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1920 / Ulthar

Cat Power

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It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat, and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language, but he is more ancient than the Sphinx and remembers that which she hath forgotten.

In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors. Why they did this I know not, save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight. But whatever the reason, this old man and woman took pleasure in trapping and slaying every cat which came near to their hovel, and from some of the sounds heard after dark, many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar. But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife, because of the habitual expression on the withered faces of the two, and because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more, and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees. When through some unavoidable oversight a cat was missed and sounds heard after dark, the loser would lament impotently, or console himself by thanking Fate that it was not one of his children who had thus vanished. For the people of Ulthar were simple and knew not whence it is all cats first came.

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the south entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the marketplace they told fortunes for silver and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell, but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams, and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a headdress with two horns and a curious disc betwixt the horns.

There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow, and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.

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About the Author

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar.” An only child whose syphilitic father died in an insane asylum, Lovecraft suffered violent dreams from an early age, later noting, “I believe that—because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream phenomena—the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive.” He earned money as a ghostwriter, at one point writing a story for Harry Houdini, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” which appeared in the magazine Weird Tales in 1924.

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, is a soothsayer, an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, consults ghosts or spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Book of Deuteronomy, c. 620 BC
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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