This Week’s Prompt: 88. Lonely philosopher fond of cat. Hypnotises it—as it were—by repeatedly talking to it and looking at it. After his death the cat evinces signs of possessing his personality. N.B. He has trained cat, and leaves it to a friend, with instructions as to fitting a pen to its right fore paw by means of a harness. Later writes with deceased’s own handwriting.
The Following Story:
Well this story just makes me sad. We’ll go over the full implications of this as a narrative at the end, but I’m almost touched by the notion of a friend finding their dead colleague still persisting in their pet. I half wonder if this is meant as a horror story at all. We’ll discuss that a bit later, after going over the ideas of horror.
The use of hypnosis is an interesting note, one we will go over in more detail when we can—the power of the gaze and hypnosis was often invoked during Lovecraft’s time to explain magical powers in the world. The philosopher here is therefore somewhat in the vein of a wizard or witch, albiet more scientific. The use of it on a cat is more fitting then—not only to continue the legacy of the familiar but because hypnosis was for a time known as “animal magnetism”. It’s also worth noting we did discuss cat’s before (here).
The animal familiar of a witch is a common feature of magic stories, often possessed in someway by the genius of their witches. One of the most famous non-cat examples, in my research, was that of a serpent. In particular, there was a large rattle snake that supposedly attended the Queen of Voodoo during her life—the creature slinked off into the swamp after her death, and had not been seen since. At least one informant claimed his magic came from the skin of said serpent, but whether this was honest belief or blustering and boasting for a credulous writer is difficult to say.
The same book—and the issues of researching Vodou/Voodoo/Hoodoo will be discussed at a later time, believe me—refers to one wizard making use of a crocodile to work his magic, marked by a read handkerchief. Both creatures have stories of being sources of magic themselves—tools by which their owner cast spells as well.
In Scotland, we can add the toad to this set of wicked beings that aid in witchcraft. The toad is said to have been perhaps of more value dead then alive, however. The head of the toad supposedly contained a stone, and as we discussed in our witchcraft article, there are multiple rituals in Scotland and Nova Scotia that rely on feeding a toad alive to an anthill. One exception is from the end of the sixteenth century in Flanders. Here, a man tried to escape his threatening landlady by boat, but found the boat could not move. When he asked some soldiers for help, they too could not move the boat. At last, they suggested checking under the vessel—and there was a massive toad with fiery eyes. The soldiers stabbed the creature and threw it out. When the man asked after his landlady letter, she was found near death from unknown wounds.
The cat in Scotland has some significance—most prominently when it has a large white star on its chest. One source named these elfin cats, and claimed they were witches in disguise—not, as might be guessed, simple faerie cats. Others take the form of great tigers in Orissa, red deer in Cumberland, and in many parts of Europe a hare. Beyond this, Scotland has superstitions regarding cats as prognostics—washing their heads to indicate fair weather for instance—or as potential witches. In the same way that the earlier toad could be possessed by the mind of a witch, so too was there a story of a cat possessed by a witch. A rancher had lost a number of cattle, and determined he was bewitched. Seeing a cat nearby, who had been following his cattle, he hurled a red hot iron at the cat. By chance, a neighbor broke her leg that night.
In North Germany, to tie in a way back to the witches sabbath, a miller became convinced that witchcraft was being done on his mill—every year, on Christmas Eve, the mill burned down. At last he convinced a solider to stand watch. As he makes a bowl of porridge, in comes a long troop of cats—and they discuss where to sit, as they plan to burn the mill down again. The young man hurls the porridge at one of the cats, and cuts off her paw with a saber. The rest vanish—and the next morning, the millers wife is found to be missing one of her hands.
A strange Flemish story of a man who went to tell his mother that she was now a grandmother follows. The grandmother already knew by some means, and on his way home he was swarmed by cats. Not just swarmed, the determined felines stole all his silver and pushed him into a brook! A local priest learned of this and warned him to not give anything to anyone who begged at his door. He held out for a time, until a piteous old woman with child begged for bread. When he gave the bread, both his wife and child died in…rather gruesome ways.
Ainu lore places the origin of cats, sometimes, with a strange demon. The demon conspired to kill a mole god, by tossing him in the fire. He ingratiated himself as a guest, and then tossed the god into the hearth. However, as he left, the god appeared at the entrance. Before the demon could speak, the mole god seized him and tossed him in the furnance. The mole god stopped him from becoming smoke or breath—but the demon’s life could not leave his ashes. So instead out emerged the first cat and fox to escape, and live on to do ill in the world. (For those interested in the power of dead shamans and demons emerging from burnt corpses, it is a reccruing theme in our research on mosquitoes and ticks you can find here on patreon). In a strange reversal of this story, there is a notion among the Ainu that ghosts of dead cats may possess their murderers. They slowly drive them to imitate the cats, wasting away their bodies until they die. Mewling.
That is, frankly, horrifying.
Of course, there are ways to avoid such things. One is to eat a part of the cat killed—this will keep the spirit at bay. Another is to find, kill, and eat an unrelated cat—this helps with cats that are simply lurking around and sending strange visions and manipulations to their victim.
The Black Cat has some saving graces—for instance, they were considered to be insurance by sailors wives. This made them very valuable indeed—and often stolen or wandering into homes on their own. Connected to this, throwing a cat overboard was considered a way to provoke a storm by sailors. The works on witchcraft by King James also note a ritual using a corpse and a cat to provoke storms by witches in Scotland.
But that seems rather far a field from our intentions—we are after all dealing more with possession, transformation, and transference then we are with black magic. So, what sort of story do we have in this prompt? The first thing that is apparent to me is the description of our philosopher—they are lonely. A lonely scholar kept company by their cat. They aren’t friendless—they have a friend who takes care of their cat afterwards. A cat that, I’m sure, would already be a living reminder of a departed friend. A new pet with new habits, new routines, used to the old owner in many ways.
And then, it starts making motions towards the pen. Or paper. Pawing at it. And the friend examines some of the contents of the box, and finds a curious crude contraption—a pen fitted for a feline leg. And then…its as if his friend is writing again, on the paper, starting to explain things.
I’m not sure what sort of story this is—while perhaps Lovecraft meant it as a horror story, of animal intelligence or of possession or the like. But honestly, given his love of cats and the general tone of this prompt, it feels more like a tale of wonder. A bit of magical realism, instead of terror.
Campbell, John Gregorson, Superstitions of the Highlands and the Islands of Scotland, J. MacLehose and sons, 1900.
Henderson, Williams; Notes on Folklore of the Northern Counties, The Folklore Society, 1879
Hurston, Zora; “Hoodoo in America”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 44, No. 174, (Oct-December 1931), pp 317-417.
King James VI and I, Demonology, Gutenberg Press. June 26th, 2008.
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