The Black Cat (II) – The Imp of the Peverse

Spoilers Ahoy!

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 madness insight.

The Black Cat (I) – The Tell Tale Heart

Spoiler Warning

I mentioned a while back a review I was working on that was kicking my butt. This is it. With any luck, it will be worth it. However, it is pushing over three thousand words, and I haven’t quite reached the end. So it goes up in parts. Hi ho!

Now for a little bit on the spoilers. While this review deals in the main with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat, I find myself unable to avoid talking about Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart as well. I do so in detail, so there are spoilers a plenty for both. While the works are better than a century old, but I’d hate to ruin a first reading.

In fact, one might want to reread both anyways before proceeding. I’ll cover the whole plot on this one, but I won’t object too much if we are all one the same page, more or less.

Are we all up to speed?

Great.

With that out of the way, shall we join the criminally insane?


Basic, Unvarnished Plot

The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat share a similar plot line. Stripped of telling details, the stories would look a little like this:

A nameless narrator, caught and condemned, tells his tale of woe. He feels that his actions need to be understood by someone. Though what he relates could be considered the ravings of a madman, he insist he is quite, quite sane.

He lives his life with a companion who does him no harm. This situation is more than adequate until, one day, something changes inside the narrator. Perverse thoughts rule his brain. The end result is that he murders his companion.

As he doesn’t want to be hanged, he moves to protect himself from discover. He hides the body within the house and takes every step to conceal his crime. His efforts are, to his mind, exceptionally clever. So clever, in fact, that when police come to investigate, he has no problem with letting them search to their hearts’ content.

He almost pulls it off. However a inopportune noise reveals his evildoings and he is taken away.

Not very interesting is it? And does dread deus ex machina lurk right there at the end? After all, the narrator doesn’t have any control over a noise, does he? How could any story be good if the outcome is decided by chance?

When the proper details are restored to the proper stories, these doubts are proven foolish. Poe doesn’t lower gods down from on high to resolve his story. He foreshadows the end of each with such skill that the outcomes are solely based on the actions of the characters and not the whim of the author.

Let’s take a quick look at The Tell Tale Heart first. The narrator1 brags about having hearing good enough to listen in on conversations in Heaven and Hell. A sign of madness, true, but it draws our attention to hearing. Poe does so again during the murder itself, with the narrator hears the beating of the old man’s heart. Both foreshadow the climax, where, driven frantic by the sounds he knows he he is hearing, that he knows the police can, too, hear, he reveals just where he has hidden the body.

Every event in the short story hinges on the actions and beliefs of the narrator. His trust in his superior senses leads him down the wrong path. Specifically, he confuses the pounding of his own heart for that of the old man’s. First during the murder itself, then while entertaining the visiting police. Even at the end he truly believes that he and the police themselves are hearing the still living heart of the old man, as the classic final paragraph attests to:

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! –here, here! –it is the beating of his hideous heart!” — The Tell Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe

It is an example of the unreliable narrator, telling more about himself and his deeds than he himself knows. It also show how a master storyteller can take something that could be contrived and turning it into one of the classics of Horror Literature.


The Facts in the Case of Mr. B

Now let’s turn to subject of this essay. Like most of Poe’s narrators, the protagonist in The Black Cat is nameless. However, between you and me, I’m tired of writing narrator over and over again. We’ll refer to him as Mr. B and save some wear on my keyboard, shall we?

As suggested, similarities exist on the surface between this tale and The Tell Tale Heart. Mr. B is an average man who finds himself doing horrible things. Unlike the previous story, his madness doesn’t stem from an onset of insanity; instead, his drinking of alcohol leads to his violent behavior. However, in every other way Mr. B could be an exact copy, down to his mistaken belief in his own cleverness. He, too, is an unreliable narrator, telling a story the reader shouldn’t quite take at face value.

Here is a brief synopsis of the story, discounting only the things Mr. B himself considers irrelevant:

Mr. B is a happily married man of some means. He and his wife, Mrs. B, have a large array of pets. Chief among these is a black cat named Pluto.

Things take a downward turn when Mr. B takes up drinking. His demeanor changes and he becomes abusive to all in his household, save Pluto. But in the end, even the cat faces his madness. After a minor exchange, Mr. B takes a pen knife and cuts out one of the cat’s eyes.

Late, he can’t believe he could do such a horrible, horrible thing. But by and by his madness once again focuses on poor Pluto. This time he takes his once loved pet out to the garden and hangs it from a tree.

That night a fire breaks out in his room. While he and his wife are able to escape, Mr. B loses everything else to the blaze. Despite this blow and a despair over the cruelty he has committed, he continues his debaucheries.

On one of his nightly runs, Mr. B encounters another black cat. This animal proves to be Pluto’s double, down to the missing eye. The only difference between the two is that this one has a splotch of white on his breast.

As the cat shows some affection towards him, Mr. B takes it to his new home. This proves to be a mistake, as the longer he is with the animal, the more he begins to dread it. It always follows him around, tripping him, clinging to him, rubbing against him. Worse, the splotch has taken on a more definite form, one of a gallows.

One day, as Mr. and Mrs. B go into the basement on a household errand, the cat nearly causes Mr. B to fall down the stairs. This is tears it as far as he’s concerned. He grabs an ax and chases the beast, determined to end it once and for all. Mrs. B tries to stop him and ends up taking the blow instead.

Frantic over this turn of events, Mr. B tries to think of a way of disposing of the body. In the end, he tears out a wall in the basement and hides her there. This completed, he turns back to finish the cat off once and for all.

Only there’s no sign of the animal anywhere.

Mr. B breathes easy for the first time in forever. Over the next three days he weathers inquires after Mrs. B disappearance, even a search. Nothing is found. The cat is gone. He is free.

Then, on the fourth day, the police come again. They drag Mr. B everywhere they look, especially the basement. He doesn’t bat an eye. He’s hidden his crime so well that no one will ever know.

In the end, the police give in. They start to leave the basement, and, in a moment of perverse bravado, Mr. B brags about how finely constructed the walls in the house are. In demonstration, he taps the very wall his wife now resides in.

A muffled howl comes as a reply. The police tear down the wall and find the body of Mrs. B. On her head, mouth caked in blood, is the black cat.

As both The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat came out within the same year as one another, a churlish soul could say that Poe had gone to the same well twice. Whatever paid the bills, don’t you know. Kinder put, maybe the man has a bit of a groove in his record, replaying the same thing over and over again.

But that would be wrong. While the plot is similar, The Black Cat is, in the end, cut from a different cloth. While Mr. B is mad, the story isn’t about just a madman. It is also one of the best ghost stories there is.


This ends the first part of our review. The second should come up no later than tomorrow, though, as always, I remind you that I work by whim around these parts and it might be pushed back a ways.


1 The Wikipedia entry on The Tell-Tale Heart points out that the gender of the narrator is never revealed. The idea that the narrator could be a woman never occurred to me. It more than likely never occurred to Poe, either, but that really isn’t the point, is it? We bring our own baggage to what we we or read.

A woman could do this horrible act, after all. After all, history has given us such delightful people as, say Liz Borden (assuming her guilt, of course) and Elizabeth Báthory (whose guilt needs not be assumed.) The mind need not stretch that far.

Don’t let my use of the pronoun “he” in this essay keep you from thinking about that the next time you read the story.

Brief “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” Review

Dear sweet God. I got my hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows at around 3:30 PM yesterday. I finished at around 7:11 PM the same day. Bear in mind that I took time out to eat and so some shopping.

That’s… a bit fast.

Anyway, brief Harry Potter review: “Satisfying.”

What? It’s long than the review of the last one

“Lisey’s Story” – A Review

Click here for further information on the novel.

What a bizarre way to burn out on a writer.

Here’s the review: this is a good book. It has some excellent characterizations, the concept of Boo’ya Moon is interesting and the plot is very good, although I think King forces and issue here and there. I found the use of present tense for the flashbacks to be irritating, but that’s a Cullen beef and can be discarded.

If you’ve never read a Stephen King novel, I think that you could pick up and have yourself a gripping read.

However, if you have read a Stephen King novel, specifically Rose Madder, then you might not have as much fun with it.

In fact, you might be like me and cruise through the last two hundred plus pages knowing exactly where King was heading and utterly unsurprised by anything he throws out. In fact, this is the first King novel to actively bore me since…

Well, since Rose Madder actually. For all the brutal murders and supernatural incidents, that particular never clicked for me. One of the few duds King’s produced, I would say.

Only that’s not exactly true. The past few King novels haven’t been King at his best. This is just me, but I think he needs to take a break from the horror. With the possible exception of Cell (which has it’s own problems), he’s seemed a bit off. I think he should either stick with short stories (where he has to focus more) or dabble in other fields. Another fantasy, say, or a straight out thriller.

Like I have any business even considering what King should be doing. But, for what it’s worth…

In the end, I think Lisey’s Story was a novel that had potential. I think that, if you haven’t read a lot of King, you might well be in for a gripping read. If you have a choice between reading this and Rose Madder, read this one.

Otherwise, proceed at your own risk. For myself, I saw two plots mashed together that would have been great on their own. I saw an overall story I knew the end to well before the author decided to reach it. And I’ve about had enough with reading King for a while.

Fortunately, I hear Richard Bachman’s got a book coming out next year. Man, that guy’s good.

“Velocity” – A Review

One morning after work, Billy Wiles finds a note on his windshield giving him a choice. Take the note to the police and an elderly woman dies. Don’t take the note to the police and a blond schoolteacher dies. It could have been a malign prank… but in truth it’s the start of deadly game of cat and mouse.

Picking up Velocity broke two vows at once. The first was, as long time readers know, not to read another Dean Koontz novel. The second isn’t as well known. See, I have a thing against serial killer thrillers. Don’t like them. Their horrors are a bit too real for me and I don’t enjoy them the way I do stories about Elder Horrors and Foul Monstrosities.

However, I was in the Half-Price Book Store, the book was priced at a buck, and there was a 20% off sale.

How could I go wrong?

In many, many ways, as a viewer and owner of such delightful “films” as Cathy’s Curse and Pieces can testify. I have caused myself such pain. Oh such pain.

In this case, I got lucky. Velocity was so good, I regretted not paying full price once I was finished.

Let’s get the carping out of the way first. There’s something about Koontz style that bugs me. I can’t quantify it in the slightest, but it on occasion bumps into me as I read. Not enough to put me out of the story. Just enough to know it happened.

Secondly, at three (brief) points I was a step ahead of the protagonist, Billy Wiles. The last one was because I was a reader and he was living the story, and so can be discarded. But the other two were a bit frustrating. You want to believe that the protagonist is at least as smart as you.

Finally, there was an element of the story I found a bit too convenient. It’s not like Wiles pulls a Star Wars Laser Satellite System out of his back pocket, but it does bother me. Still, its presence leads to one of the novel’s best scenes.

These carps are, of course, Cullen Carps; anyone else reading the novel might not even have these kinds of problem.

In its favor, Velocity races along as its name suggests. Outside the moments I mentioned above, Wiles proves resourceful and clever, while his foe defines nasty. The situation is brutal. I would like to go into further details, but I enjoyed this book so much that I’m loathe to spoil it. If I was to rewrite my Fantastic Author, I’d put this one on the list at the end.

“Afterwards” – a Review

I’m writing this more as a memo to myself than any other reason. We will get to why in just a bit. First, a word on our subject.

Afterwards is a short story written by Edith Wharton that deals with a house that is so subtly haunted that even if you see a ghost, “[y]ou won’t know till long, long afterward.” Its owners, Ned and Mary Boyne, are initially put out by this. You see, they would have preferred a more active ghost. Unfortunately for them, however, the spirit interfering in their lives is just active enough.

Which is all you’ll get out of me on the subject. Good or bad, a ghost story must tell itself, after all.

Now for why this is a memo. I saw this story on television once. Twenty four years ago, in fact. I didn’t need to reread the story, as I remember the plot vividly. Especially Mary Boyne’s final words. All I couldn’t remember was the title and the author.

Two decades and change I searched. Countless anthologies I read, hoping in vain to stumble across it. I became well versed in ghost stories, but none the wiser to my goal.

On learning of the research powers of the Internet, I pursued the tale by other means. I remembered it was on Mystery! Surely I’d find it there.

Well, they give all the titles, but not any synopsis before 1998. Not very helpful in my quest. But in the end I triumphed. Found the name, reread the story, and promptly forgot name and author.

Ugh.

So, after yet another search, I’ve found it again. Thus this review.

Was it worth all this hassle? Was it worth twentysome years of hunting?

Oh yeah. Afterwards is classic. You can judge for yourself, as the story is on-line. You can go here, where it is a part of a whole collection of Wharton’s ghost stories. Or you can go to Wikisource and read it there. That copy, sadly, gets a bit hard to read in places.

And I thought this blog needed an editor… That one makes me look pro in places.