Since both of my apartment mates are avid readers, I have taken advantage of their library trips and been hacking away at my “wishing to read” list. This last week I have been exploring the works of Edgar Allen Poe, mainly his short stories.
The first half of the book was an essay written by the editor on why Poe is worth reading, in short why he was a genius. There is a lot of controversy over his work. Some people claim he was insane. Others believe that he wrote merely on a psychological level. Some people who need resolution are frustrated with his never-resolved endings. After reading his stories for myself, I am fully convinced of Poe’s sheer brilliance. Sure “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” are never fully explained to the reader, but Poe was concerned with process—not product. I know “The Tell-Tale Heart” is disturbing and leaves you wondering, “Who would write something this hideous? only a psycho with a guilty conscience.” And I have to admit that I laughed inwardly at most of his absurd, grotesque stories about love and death and obsession. I didn’t want to take Poe too seriously. But then I read “The Black Cat.”
This story is about a man’s descent from love to obsession to death. In the beginning, he is a kind-hearted gentleman with a special love for animals. After he marries, he buys a black cat that is adored by both him and his wife. The cat loves him and follows him everywhere. Eventually, the man finds the cat a nuisance. The more annoyed the man becomes, the more obsessed he is with the cat’s whereabouts. In order to deal with his frustrations, he drinks. One day in a fit of rage, he hangs the cat on a gallows. A little later his house burns down, but the image of a black cat hanging on a gallows is imprinted on one of the walls. This visage haunts the man for a while, but eventually he feels better and even purchases another black cat for his wife. The cat adores him, and he adores the cat until he realizes that a patch of white fur in the shape of a gallows is growing on the cat’s stomach. The man goes back to drinking and loses all control. He follows the cat into the cellar with an axe, means to kill the cat, but accidentally imbeds the axe in his wife’s head.
I resonate with this story like none of the others I’ve read. Too often I find things, usually people, that I learn to love and then I depend on them to make me happy. When I’m with them I’m happy. When I’m talking to them, I’m happy. But one day I realize that I’m obsessed. . .with a person. And I can no longer be happy unless I’m with that person, unless I’m talking to that person. I try to fix myself on my own. I try to avoid the person, but then I’m obsessed by my own avoidance. I talk to the person again and try to rectify whatever needs rectifying, only to realize that I have to be fixed myself first. And in the end, it’s way easier to kill the cat than to do surgery on myself. And, ironically, the one time I didn’t try to kill the cat, the cat tried to kill me.
Now I’m stuck staring at another cat, and I’m wondering if I should kill it. In Poe’s story, the man accidentally buries the second cat with his dead wife, and its heartbeat leads to his own betrayal. That’s what the last cat did to me—locked me up with a lot of dead dreams and memories, making me listen to the heartbeat of hope far away on the outside of where I am now. I’m still stuck in the inside, wondering (like this poor man) if cats are witches in disguise and if I should ever be sane enough to own a cat all.