Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lovecraft 101 - The Cats of Ulthar

The Cats of Ulthar
This is one of my personal favorite stories. I am not sure if it’s due to my affinity for cats, or just the classic old school horror tale aspect, but I really enjoy it. The Cats of Ulthar is a dark legend of a small village in medieval Europe just after the Great Plague swept its horrible path through the continent. It tells of the town of Ulthar where no one is permitted to do harm to a cat. This of course sets us up for two possible outcomes, horrible things done to cats, or by cats.
Dispite having such a huge literary crush on Poe, HPL doesn’t seem to have quite the hatred for felines that his predecessor did. Cats appear as minor figures and symbols throughout Lovecraft’s works, including an unfortunately named one in Rats in the Walls (which we will get to eventually).
In the town of Ulthar, a strange old couple in a rackety old shack are suspected of doing harm to the towns cats. Though cowardly enough, the townsfolk are resolute to merely try harder to safe guard their own pets rather than confront the mysterious pair. But when a wandering group of travelers come to town, things change. Though the people of this nomadic caravan are not really described they conjure up images ranging from the misunderstood gypsies, to northern European pagan tribes and even Native Americans. They practice a dark and mysterious religion in which prayer and communication with unknown animalistic beings seems as real as talking to a village elder. The pleas of a grief stricken boy seem to conjure up the ire of these beings as their half-seen forms writhe among the dark building storm clouds.
While ultimately a pretty cliché and simple revenge story, it’s not the overall plot that always stuck with me. It was HPL’s descriptions and flow of speech that built up a suspenseful atmosphere within the tale. It proved that later in his works that minimal description and the right mood setting words could conjure up all kinds of images, and would show his power to really unsettle you with the power of unknown and unspoken religions from the hidden corners of the world.
While it is a stretch to say this story figures into the development of other stories, it is an enjoyable read, if for no other reason than the image of cats marching in an esoteric feline religious rite.
You can check out the creepy little tale here: HPL’s The Cats of Ulthar

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