Horror is styled as a form of fiction that elicits a feeling of fear, disgust or shock in an audience.
Taking pleasure in being scared is fairly common human behaviour. Personally, I enjoy a well-crafted horror story as much, perhaps more, than the next person. This foible is apparently one that transcends our time-period and today I wanted to share a little post about the 16th Century horror novel, Beware the Cat.
Beware the Cat is a short English novel written by the printer’s assistant and poet William Baldwin. The piece was written originally in early 1553. Beware the Cat is notable as the first horror fiction text longer than a short story, and it has been claimed by academics as the first prose novel ever published in English.
Of course, our first known published novel is a horror story.
And involves cats!
The tale follows a character who hears a cat say to him “Tell your kitten that Grimalkin is dead.” In shock, the man tells his wife later that day that he heard a cat speak and as he does his kitten overhears and says “And is Grimalkin dead? Then farewell dame.” The cat disappears forever.
Another speaker, on hearing his tale, describes a similar story where a cat in Ireland had asked a man to give over the mutton he was eating. The cat ate the whole meal and more and proceeded to ride on a horse behind the surprised man. The man’s son saw the cat astride the horse and struck it down, killing it, whereupon he himself was killed by a sudden onslaught of cats. When the man told his wife what had happened, his cat overheard and cried out “Hast thou killed Grimalkin!” and then strangled the man.
The story-tellers discuss whether the cat may in fact be a witch and discuss the possible rational, and more irrational, explanations for what happened.
In a later section, the first narrator retells how he sought out a potion to understand the speech of animals and he drinks it in order to find out more about the cats. He listens to some cats on a roof and finds they are holding court to try a cat named Mouse-slayer who has flouted the cat’s rules.
The remains of the tale follow Mouse-slayer trying to exonerate herself by telling the story of her life.
Her adventures include her being mistaken for a devil because of her bright eyes and a silly priest making a fool of himself by trying to exorcise a cat; the cat also gets revenge on a man for feeding her mustard and making her cry by revealing him in compromising positions with another man’s wife.
The tale is quite obviously a satire on the religion of the day.
It makes fun of the superstitious beliefs some men held before the Protestant Reformation and is heavily anti-Catholic.
Yet it is also an enjoyable narrative about the misadventures of cats. If you want to read it, the 1584 version can be found here.
It is also important to me as it seems to be the first known recorded version of the folklore story The King o’ the Cats. This is one of my favourite British folklore tales.
A traveller overhears that someone, generally with an unusual name, has died. When he reaches his home, he retells this story and his housecat overhears. “Then I am the King of the Cats,” the housecat cries and disappears. A version of this, obviously, we have at the start of Beware the Cat with the death of Grimalkin.
Cats have long been associated with the supernatural and there are many fascinating folklore tales of their antics. Their place in folklore is rich and their importance undoubtable.
William A. Ringler, Jr., ‘”Beware the Cat” and the Beginnings of English Fiction’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1979), pp. 113-126.