Thursday, September 5, 2013


I am ambivalent about cats, though I own two tortoise shell mini-lionesses.  They were originally for the children, who tired of them in about a month, and now they are much older and much less cute—like me.  Too late I discovered that indoor cats can live fourteen years.  They are harmless, but also useless.  I appreciate their quiet, occasional affection, but have noticed they are friendliest when bored, hungry or cold.  In the winter we are great friends; in summer, not so much.  Did I mention I am also allergic to cats?

Why can’t ‘Rhea’ and ‘Isabel’ be more like Jones?  He was the only other survivor besides Ripley on board the doomed mining ship Nostromo in Alien, (1979).  Remember that scene where crewmember Brett hunts for ‘Jonesy’—alone—in the slimy basement of the ship?  Jones is found, but so is something much larger and more voracious. The Darwinian struggle to survive strongly favored the plucky cat at that moment of the film.  
A long time ago, before the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there lived in Ulthar, beyond the river Skai, an old couple whose principle entertainment was trapping and killing their neighbor’s cats.  This is the opening of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Cats of Ulthar, (1920) which strongly shows the influence of Lord Dunsany.  From Dunsany’s early story collections Lovecraft borrowed the fable format and the vaguely Semitic place names for this fantasy about cruelty and retribution.

Perhaps the story is simply an homage to Dunsany’s style.  Lovecraft copied the form, but his story does not contain the big ideas or the epic tone of the latter’s work.  Lovecraft’s characters do not stand for any grand philosophical notions.  With names like “Nith, the lean notary”, “Old Kranon the burgomaster”, and “Atal the innkeeper’s son”, they just do not have the same weight as Dunsany’s characters.   (By the way, is this ‘Atal’ the younger version of Barzai’s disciple in Lovecraft’s The Other Gods?) 

The Cats of Ulthar reminds me of another Lovecraftian fable he published the year before, the darker and more authentic Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme. 

It is difficult to find a Lovcraft story that does not have the author himself as a character in it.  The turning point in the story is when “a caravan of strange wanderers” arrives, among them a young boy named Menes, (“he who endures”, also the name of the pharaoh who united the upper and lower kingdoms of ancient Egypt.)  Menes’ parents both died in a plague, (Lovecraft’s father and possibly his mother died of complications of syphilis), and the young boy has been given a little black kitten to comfort him.  Lovecraft also had a black cat, who actually appears in some of his stories.  He affectionately called this cat [“politically incorrect appellation”].   

Menes—“he who endures” is almost certainly a fictional avatar of Lovecraft.

Soon the little boy’s kitten goes missing, and the townspeople of Ulthar suspect the worst.  When Menes hears from some villagers about the two old cat killers, “his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer”.  The boy’s prayer is quite effective and suffice it to say that the townspeople were able to save on cat food that week.  The story ends like a fable: this is why “in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.” 

Jones, the cat who escaped from the ‘Alien’ back in 1979, would certainly approve of the moral of this story.  As for my two cats, they are asleep on the couch, looking terribly well fed.

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