The October Country: Oct. 20th: “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 20:

The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe

Found In:

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

Opening Line:

For the most wild yet homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.”

What is October without the original American master of the macabre himself: Edgar Allan Poe. Over a hundred years after his death, few American writers can be said to have equaled him, and none reside outside of his shadow. It is hard to think of a writer whose body of work is so slender and yet whose influence is so overwhelming.

The Black Cat is one of Poe’s darkest tales. A story of alcoholism and madness, it begins as many Poe stories do: with the calm assurance that the narrator is not mad but entirely in his right mind. Really.

Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I wound unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.”

Which, I suppose, is one term for the mutilation and strangulation of a pet cat and the axing of one’s spouse. Not sure what events take place in your home, but at the old Poe Homefront, shit gets freaky.

Our unnamed narrator goes on to explain that he has always loved animals. All kinds of animals. In fact, he was such a sensitive and loving little boy that he was often teased by his peers. As an adult, he married a wonderful woman who also loved animals, and they built a quaint and happy life together.

Enter alcohol, stage left.

But my disease grew upon me—for what disease is like Alcohol!–and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish—even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.”

Pluto, the narrator’s beloved black cat, is sadly on the receiving end of some of those aforementioned Household Events. Namely, that in a drunken rage our narrator snatches up the poor feline, whips out a pen knife, and flicks out the cat’s eye.

I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.”

No doubt.

But deforming the unfortunate Pluto is not the end. Poe’s narrative gifts are such that it is hard to disentangle which is the driving force: the narrator’s alcoholism or his diseased mind. Each seems to fuel the other. Either way, the descent quickens.

Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”

Poe’s deranged narrators are most effective when they sound these kind of notes. Hey, we’re all like this. I’m perverse. You’re perverse. This could happen to anybody. Nothing unusal about it.

Certain that he is not so different than anyone else, our narrator snatches up a length of rope, strangles Pluto and hangs him from a tree in the yard.

And there you go. Just another Household Event.

In a strange twist, the narrator’s house burns down that very night. He and his wife escape, but the house is a total loss. Upon returning to the ruin, our narrator is startled to find that one section of his bedroom wall survived mostly intact, and that upon this wall is the burnt relief of a cat…complete with noose around its neck.

If there is any doubt about our narrator’s unhinged state of mind, it is cleared away by this explanation:

The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd—by some one of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.”

Because that’s what normal people do when they see a dead cat hanging from a garden tree while watching a fire. They cut it down and fling it through a window. To wake you up.

Life for our narrator goes on. New house but same old habits. More drinks. More bars. And, yes, a new cat. He finds this new feline at one of his nightly haunts, a black cat almost exactly like old Pluto (including just the one eye). The only difference: white hair at the breast that seems, over time, to spread in the shape of a noose around the new cat’s neck.

Clearly, this isn’t going to end well. During some household chores, our narrator, his wife, and the new cat are descending into the cellar. The cat tangles up the narrator’s feet, and he, in his fury, snatches up an axe and takes a swing at the furry fiend.

But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew y arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot without a groan.”

Met with this latest Household Event, our narrator determines to hole up the body in the cellar behind a new wall (a la The Cask of Amontillado). This goes well enough at first, but eventually the police come around and give the place a good looking over. During which, a sound is heard from behind the wall. A cry. The wall is torn down, and who should be found?

The black cat, sitting upon the corpse.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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