Here we have the next part in our rather lengthy review. I remind you all that I plan on going into some depth while talking about this story, so it is a complete spoiler. You really should have read it by now.
Also let me add another set of disclaimers. Readers and reviewers bring their own baggage whenever they consider a tale. I myself tend to lean towards Supernatural explanations when they come up in Fiction. I’m not quite sure why this is, but it is.
On this, I don’t know what Poe’s intent was with this story. I’ve read the Wikipedia article while writing this piece1, and my interest in the man’s work has lead me to read a wild variety of essays on his work. As far as I can see at this writing, he didn’t really discuss the meaning of this story. However, the man was not adverse to dealing with ghostly things, so if this sort of speculation is true, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
All set? Then let’s rejoin the departed and the demented.
A Brief Look At Ghost Stories
A moment’s examination of Ghost Stories might be in order before delving deeper into The Black Cat. More than any other Horror story, this particular sub-genre lends itself to mystery. Examples include why is this place haunted? Why does the ghost remain threatening the living? How can the protagonist end the ghost’s torment or the ghost’s tormenting? While all fiction is a series of questions and answers, it is often the very point of the Ghost Story.
In studying the subject, we find one question asked more than any other: Is what’s going on a haunting at all, or all in the protagonist’s head? Writers from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to Henry James strive to plant doubt, making the readers decide for themselves the story’s veracity. Even A Christmas Carol, which seems straightforward enough, could very well be just a dream of Scrooge’s.
Is it necessary to do this in order to have a good Ghost Story? Of course not. Done right, though, it gives a realistic air to the proceedings. Some readers need a “back door” in order to enjoy a tale of the Fantastic, and this planted doubt grows such pleasurable fruit for them.
The best way about this task is to use, you guessed it, an unreliable narrator. Again, Poe used this technique on several occasions. It might serve to point out his “return from the dead” story Ligeia has all the seeming of a druggie that was dreaming.
If you can excuse my playfulness for just a moment.
The Imp of the Perverse
On the surface, Mr. B is the most unreliable of narrators. He is a delusional drunk, after all. Who could trust what he says?
If he raved about ghosts, we could dismiss the possibility out of hand. He doesn’t, at least not at first. Instead, he rejects the idea that a unnatural force that plagued him. A rational explanation he insist. He goes to great length to explain things away. But with each reason grows the certainty that some OTHER did exist.
And Poe makes sure that presence is known, as early as the fourth paragraph:
In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point—and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.
Remember Chekhov’s Gun? While Mr. B thinks it is but happenstance he mentions it, it is really a nudge by his creator so that we, his ultimate judges, might see the truth of things. Poe seldom allows unimportant details muddle his quest for effect. As an example, note how most of the characters remain nameless. Who they are aren’t as important to the story as what they do.
We should bear in mind, too, that unlike The Tell Tale Heart, there is one character named. Here, too, Poe works towards his goal. Unsurprisingly, it is the title character who is graced with name, one straight from myth: Pluto. Roman God of the Underworld and, by extension, of Death.
Not exactly subtle, is it?
The first overt sign that things might not be as they seem come after the killing of Pluto. We’ll get to it presently, but before we do, let’s witness the deed:
But this [regret] soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of Perverseness. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree—hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart—hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence—hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the cry of “Fire!” The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
Cause and effect. Mr. B knows what he is doing is beyond normal cruelty, knows that it is putting himself in the most dire of jeopardy, and yet he does it anyway. Almost at once he is punished for it, as he will be for the rest of the story. And by a force terrible and not in the slightest merciful.
Also note the length he goes to in explaining this act. We’ll be discussing this later, for it is significant.
Right now, consider the fire. A natural explanation might well exist. A lamp could have been kicked over, for instance. That one is never given is most interesting. Especially in light of the lengths Mr. B sometime goes through to come up with a rational answer to things.
Prime example of this behavior is his reaction to the image of the hanging cat found after the fire claimed his house:
The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd—by some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.
Because, of course, the first thing I think of when wanting to alert someone to danger is hurling carcasses around. I don’t want a rock or a bullhorn. Just a dead cat and a string to hurl it with.
Maybe it’s a 19th century thing.
Here we take one last pause before the final decent. With luck, part three will be coming tomorrow. However, heh heh, we have just reached where I had stopped last time. And, in reworking some of the sentences, I haven’t quite moved forward.
Will Cullen finish yet another series? Or will he add another failure on top of the growing list?
Can you stay sane in the face of this suspense?
1 But not, I hasten to add, before I came up with this essay. It’s nice to find someone else out there shares my