You like Lovecraft and you like cats? – Then this post might be of interest to you. It will provide some insight into the so far underestimated fantasy story “Cats of Ulthar” from Howard Phillip Lovecraft. With his horror stories about the Cthulhu Myth the 1920 author became posthumous famous. Cats became iconic too; yet nearly no one bothers to look at Lovecraft’s cat stories. In order to change that, the following post will sum up the plot of Lovecraft’s “The Cats of Ulthar” for you and will provide you an insight into his thoughts on cats in general.
The “The Cats of Ulthar”, as the title says, takes place in a small and ancient village named Ulthar. Among the villagers one old couple has a reputation to sadistically torture and kill any cat that happens to pass through their farmyard at night. One day, the little village is visited by an unfamiliar caravan whose carriages are painted with animal heads and who seemed to be praying to strange gods. One of their members is a little orphan boy named Menes whose only delight is a small black kitten after the plague had blemished him badly. Menes’ kitten disappears and seeing him crying, the villagers tell him about the old couple. He calms down and by looking up to the sky mumbles a prayer which turns the clouds into “….nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked disks”.
At the very night the caravan leaves the village, never to return. At the same time, all cats seem to disappear and the locals start to suspects the old couple or the caravan. The cats reappear the next day “….[v]ery sleek and fat […] with purring content”; while the old couple seems to be missing. The innkeepers son, Atal, reports that he had “…at twilight seen all the cats of Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage”. After a week the mayor forces the door of the cottage open, only to find “…cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor.” After this incident a law was made that no man may kill a cat in Ulthar. “…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 Meroe 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.”
Lovecraft wrote „The Cats of Ulthar” in 1920. In the same year the story was first published by the literature journal Tryout. The story is part of the so called Dream Circle, the middle period of his writing between 1920 and 1927. Compared to the stories of his later Chtulhu Myth Circle, the Dream Circle stories do not share a prime motive. Nonetheless share stories of the Dream Circle elements, like places and names, which link them to each other. The city of Ulthar for example is also mentioned in the „The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath“ from 1926. This story follows Randolph Carter form Boston, who in a dream searches for the unknown place Kadath, where ancient gods are believed to live. He gets told that the residence of Ulthar had seen the gods; which refers to Menes invocation in the “The Cats of Ulthar”, where the goods became visible in the shape of clouds. In order to find the way to Kadath, Carter decides to head for Ulthar.
“…At noon he walked through the one broad high street of Nir, which he had once visited and which marked his farthest former travels in this direction; and soon afterward he came to the great stone bridge across the Skai, into whose central piece the masons had sealed a living human sacrifice when they built it thirteen-hundred years before. Once on the other side, the frequent presence of cats (who all arched their backs at the trailing Zoogs) revealed the near neighborhood of Ulthar; for in Ulthar, according to an ancient and significant law, no man may kill a cat. Very pleasant were the suburbs of Ulthar, with their little green cottages and neatly fenced farms; and still pleasanter was the quaint town itself, with its old peaked roofs and overhanging upper stories and numberless chimney-pots and narrow hill streets where one can see old cobbles whenever the graceful cats afford space enough…”
Arriving in Ulthar, Carter goes to visit the temple to inquire the direction to Kadath. The high priest is no one other than Atal, the innkeeper’s son who had secretly watched the cat’s performing their ritual in “The Cats of Ulthar”. In Carters dream Atal is now more than three hundred years old. Accordingly, Ulthar has changed too: it has grown into a city with a historical town center, inhabited by an uncountable number of cats. Still they seem to be scarcely audible after dark, it seems “… that they were mostly heavy and silent from strange feasting. Some of them stole off to those cryptically realms which are known only to cats and which villagers say are on the moon's dark side, whither the cats leap from tall housetops…”. Carter discovers that the cats really disappear to the dark side of the moon, where they seem to have their own social hierarchy and gods. For them every place in the dreamland is just a short hop away.
But the world around them is chaotic and they live in fear of evil and destruction. This is a perspective Lovecraft had lined out in a poem, named “The Cats” in 1925. Other than providing a description of their magical talents, he lines out how their world is subject to chaos and decay:
“…Colour and plendour, desease and decying,
Shrieking and ringing and crawling insane,
Rabbles exotic to stranger-gods praying,
Jumbles of odour that stifle the brain
Legions of cats from the alleys nocturnal.
Howling and lean in the glare of the moon,
Screaming the future with mouthings infernal,
Yelling the Garden of Pluto’s red rune…”
This poem ultimately reflects Lovecraft’s own financial and social situation at that time. In it, he identifies himself with his cats of Ulthar. One year later, in the story of the unknown Kadath, he invents Randolph Carter as his alter ego. Therefore Carter too in the story shares Lovecraft sympathy for cats; shown when he is patting a small back kitten in front of the temple in Ulthar echoing Menes from “The cats of Ulthar”. Lovecraft himself had a black cat, named Nigger-man, who is also a side kick character in his story “The Rats in the walls”. „The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath“ was rejected by several magazines and Lovecraft did not rewrite it like other stories. It was first published after his death and remains a rough draft of a fantasy novella, but withholds many links to his other stories.
Another reason why he might have written the poem about cats in 1925 and one year later the „The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath“, could have been a humoristic talk, called: “Something about Cats”, he had held during a meeting of the Blue Pencil Club in New York in 1926. The talk is not so much about cats, but about the cat lover – Lovecraft himself - , who, compared to the dog lover, “….repudiate[s] the idea that cringing subservience and sidling companionship to man are supreme merits, and stand free to worship aristocratic independence, self-respect, and individual personality joined to extreme grace and beauty as typified by the cool, lithe, cynical and unconquered lord of the housetops.“
Behind this typification of the cat and the cat lover lies Lovecraft’s perception of elite belonging. He believed in a continuing aristocracy and transpired that onto his fictional cats and also himself. He was, in spite of his continuing interest in science, never a member of actual academic elite and saw this as a flaw. His field was literature and he tried to demonstrate his intellect through writing. This is particular evident in his choice of historic and scientific vocabulary. Within that, he follows a strict structure to achieve a certain setting: In “The cats of Ulthar” for example, he uses the old word “Burgesse” for habitants of the village, “Cotter”, for farmer, and “Burgomaster” for major. This all are late French words transcended into early English just a few decades before Shakespeare. His story takes place in ancient times, so he uses an old fashioned language to literary display his setting. He even risks to become enigmatic by using uncommon synonyms, like “Malkin” or “Grimalkin” for cat in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and his talk on cats in 1925. Originally "Malkin" was the late French term for a female daemon and from there was applied in the English language for a witch who could transform into a cat. Thanks to such a transformation of one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the term became a famous cat name. The Grimalkin is the name of the leader, the oldest and savviest cat, reflecting in its grey- gri – hair. Since Lovecraft created his cats to have magical powers, “Malkin” is just the perfect name for them. He writes in his talk the cat mirrors ”… the deepest founts of imagination and cosmic perception in the human mind. It is no accident that the contemplative Egyptians, together with such later poetic spirits as Poe, Gautier, Baudelaire and Swinburne, were all sincere worshippers of the supple grimalkin.”If you want to know more about Lovecraft and cats, check out our monthly podcast.