Saturday, February 8, 2014

"The Cat"

"The Cat"
by E.F. Benson

A portrait artist enjoys a burst of inspiration and unexpected creative growth following months of crippling depression.  However, his friend (a doctor) is concerned that this amazing recovery may not last forever...

My Reaction:
This is a strange tale.  I'm not completely sure what to make of it, honestly.  (I'll go into that in the next section, because it's nearly impossible to discuss without including serious spoilers.)  I think I prefer stories with a few more clues as to what conclusion I'm "supposed" to draw.  Also, except for one occurrence, there wasn't much in the way of horror, in my estimation.  Still, it held my interest.  Not a bad story.  I enjoyed the reading. 

Random Snippets &/or Commentary (with SPOILERS):
--  "The phenomenon of his appearance was as sudden as that of the meteor, coming from nowhere and sliding large and luminous across the remote and star-sown sky..."

--  "She was one of those blonde, lithe, silken girls, who, happily for the peace of men's minds, are rather rare, and who remind one of some humanised yet celestial and bestial cat."

--  "'...You and animals use their eyes only, whereas people use their mouths and foreheads and other things.  A pleased dog, an expectant dog, a hungry dog, a jealous dog, a disappointed dog-- one gathers all that from a dog's eyes.  Their mouths are comparatively immobile, and a cat's is even more so.'"  I'm not sure I agree-- as far as dogs are concerned.  Dogs communicate a very great deal through their lips, brows, ears, and muzzles-- in addition to their eyes, of course.  And that's not even mentioning their tails!  Or their stance in general... or the way they can raise their hackles!  This makes me wonder how well Benson knew dogs and cats...

--  "'...I always have detested cats so-- they make me feel actually faint.'" and "Now the presence of a cat was a thing that usually produced in Dick a feeling of deadly faintness."  Strange... I know some people don't like cats, but to feel faint around them seems an extreme reaction-- especially since a cat is unlikely to do physical harm unless it's cornered/"trapped" and feels threatened.   

--  "pellucid"-- clear or limpid, apparently.  What a hideous word!  Just awful!  A fine example of the fact that even if you know a word, that doesn't necessarily mean you should use it.  (This one ought to be locked away forever.)

--  The "one occurrence" I mentioned earlier?  It was the sudden appearance of the cat, sitting on the sofa and holding in its mouth a still-living bird.  That was probably the creepiest moment in the story, which isn't saying much, because the story's simply not that creepy.  It has a certain "atmosphere", I guess you could say... Mainly because the reader is expecting something terrible to happen-- wondering when and how this man's peace of mind will shatter-- but... I don't really get it. (See next point.)

--  So... What is meant to have happened?  I don't want everything spelled out to me too explicitly in these stories, but I like to have enough clues that I can feel fairly confident when I draw my conclusions.  This time, I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to think.  It seems obvious that Dick has at least contributed to the destruction of his painting-- but why?  (In a fit of some sort? --Rage? Insanity?--  Accidentally, while trying to fend off a foe-- real or imagined?)  And who -- or what--  killed him (by mangling his throat)?  The cat?  He couldn't fend off a house-cat?  Unless there's paint on his throat, too-- which isn't mentioned-- it appears unlikely that he somehow killed himself (and what a way to do so!)...

Was the cat ever even there?  It looks dry during a thunderstorm.  It appears and disappears with uneasy rapidity.  It brings inspiration, but also a return of Dick's emotional instability.  You could easily make a case that the cat is a figment of Dick's imagination-- a visual representation of his former love and the depression that haunted him for so long when she cast him off.  --Except that in that case, what clawed his throat and killed him?

The whole thing is very much open to interpretation.   That's fine, but I'm curious about at least how other readers interpret it, and I can't find much.

--  In a failed attempt to find someone else's opinion of the story (beyond "loved it" or "meh"), I instead found an interesting quotation regarding Benson's horror stories:

"Among the collections of short stories, E. F. Benson's three volumes rank high, though to my mind he sins occasionally by stepping over the line of legitimate horridness. He is, however, blameless in this aspect as compared with some Americans (sic), who compile volumes called Not At Night and the like. They are merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating." - M. R. James, Some Remarks On Ghost Stories, The Bookman, Dec. 1929.