Dracula was always meant to be adapted to the stage. At the time that he wrote his most famous novel, Bram Stoker was working as the business manager for the Lyceum Theatre in London, owned by his friend, the renowned actor Henry Irving. Irving’s performances were often dark and dramatic, and he was best known for playing charismatic villains. It’s even been suggested that he partially inspired the appearance and personality of the Count in Stoker’s novel. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when Stoker finished his masterpiece, he envisioned Irving playing the titular character in a stage adaptation. He even drafted a script and ran through a staged reading of Dracula, or The Undead at the Lyceum, afterwards eagerly asking Irving what he thought. Irving’s answer, however, shut down any hopes Stoker had for his stage production: he summed up his opinion in one word: “Dreadful.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about how much I love cats. They’re cute, cuddly, clever, and just a little bit demonic. Sadly, I don’t own an adorable fluff-ball myself, so I must find other venues for my cat appreciation. This generally involves visiting friends who own cats, looking at cats on social media, and of course, reading books that feature cats. Fortunately, cats—long associated with magic, mystery, and devilry—often feature prominently in gothic literature. Less fortunately, they also have a tendency to die in these stories… But cats are not creatures to be trifled with, and they are particularly adept at exacting revenge. Below are some of my favorite tales starring dead and/or vengeful cats:
- “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
Edgar Allan Poe was also quite the cat fan, although you might not know it from how they are treated in his fiction. One of Poe’s most popular short stories is “The Black Cat.” Told from the perspective of a murderer, the story features a black cat named Pluto (appropriately associated with the Roman god of the underworld) who serves first as the narrator’s victim and then ultimately as the cause of his demise. The narrator is initially very close with his pet, but as he descends into alcoholism he becomes violent toward all those he used to love. He maims and ultimately kills Pluto, though he is plagued by guilt throughout. Immediately after hanging his beloved pet from a tree, the narrator’s house catches on fire. But this is only the beginning of the cat’s revenge. He soon comes across a second cat that looks exactly like his dead friend, except for the white noose-like markings around its neck. After one of the narrator’s rages ends with him killing his wife and walling her up in the cellar, it is this cat that alerts the police to the location of the woman’s body and prevents its master from getting away with murder.
- “The Squaw” by Bram Stoker (1914)
Stoker’s name is generally associated only with his groundbreaking vampire novel, Dracula, but he actually wrote a number of other novels and short stories, as well. Several of his short stories were published posthumously in a collection titled Dracula’s Guest and other Weird Stories. Among these is a particularly disturbing tale, “The Squaw.” I first encountered this story as part of an audiobook collection called Classic Tales of Horror. Generally undisturbed by violence and gore, I nonetheless found myself quite distressed at the description of the senseless killing of a kitten in the opening pages of this story. The tale begins with a honeymooning couple who encounter a brash American while sightseeing in Germany. The American has the brilliant idea to toss pebbles from a great height in order to startle a mother cat and her kitten below. Of course, he ends up accidentally killing the kitten and setting the mother cat on the warpath. She stalks the group throughout the rest of the story as they continue their sight-seeing, until their visit to a medieval torture chamber provides the perfect opportunity for revenge… “The Squaw” is definitely an underrated story, although the American’s speech and his garbled story about an encounter with a Native American woman make it somewhat difficult to follow at times. But I promise you’ll be in for an emotional roller coaster as you mourn the death of the kitten and cheer on its murderous mother.
- “The Cats of Ulthar” by H.P. Lovecraft (1920)
Usually when the words “H.P. Lovecraft” and “cat” are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s in reference to the man’s blatant racism. But Lovecraft’s own poorly-named pet aside, one of my favorite Lovecraft stories features a whole town full of vengeful felines. Set in a town called Ulthar, the story opens by describing a strange old couple who seem to delight in capturing and killing the neighborhood cats. One day, however, the couple crosses the wrong gypsy orphan boy when they take his beloved black kitten. The boy prays to his gods, and that night all of the remaining cats in the village gather to exact a chilling revenge on the sadistic couple. After that night, the town enacts a law stating that no man may kill a cat…for his own safety.
- Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983)
Here, Stephen King steers us slightly away from the direct revenge narrative. However, Church, the family pet featured prominently in this horror novel, shares many characteristics with the above-mentioned creepy cats. The story begins with the family of Louis Creed moving to a new town and trying to settle into their new lives. They meet a friendly neighbor named Jud who shows them the spot in the woods labeled “Pet Sematary” not far from their house where many of the townspeople bury their pets. One day, Church gets run over and instead of burying him in the “Pet Sematary,” Jud takes Louis to an ancient burial ground where all those who are buried rise again. When the cat comes back to life, however, he is not quite the same. Violent, though not necessarily vengeful, the reanimated cat serves as an ominous foreshadowing of what will happen when Louis tries to raise his toddler son from the dead in the same manner.
I also wanted to make a special mention of a cat owned by the father of the Gothic novel himself, Horace Walpole. Walpole owned a cat named Selima whose death was memorialized by the eighteenth-century graveyard poet Thomas Gray in a somewhat mocking elegy titled “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.” (Check it out, it’s a great poem.) Somewhat morbidly, Walpole had the first stanza of his friend’s poem engraved on the tub in which his cat drowned, which he then prominently displayed in his trend-setting gothic home.
Have you read any of these tales? Got any other creepy cat stories to recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments! And, of course, feel free to post pictures of your feline friends!
St. Patrick’s Day is this week, and that means it’s time to celebrate all things Irish—like me! But your favorite gothic librarian aside, there are actually a whole bunch of Irish writers who have contributed significantly to the gothic genre. In fact, without Irish writers, we wouldn’t have Dracula, Carmilla, or Lestat. So you can thank the Irish for pretty much the entire vampire genre. Read on to find out more about how the Irish have impacted gothic literature!
Now, how can we possibly talk about gothic literature without mentioning the vampire genre? Of all the creatures that go bump in the night, vampires have long been a favorite of writers and readers alike. Today of course, the word brings to mind the type of teenage vampire love story popularized by Stephanie Meyer. To have a true appreciation of the genre however, I urge you to check out some of the classic stories that established the concept of vampires as we think of them today and informed the countless vampire novels that followed:
New to gothic literature? Maybe you’ve always loved horror movies and dark films, and want to see if you can get the same shivery feels from the written word. Or maybe you’ve wandered over from another genre such as romance or fantasy after realizing that you kinda like the dark stuff. Or maybe you’re a baby bat who has found the clothing and the music but doesn’t know where to start with the books. Well, whatever brought you over to the dark side, I’m glad you came. Gothic literature is a magical world filled with so many abandoned castles, moonlit moors, and frightening forests to explore. But if you’ve never read anything in the genre (or loose collection of genres) before, jumping right in can seem a little…well, scary. But not to worry! Your favorite Gothic Librarian has put together the perfect little starter pack of gothic literature to get you into the genre.