Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Cats of Ulthar

"The Cats of Ulthar", first published in The Tryout, vol 6 No 11, November 1921.

This is the the fourth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.

Well, I've had enough of the “Dunsany” style for now. This one is really leaden – it's HPL trying to sound just like some other writer he loves and doing it badly. Sarnath was better than this one. Sarnath had a certain austere dignity about it, but this one is as syrupy as a bad ballet, and feels very self-indulgent.

It begins, “It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the River Skai, no man may kill a cat,” and goes on to explain why. Once upon time (as it might as well start) their lived in Ulthar two ugly old people who hated cats and would happily kill them when they wandered into their garden. A band of gypsies comes to town, including the boy Menes, a tragic orphan whose only friend in the world is a delightful black kitten.

Well, I think we can all see where this is going. When the inevitable happens, the child curses the the oldies, the caravan leaves town, and there is cat-based revenge. It ends, “...and in the end, the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travellers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.”

ETA: On reflection, this circular structure reminds me of the parody limerick written by the comedian John Clarke:
There was an old man with a beard
A funny old man with a beard
He had a big beard
A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard.

An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia doesn't have much to say about it, except to note a number of names borrowed from Dunsany. “The entire scenario is probably inspired by the many tales of elementary revenge in [Dunsany's] The Book of Wonder.”

In A Life, Joshi says what we're all thinking: “One wonders whether Lovecraft was thinking of himself when he wrote with unexpected poignancy of the orphan Menes. … Is this a remembrance of Nigger-Man and all that lone pet meant to Lovecraft?”

Next up: "The Nameless City".

Image by flickr user felinest and used under the terms of the creative commons license.


  1. I concur that these Dunsanesque tales smack of HPL thinking "hey, I'll write a story like that" rather than actually having an idea for a story and then writing it.
    They often have a nice lyrical quality but, for me, it's all in over-large doses.

  2. The Nameless City, which is up next, is an interesting development of this style, so stay tuned! I'm beginning to think that HPL struggled a bit with plot and thought that atmosphere was everything (which is, IIRC, backed up by his writing in Supernatural Horror in Literature, which I plan to read after I've finished this).

    His development, perhaps, is a gradual realisation that more than declamatory prose is required to evoke it - character and (especially) plot are necessary adjuncts to build a complete emotional picture. Narrative tension is very necessary to create the atmosphere of "dread" that he talks about. In fact, maybe "dread" is just a variety of narrative tension?


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