H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most famous names in fantasy and horror literature. A masterful writer of suspense, macabre, atmospheric, psychological and cosmic horror, Howard Philips Lovecraft’s creations have inspired numerous fiction writers, movies, games, merchandise, music, art and many other areas of popular culture. He was an immensely influential figure in the weird fiction genre, supernatural and atmospheric horror, and a skilled amateur journalist, literary critic and philosopher.
The progenitor of Cosmic Horror, Cthulhu, The Deep Ones and various other mind-bending creations, Lovecraft has written an array of incredible short stories alongside his novels during his lifetime. The Cats of Ulther (1920) is one such example of the brilliance of one of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century.
The Cat Of Ulthar: A Brief Recount
The story’s setting centers on the town of Ulthar and its inhabitants. A settlement lying beyond the river Skal, an absurd decree makes killing any cats of the town a crime. The narrator then offers his perspective of cats, alluding to their stealthy and mysterious nature by drawing comparisons with the unseen and the unknown.
The narrator touches upon the existing superstitions & reservations that common folk have about felines and briefly mentioning several historical symbolism involving cats.
The main story revolves around an old couple who live in a secluded region of the town, who abhor cats and trap & kill any they find. The other inhabitants of the town harbor several reservations about the odd, old couple, citing their mysterious nature, withered faces and the dilapidated nature of their house as reasons. They hated the couple and feared them even more. Instead of berating them and bringing them to justice, they avoided them altogether and made sure their pets never ventured near that accursed house.
The story takes a unique turn with the arrival of a ‘caravan of wanderers from the South’. The narrator highlights their mysterious nature and how they were different from the regular folk who pass by the town. The gypsies uttered strange prayers, and their caravans had fantastical drawings on them, making the townsfolk wary of their presence.
The central part of the story revolved around an orphaned gypsy named Menes, whose pet black kitten went missing. Some of the town’s people accused the old couple of trapping and killing it. As a result, Menes summoned supernatural forces to curse the couple, thereby sealing their fate.
In the following weeks, the townsfolk witness some strange events and make some startling discoveries. All the cats in the town disappeared for a day, and a child noticed them circling the house of the dark couple. The next day, the cats came back but oddly could not eat for two days.
And, finally, the inhabitants gathered up the courage to venture to the lone cottage and found the couple’s skeletons, stripped clean to the bone. The people of Ulthar rightfully concluded the sequence of events. Menes had cast a spell that caused the cats to attack and eat the old cat-killer couple alive.
From then on, the influence of Ulthar forbade the killing of any cats of the town.
Analysis and Reflection
An in-depth analysis of this tale reveals numerous literary devices and techniques used by the horror maestro to create an atmosphere of mystery & intrigue.
- The setting of the story, the town of Ulthar, is steeped in mystery. It’s located beyond an oddly named river called Skal, which b.
- Cats have long been associated with witchcraft and the supernatural. Lovecraft was a cat lover and entertained the common superstition of cats being an agent of the Devil and everything paranormal. Lovecraft’s had a pet cat and fed stray cats every day. Lovecraft’s pet cat came was ‘Nigger’, a shocking allusion to his racist mindset.
The enigmatic, supernatural nature & distorted beliefs about cats being all-knowing and omnipresent being with paranormal powers is one of the main themes of the short story. It can also be said that cats are the true protagonists of this story.
- The old couple, who trap and slay cats, are depicted as strange, secretive and sinister. The author uses powerful adjectives to describe their peculiar nature and the place of their living.
H.P. Lovecraft offers a stunning visual description of the couple, their cottage and its surroundings. A small cottage in a dark yard surrounded by spreading oaks situated at one end of the town instills a sense of foreboding in the reader’s minds.
- A similar sense of foreboding and subconscious terror is palpable amongst the town folks. They avoided the couple every way they could, despite knowing the heinous things they did routinely.
- Travelling gypsies in caravans have also been used to symbolize mystery and supernatural by eminent writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. Howard Lovecraft introduces dark travelers in a caravan to add to the mysterious and paranormal atmosphere of the story.
Their mysterious ways, strange prayers, odd paintings on caravans established the wanderers as practitioners of occult rituals. Lovecraft embedded multiple details and devices to steep the whole story in supernatural & fantastical themes.
- The build-up to the climax begins with mentioning a little orphaned boy and his black pet kitten, a beacon of joy for that lonely gypsy boy, Menes.
- The major event that leads to the climax is the sudden disappearance of the little kitten. It was nowhere to be found, and grief took over the boy. One of the townsfolk mentioned the odd, supposedly cat killer couple to him and stated the obvious.
One key thing to note is there was no clear evidence of whether the Menes’ kitten was taken and killed by the old couple or not. The suppressed anger and hatred of the townsfolk sealed the couple’s fate. The writer also never states that whether the townspeople have witnessed the couple trapping & killing cats or not.
It is left to the reader to speculate and conclude, which is another unique and engaging aspect of this short story.
- The supernatural elements are now wholly brought to the fore. Menes utters prayers and meditated intently. The writer describes shadowy apparitions with horns forming out of thin air and disappearing as the child uttered strange incantations.
The story has now embraced its supernatural themes completely.
- The climax finally arrives when townsfolk notice the total absence of every cat in town and Nith, alone notary boy stating that he saw all the cats circling the run-down cottage of the old couple. The people figures that the couple had cast some spells on all the cats and led to their deaths. They became angry but were careful not to speak ill of the couple.
The wanderers had meanwhile left and were seen again in Ulthar ever again.
The following day, the town was surprised to see all the town’s cats back again, both pet and stray. What was even more surprising was that none of the cats was interested in eating for two days. This intrigued the townsfolk until a week later when they discovered that no light was emanating from the old couple’s cottage.
They overcame their fears and ventured into the dilapidated house to find the skeletons of the couple stripped of every inch of flesh.
It can be easily deduced that the dark spell cast by the young gypsy Menes led all the cats of the town to attack and eat the old couple alive. The ending is genuinely macabre and shocking.
A town beyond yonder, dark and gloomy atmosphere, a mysterious & reclusive couple, lone & broken-down cottage with a dark yard and surrounded by droopy oaks, cats, prejudiced & scared townsfolk, enigmatic gypsies, supernatural incantations – H.P. Lovecraft used almost every literary instrument in atmospheric & supernatural horror to make The Cats of Ulthar a gripping narrative.
Excellent descriptions appeal to the senses, and the ending is shocking and morbid. Lovecraft also touches upon the prejudice & reservations of ordinary people about things & people different than average. Whether the anger & hatred of the townsfolk towards the couple was justified and if they truly killed Menes’ kitten is purely speculative and left upon the reader.
Even the townsfolk were taken aback by this horrifying turn of events near the end, so much so that they passed a decree forbidding any cat killing in the town. Poetic justice has been served by paranormal forces most horrifyingly.
In conclusion, we can say that The Cats Of Ulthar is an excellent short story of the supernatural, mystery and macabre. It is a highly recommend read for any Lovecraft fan and lover of fiction.
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