Vindictive cats in Poe & Hynes

My novel-in-progress centers on a woman who keeps more than 300 exotic birds at her house in the Miami suburbs. (Where I got that idea, I can’t imagine.) Some would call this scenario “animal hoarding.” Given my noise intolerance, I’d call it “hell on earth.”

Although I’m familiar with parrots and all manner of exotic birds, I’ve had some trouble bringing the animals to life, depicting their movements and squalid droppings and relationship to the human characters in a way that makes them real. And I’ve turned to the masters for help, but haven’t come up with much. (While Dostoyevsky mentions parrots at least once in his work, they don’t seem to feature prominently.)

Luckily, James Hynes published a new book last year, Kings of Infinite Space. Not only was the novel a personal favorite, it features a vengeful cat character that first turns up in Queen of the Jungle, the novella that kicks off Hynes’ 1997 collection, Publish and Perish.

In Queen of the Jungle, the cat, Charlotte, punishes the protagonist, an English professor who’s bungled tenure at a Midwestern university, for having an affair with a ditzy broadcast journalism major while his star English-professor wife pursues a successful career at the University of Chicago. The cat begins by urinating everywhere Paul fucks his lady love. As the affair continues, she becomes more creative, seeking to sabotage the marriage by producing, for example, pieces of Paul’s mistress’ bikini when his wife is in town.

Hynes discussed his inspiration for Charlotte in an interview with the illustrious Michael Schaub last year:

She was based a little bit on a cat my wife and I used to have. He was named Mr. Alp. Before that, I wasn’t a cat lover. I used to laugh at all the cat killing jokes on Monty Python and stuff. I didn’t get cats. Mr. Alp kind of converted me to be a stone cat lover. Part of the reason I liked Mr. Alp was because he was really neurotic and difficult and complicated. The cats I have now are both just marshmallows. They’re really lovely, terribly affectionate. But something about the perversity of Mr. Alp really captured my imagination. I ended up loving that cat desperately. Charlotte was based a little bit on him, but in a way, she’s kind of a different cat. Alp was never vengeful. Once he decided he liked you, he was really sweet.

As I reread Queen of the Jungle last summer, I wondered if Hynes was a fan of Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

A quick Google search turned up a 1997 piece by Sarah Hepola about the inspiration for Publish and Perish:

It all started on Halloween. Somewhere between the gnarled fingers of a full moon and rosy-fingered dawn, James Hynes decided his next book (following The Wild Colonial Boy) would be a horror story. So he boned up on his M.R. James, unearthed his Edgar Allan Poe, blew the cobwebs off a collection of gothic tales, and set to work excavating the undead.

But Hynes explains in email:

I have read “The Black Cat,” but not for about forty years (I’m also extremely old). But no doubt the fact that I read the Modern Library collected Poe straight through in a week, at the tender age of ten, way back in 1965, had some deep, lizard brain effect on me.

So much for my literary detective work. Anyhow, the thematic similarities sent me back to the Poe story, which I’ve since decided is one of the best, most disturbing animal mistreatment tales of all time, maybe second to Hynes’, maybe trumping it. Here’s an excerpt (taken from this site):

Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.

This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point — and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.

Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favourite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.

Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character — through the instrumentality of the fiend Intemperance — had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. 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.

False chimney in Poe's Philadelphia houseThe photo at left, taken by Mr. Maud, shows the cellar chimney from Poe’s Philadelphia residence. It’s said to be an inspiration for the false chimney in which the narrator of “The Black Cat” accidentally traps the feline while trying to hide his wife’s body after he kills her.

As for my manuscript, while I’ve made some progress on the bird section in recent months, I have a sinking feeling I’m going to need to spend a couple of afternoons in an aviary, refamiliarizing myself with the eating, shitting and mating habits of parrots.

Updated in 2009 to add: Narrative Magazine excerpted the birds section of my novel — “When the Flock Changed” — and awarded me the 2009 Narrative Prize.


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