I was six years old. I was spending a weekend with one of my role models, a twelve-year-old girl, a former neighbor who had moved to another town. She was reading me a spooky story before light’s out one night. The story was Edgar Allan Poe’s very chilling tale “The Black Cat.” I don’t think I slept a wink that night, not only because the story itself was so haunting, but because she herself possessed a large cat, an affectionate creature to her, a distant and shy creature with me, though at this reach of time I can no longer remember if it was black or not. Suffice it to say, every time I drowsed off and the cat settled in the huge king-size bed between the two of us, I felt I had to reach out and touch it, try to reassure it that I wasn’t going to hurt it, while also ascertaining that it didn’t mean to hurt me. I have always loved cats, but that weekend was a severe test of my affection for the species. How could it be otherwise, when a master wordsmith like Edgar Allan Poe had been working on my psyche?
Though in some ways Poe seems to be ascribing supernatural effects to people or animals, quite often eerie results are the products of overtaxed and strained imaginations, results brought on by the combination of character flaws and chance circumstances. Yet the deeper his characters sink into the “bog” of their own making, the more they struggle with inadequate aids to help them, the wrong tools, in fact; the more they struggle, the faster they sink into the morass, as one might expect.
In the case of “The Black Cat,” the narrator starts out as an excessively affectionate man to animals and a good companion to his wife, but as he records from the jail cell where he is being kept awaiting execution, it was “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” that he began to be cruel where before he had been kind, both to his many animal pets and to his wife. A modern psychologist might look for a deeper cause, such as some basic personality flaw that produced a tendency to rely on such crutches as alcohol, but to the people of Poe’s time, alcohol was a chancy friend, and a labile personality with a tendency toward addiction was not the chosen explanation: instead, there was something devilish and mysterious about the way alcohol could simultaneously aid or hinder.
The link between his “Intemperance” and a secondary quality is cruelty, and what his drunkenness is linked to is another quality which he calls “Perverseness,” or perversity. He says of this quality: “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 primary impulses of the human heart–one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which gives direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” In the grips of this sentiment, the speaker has already committed one act against the cat, and proceeds to commit a second, more final one. But this brings him no relief. Instead, he becomes even more hateful to his wife, and more obsessed with the second cat he encounters, which is very like the first, except for a white blaze upon its chest, which he later realizes with premonitory horror resembles the gallows.
Though this is a very well-known tale, I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing the outcome, except to say that while there is a horrible ending, the actual supernatural effects are all in the speaker’s mind, as he feels that he has been haunted and driven and diabolized into what he has done. In actual fact, the horror derives from the way in which he is slowly but relentlessly pulled down by a combination of chance events (ones he regards as uncanny) and his own personality traits under the influence of alcohol, which have the force of Fate. It is in fact a sort of fated ghastly fear of death which impels him to betray himself to others who are trying to find out what he has done, a kind of self-fulfilling prophetic knowledge of what is going to happen to him that draws him forward into ruin and punishes him for what he has done.
What exactly has he done? Ah, if you have never read the story, then you’ll have to read it to find out–and if you have, Halloween night after the Damnéd Dinner* is the perfect opportunity to chill the blood of your favorite group of guests as you read them the story aloud. I predict that everyone will be both “grossed out” and appropriately horrified.
*The Damnéd Dinner is a Halloween festivity in which each participant prepares one food which feels to the touch like something repellent or vile. The other diners are asked to close their eyes, on their honor not to peek, and then they are served and asked to put their hands in their individual served dishes of the food as the server tells them a dreadful (made-up) story about what they are to eat. They have to eat some of it with their hands or simple implements, and of course after all have eaten it and gotten a relieved chuckle (one hopes) about what it actually is, they are allowed to open their eyes and verify their impressions. Individual after individual takes a turn as server, until everyone has told a Halloween story and (again, one hopes) everyone has had a full repast. Some popular items are peeled grapes or mozzarella balls (which feel like eyeballs if you’re told that’s what they are), strings of long pasta in sauce (brains, of course), or chopped-up jello, which has passed as more than one item in my experience.