often the story involves familiars or emissaries sent to do the bidding of some greater master, and usually it ends with the community shocked to discover some ghoulish revelation the following morning.


Examples of this are found in “The Ash Tree” (an executed witch sends her monstrous spider familiars to kill her accuser and his heirs), “Count Magnus” (a tentacled demon hunts down the inquisitive tourist who became obsessed with its master, an undead warlock), “A View from a Hill” (an alchemist is hunted down and murdered by the ghosts of the hanged men whose bones he boiled for an experiment), and “Lost Hearts” (a necromancer is torn to pieces by the ghosts of a little boy and girl whom he had earlier sacrificed in an immortality ritual), among many others. Lovecraft enjoyed James’ stories and rated him among the top five best living supernatural writers. Like most of James’ fiction, this tale of Lovecraft’s involves the horrible fallout of supernatural justice – a relentless, merciless tidal wave of physical and spiritual torment which its victims are hopeless of escaping.


III.

This foray into this sort of Old Testament-style cautionary tale[1] was unusual for Lovecraft, and would probably only be repeated in four or five other tales (“The Terrible Old Man,” “In the Vault,” and “Sarnath” being the most notable ones). As Kenneth Hite puts it:


“Most sufferers in Lovecraft after 1925 (as well as a goodly number before that date, of course) commit only the sin of Faust, that of seeking knowledge beyond their power, and such Faustian dreams often have a sort of doomed nobility to them.”

The savage cotters in Ulthar have no such nobility, and thus none of our pity. I have often wondered – especially due to the unusual presence of a female character (why not just a cruel man when females usually have no place in Lovecraft stories, and evil bachelors are a staple villain of his?) – if Lovecraft was inspired by a real event, some unrecorded trauma from his childhood. There is no commentary on this and certainly no extent record of a childhood pet being killed at the hands of unsavory neighbors, but one thing cannot be denied about this story: the hate for the villains is visceral and their demise is one of the most satisfyingly cathartic of any in Lovecraft’s corpus – especially when read by a cat person.



[1] An elegant but brutal subgenre typified by James, his idol, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and his own acolytes, H. R. Wakefield and E. F. Benson



 



Comments


bottom of page