On “The Cats of Ulthar” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

The Mystery and Horror that is Cat.

“The Cats of Ulthar” (full text) is believed to have been written in June 1920 and first appeared in the November 1920 issue of The Tryout, an amateur press journal edited by Charles W. Smith, who also published a number of other early works by Lovecraft including poems and works of non-fiction.

Upon sitting down to write this piece, my first instinct was to claim that Cats is one of Lovecraft’s better known early works but, looking back over the previous instalments of this series, I realise that I have already claimed that about a number of different stories and maybe it’s time to just admit that even aside from the tent-pole horror stories that rendered him immortal, Lovecraft wrote a load of pretty well-known stories. I guess being a canonical author will do that for your back catalogue.

A better approach would be to say that Cats is a story that is well known even to people who are not ride-or-die Lovecraftians or Weird Tale junkies. The reason for this is that this is not only a story about cats, it is also a story that absolutely nails how certain kinds of people relate to the inner lives of their pets, but I’ll circle back around to this point in a little bit.

The story is set in a fairly non-descript place that could be situated anywhere between Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. If pressed, I would say that the story most likely takes place in North Africa but I think that this impression is chiefly down to the fact that Lovecraft makes a number of passing references to Egyptian deities.

Anyway… this rather down at heel town is notable for being home to a couple who absolutely hate cats for reasons that are never made clear. In fact, they hate cats so very much that they spend their time trapping and killing them. The locals all seem to be aware of the couple and their antics, but rather than sending the law to investigate or confronting them, they choose to mind their own business and allow the crazies to keep preying on their pets.

This continues until a group of travellers blow into town. Though not explicitly described as being Romani, these travellers live in caravans, have their own culture, and are sufficiently Other that the locals view them with a combination of fear and loathing. One of the travellers is a young boy who, having lost both of his parents to the plague, focuses all of his love on a small black kitten who happens to disappear while the travellers are passing through Ulthar. Utterly distraught, the boy cries in the marketplace until some of the locals take pity on him and decide to point him in the direction of the creepy old couple, at which point the young boy starts to pray:

“He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming. It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked discs. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.”

At this point, all of the cats in town disappear. The townspeople immediately leap to the conclusion that the travellers had placed a curse on the town and killed all of the cats in retribution for the disappearance of the boy’s kitten but a local official suggests that they look closer to home and to the psychos who spend all of their time murdering cats.

With the locals still unwilling to confront the couple, a small boy takes it upon himself to investigate their home and claims to see all of the town’s cats circling the couple’s hut. When the cats all mysteriously return home and turn their noses up at food, the locals decide to investigate the couple’s home and find two skeletons, their bones picked completely clean. Realising what cats can achieve and feeling somewhat worried about their track record of refusing to confront cat-murderers, the people of Ulthar pass a law forbidding the killing of cats.

Cats is a very calm and controlled story in that, much like “The Tree”, it deals in melodramatic events but chooses to keep most of those events at arm’s length: We never see the attack on the couple, we never see the interaction between the cats and the magic, and we never really learn why it is that the townspeople refuse to confront the weirdos who keep murdering their pets. Much like “The Tree” this is a story that works primarily by implication but that distance from the subject actually serves to make it stronger.

Scholars and Lovecraft nerds all seem to agree that Cats is another one of those stories in which Lovecraft is attempting to channel Lord Dunsany. While I think that the weirdness of the core concept along with the vaguely middle-eastern setting and the somewhat ponderous language all point in that direction, I also think that Cats marks a real departure from earlier stories in the Dream-cycle such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “The White Ship”:

Firstly, while both of those stories are written in a similar languid, opium-tinted register, the setting for Cats is considerably more restrained and mundane. This is not a distant land beset by strange beings and ancient prophecy, it is a place with oak trees and bureaucrats where the locals scoff at the idea that mysterious travellers might be able to cast spells. Transport the events of this story to any of the places described in the earlier Dream-cycle stories and the events described would most likely seem mundane to the local residents. The dramatic power of this story comes from the assumption that it is taking place in a land where cats don’t suddenly start working together to get revenge.

Secondly, earlier Dream-cycle stories operate according to logic of dreams and as such are filled with the kinds of signs and portents that give dreams both their mystery and their sense of meaning. Think of the portentous names for the towns in “The White Ship” and you’ll grasp what I mean. One of the reasons why I dislike these stories is that Lovecraft’s decision to write about Big Meaningful Symbolic Things takes him away from his lived experience. Read a story like “The White Ship” or “The Green Meadow” and you’ll find Lovecraft wrangling abstractions rather than channelling his own feelings. “Polaris” is a notable exception to this rule as while that story is portentous and dream-like, it also channels Lovecraft’s racism. Cats is an interesting work as while it is not a story about Big Meaningful Symbolic Things, neither is it a story that works by tapping into the great well-spring of negative emotions that made Lovecraft such a complete and utter basket-case. This is a story with a very clear and very real emotional core… it just happens that the core of this story is how much Lovecraft loves cats.

The tone is set in the opening section where Lovecraft offers us a lovely little riff on the mystery of cats:

“For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.”

As someone who only came to owning cats as an adult, I would say that one of the primary differences between owning a cat and owning a dog is that dogs exist entirely in the human world. Dogs are pack animals and, when forced to live away from other dogs, they instinctively situate themselves in a social hierarchy that includes their human companions. We train dogs to provide them with structures that will allow them to exist in human worlds. Dogs need to know when to sit, when to speak, when to sleep, when to shit and when to eat. Dogs that are not provided with these boundaries will struggle to exist in human worlds and wind up living impoverished lives as a result of it.

Cats are different from dogs in that they have little to no interest in the human world. Obviously, certain allowances and concessions are required for the two species to co-exist but that co-existence requires both species to retain their independence. This is why people often compare cats to flat-mates: You share space, you interact, but at the end of the day you both live your own lives.

One of the side-effects of the way that humans relate to cats is that cats retain their mystery in a way that dogs do not. Humans genuinely have no idea what cats get up to when they go outside and so the emotional lives of cats remain largely closed off to us. This fact is driven home by the fact that whenever you go to a zoo and see an enormous man-eating lion, the lion will be doing exactly the same stuff that your pet cat does at home: It sleeps, it eats, it prowls, it rubs its face on things, it likes to sit in boxes. If you look at a wolf, you know it is a qualitatively different kind of creature to the thing you have at home. If you look at a leopard, you know that you have one just like that at home and the only reason the little fucker hasn’t killed and eaten you is that it’s small enough that it realises that it probably couldn’t take you in a fight.

All of the above will read like completely deranged projection to anyone who does not happen to own a cat but therein lies the joy of this story: People who own cats have a particular vision of the creatures that inhabit their homes and part of that understanding includes a recognition that cats are these murderous sadistic psychos who share our homes and demand cuddles but will always remain profoundly alien.

Lovecraft understood all of this, it was a part of his mind-world and the authenticity of those emotions is what gives the story wings. The more I read of Lovecraft, the more I value the stories in which he steps past the stuff he thinks he should be writing about makes a real emotional connection with the subject matter. The further I progress through the Dream-cycle, the more I feel that a lot of these stories just reek of inauthenticity in a way that is absolutely not the case with juvenile works like “The Alchemist” and “The Tomb”.

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