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H.P Lovecraft's "The Cats of Ulthar": An Analysis

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This article will take a look at the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Cats of Ulthar" and delve deeper into the author who wrote it.

This article will take a look at the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Cats of Ulthar" and delve deeper into the author who wrote it.

Who Is H.P Lovecraft?

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, better known as H.P Lovecraft, is one of the most influential writers in history. He is a horror icon, and if you've read any of his stories, I bet you can understand why.

As a prolific writer, Lovecraft was the father of horror and brother to the mystery. His stories have lived for generations and will undoubtedly live for many more as his creations find life in almost every modern-day horror story.

Howard Phillip Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890. Due to untreated syphilis, his father developed a mental disorder when Lovecraft was around the age of three. He was put into the Butler Mental Hospital and stayed there until he died in 1898.

Lovecraft spent most of his childhood at home reading due to a weak immune system. Because of this, he fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe's works, who was later a huge inspiration to Lovecraft's writing. He could go to high school, but before he graduated, he had a breakdown and dropped out.

After his breakdown, he hid away, staying inside to read and write away from the world. He didn't publish most of his early writings at the time aside from some newspaper articles about astronomy that he gained a fascination for in childhood.

Lovecraft focused on nonfiction for a while, just dipping into fiction until around 1917. His first success was when he was published in Weird Tales in 1823. He had a short-lived marriage, which ended within inspiration for him to create his most famous works, The Call of Cthulu.

He spent the rest of his life creating horror creatures and worlds that inspire to this day.

His death was as sad as his childhood. Lovecraft hardly had enough money to support himself. He didn't have literary success until after his death.

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft

Summary of "The Cats of Ulthar"

"The Cats of Ulthar" is a short story written in June of 1920 and published in November the same year.

Like most Lovecraft stories, the narrator stays nameless as they explain the story of Ulthar, a town where killing cats is now illegal. It goes back to when an old couple lived in the town. The couple enjoyed capturing and killing the cats the people of Ulthar owned.

A caravan passes through the town; among the caravan people is Menes, an orphan boy. Menes has a small black kitten with him, who is also presumed to be an orphan. One night, the small black kitten disappears from Menes, who becomes distraught immediately. When the townspeople tell Menes of the old couple, the boy becomes outraged and chants a prayer before the caravan leaves the town. The remaining cats of the town swarm the old couple's house and eat them.

The townspeople have no idea what happened. The cats in the town spend a few days lazing about refusing to eat. When the lights don't turn on in the old couple's house, townspeople go in to find the mangled corpses of the couple. A rule was then created: no cats can be killed in the town of Ulthar.

Background

Lovecraft wrote "The Cats of Ulthar" in his early period. During this time, he was more influenced by other writers. In particular, "The Cats of Ulthar" was inspired by Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer. Other stories inspired by Dunsany's writings are "The White Ship", "The Street", "The Terrible Old Man", (written 5 months before "The Cats of Ulthar"), and others during his early writing stages.

From Dunsany, Lovecraft got his inspiration for mystery and the flow of words. Lovecraft was not shy about his inspiration and made it evident that he was trying to do a similar writing way as Dunsany. Another famous author who mimics writing styles is Stephen King, who enjoys writing in the same style as what he's currently reading.

Another important inspiration for "The Cats of Ulthar" is Edgar Allan Poe who wasn't directly connected but was Lovecraft's favorite author who inspired every one of his stories in some way, shape, or form.

Stories Mentioned Above

  • "The White Ship" by H.P Lovecraft
    A lighthouse keeper goes on a fantastical adventure with a man piloting a white ship. Together they explore mystical islands together. This story deals with greed, and of course mystery.
  • "The Street" by H. P. Lovecraft
    This story walks down the history of a street. Within this story we see the street grow and age as if it were a person. Interestingly a lot of Lovecraft's personal views come out in this story.
  • "The Terrible Old Man" by H. P. Lovecraft
    A strange and short story (under 1200 words), that deals with three robbers and a very strange old man.

Menes

Menes is the orphan boy traveling with the wandering caravan. He arrives in town with his only sense of family, a small black kitten. The kitten disappears one day, and the townspeople tell Menes about the old couple that kills the cats. Menes, in anger, begins chanting to the sky before the caravan leaves. It is alluded but not confirmed that Menes is why the cats of the town devour the old couple at night. His prayer is unknown and unheard by the reader leaving it up to the imagination.

The name Menes is linked back to Egypt. Menes was the first recorded king of Egypt who was said to have united lower and upper Egypt. Menes means 'he who endures'.

Cats were seen as royalty and praised in ancient Egypt. Cats were said to have killed venomous snakes to protect the pharaoh. In the story, we're aware that the only thing the boy has is the kitten and vise versa. The two are protecting each other in a similar relationship to cats and kings back in ancient times.

If anyone killed a cat in ancient Egypt, they were sentenced to death even if the killing was an accident.

King Menes

King Menes

Although it was never blatantly stated, with all of the information behind Menes, it can be assumed that in the story, the orphan Menes puts a curse on the old couple and maybe the town of Ulthar itself. It's said that after the couple was killed, a law was put into motion where no one can kill cats in the town of Ulthar. If another cat is killed in the town will the murderer end up with the same fate as the old couple?

The murder of the old couple can relate to the death of anyone who killed a cat in ancient Egypt with a horrific Lovecraftian twist; instead of people killing the old couple, the cats of Ulthar devoured them. This twist leaves a gory and emotional picture in the reader's head. In some dark, twisted way, we're supposed to find satisfaction in their cruel end.

Hannes Bok illustration for "The Cats of Ulthar"

Hannes Bok illustration for "The Cats of Ulthar"

Connections in Other Lovecraft Stories

"The Cats of Ulthar" is unsurprisingly linked to other Lovecraftian stories.

"The Other Gods"

Atel who is an adult in The Other Gods once lived in Ulthar being the son of the innkeeper. He was the one who saw the cats circling the house of the old couple. The law of killing cats in Ulthar is mentioned in this story by Atel's master, Barzai the Wise.

"The Rats in the Walls"

This one is a little less obvious, cats are mentioned to "embody horror".

"The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath"

In this story, we're reintroduced to an important character in the world of Lovecraft, Randolph Carter. He visits the city of Ulthar about 300 years after the events of "The Cats of Ulthar". Carter calls on the cats to help him out later in the story.

Stories Mentioned Above

  • "The Other Gods" by H. P. Lovecraft
    A prophet, Barzai the Wise, attempts to climb the mountain of HathegKla to see the faces of the gods. He goes with his apprentice. They reach the peak, and Barzai is met with an unfortunate discovery.
  • "The Rats in the Walls" by H. P. Lovecraft
    A man moves to his family house after the death of his son. He falls into madness along the story. Not to the surprise of the people in the town who had warned of the horrors connected to the estate.
  • "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" by H. P. Lovecraft
    Randolph Carter has his own adventure in the dream world. Carter wants to travel to Kadath; the only problem is no one has been there, and no one knows how to get there.

A Great Starting Point to Lovecraftian Horror

In conclusion, "The Cats of Ulthar" is a Lovecraftian classic. Taking inspiration from Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote this story with passion, even naming it as one of his favorite short stories. The familiar mystery surrounding the old couple, along with the deranged and horrific murder, is a masterpiece in its own right.

If you're a beginning Lovecraft reader, this is one of the more attractive starting points.