The Black Cat (III) – Spirits of the Dead

Spoiler Warning

Longtime readers know that I do this things by whim here. No outline, no notes, just me rattling off things from the top of my head. Sometimes this means that essays do not get finished.

Other times it means that they run longer than intended.

I swear, I thought this one would be the last installment.

Once more, I remind the reader that there be spoilers ahead.


The Tisiphone of the Feline Set

One more tangent. In Roman and Greek myth, there was a set of Gods that even the Olympians themselves could not stop. That would be the Erinyes, the Furies.1

The Furies were the righters of dire wrongs, and they were never kind about it (despite their other name, Eumenides). They hounded their prey into the ground. None could escape them. Even in Tartarus they brought their judgment, over and over again.

Which dire wrongs offended them the most? Murders that offended the “natural” order.

Perverse acts.

As was said before, naming the black cat Pluto works towards Poe’s advantage. It suggests the myths in general. Fury or not, the Gods always avenged crimes against themselves. The problem comes in what is a “fair” punishment for the offending, living mortals.

So what does all of this no doubt fascinating blathering have to do with ghosts? Again, consider Ghost Stories. More often than not, the ghost is there to right a wrong. To punish a transgressor. They have become the Furies of modern fiction, doling out judgment as they seem fit. Harsh, sometimes cruel, almost always implacable.


Errors in Judgment

That Mr. B would seek out a replacement cat is about as surprising as him hitting his “vile taverns” again. He speaks of regret with a conviction, and, of course it’s this regret that damns him almost as much as his own acts. His remorse let’s a Fury into his home.

Let’s recall this fateful moment:

One night as I sat, half stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin, or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat—a very large one—fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite, splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.

Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it—knew nothing of it—had never seen it before.

I continued my caresses, and when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with my wife.

These three paragraphs have several interesting points of note.

First, the description of the cat comes close to shattering the theory that this is a Ghost Story. But, again, this is Poe giving a rational possibility for what is coming. Besides, not all ghost simply avenge their own deaths. Some linger even after their “last task” is completed.

Also, Ghost Stories aren’t always about proper ghosts. (Which is no doubt a discussion for a later date.)

Next, take a gander at that middle paragraph of Poe’s and consider the following things:

  • Adding the word “appeared” to “appeared delighted” shifts the meaning somewhat, suggesting that the cat wasn’t pleased at all during this encounter. Purring is a form of communication, but not always denoting happiness.

  • It’s very interesting that a landlord of a “den of more than infamy” is honorable enough to not take free money. Shouldn’t it be more likely that he would claim the cat, even if it wasn’t his? Maybe that’s nothing.

  • What isn’t nothing is that Poe repeats himself in the paragraphs last line. He underscores that the cat hadn’t been there until Mr. B wanted to find one.

Finally, we must note that the new cat is loved by Mrs. B on sight. Obviously someone else had been missing the lost Pluto. Which, as we shall see, is a longing most tragic


Discontent

It doesn’t take long for Mr. B to regret his actions. The companionship he so longed for soured at dawn. Now that the beer goggles are off, he sees his acquisitions differently. Amusingly (or perhaps disturbingly) he failed to notice before that the cat, too, was missing an eye. Of all the things to miss, too. Very odd, that.

His growing fear and loathing of the cat is, again, laid out to a natural cause. He feels guilt about what he has done to Pluto. Transferring that emotion to the new arrival, while unjust, is understandable. It is a reasonable explanation.

The cat, being a cat, won’t leave him alone. Rubbing against him, hopping up on him, all sorts of attention seeking. One of the animal’s quirks is that it seems drawn to the ones that like it least. As if it knows of this dislike and wishes to change it, by force if need be.

But is that all it is? Most cats learn not to walk in front of people, or, rather, will do so seldom rather than every time a person walks across the room. It’s almost as if it wants Mr. B to stumble, to fall.

Be it natural cat behavior or the act of a vengeful spirit, the results are the same. Mr. B begins to lose it. His fear and hatred for the creature grows, but, unable to strike it out of remorse for Pluto, he has no direct outlet for his rage. He begins to take it out on his wife, who, being a woman of a by-gone age, takes it without complaint.

He even starts seeing things. That white blotch on the cat’s chest takes a shape. That of a gallows. He points out that it is th ultimate fate of the criminal, but it is also, indirectly, a reminder of what he had done. More guilt, more hatred, more self loathing.

But, more importantly, a feeling of dread. Of something being wrong with the creature. Of it being “evil”. Mr. B will dismiss this notion, but it is one that he can find no other name for.

As it turns out, he has every reason to dread.


Next comes the fourth and final part. For real. No fooling. It’s almost over.


1 As far as I know, the Furies were stopped only once, and by no less a personage than Athena herself. All though it wasn’t quite as simple as all that. But, then again, with the Olympians it was rarely simple.

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