Pluto’s Heritage BY P. J. PARRISH
The homeless man cornered us outside the supermarket. “I found this in the Dumpster,” he said, pointing to his dirty plaid shirt.
Poking out of his pocket was a kitten’s head.
“I got no place for it,” he said. “Can you give it a home?” The tiny beast was wet with blood. It was dying.
My husband took it and handed the man a twenty. It was late on a Saturday night, but we drove to the emergency vet. An hour and two hundred dollars later, the vet sent us on our way with the kitten.
It was fine, he said, just starving and missing an eye.
Cleaned up, the kitten didn’t look that bad. It quickly grew fat and found its rank among our eight other cats.
“What should we name it?” my husband asked.
“Pluto,” I said.
Which is, of course, the name of the tortured feline in Edgar
Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Not that I was any expert on Poe then.
Far from it. Like most people, my first guide to Poe was B-director Roger Corman (Ray Milland in Premature Burial drinking maggots from a wine goblet!). My next guide was Professor Schneider, whose Introduction to American Literature course had me shoehorning the Poe short stories in between Twain and Hawthorne.
I remember finding “The Black Cat” dense and difficult. I had to look up a lot of words. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And what was the deal with this guy gouging out his cat’s eye and planting an ax in his wife’s head after claiming he adored them both? Was he a liar, confused, drunk, or just plain nuts?
Like most critics of Poe’s day-Yeats called him “vulgar”-I was underwhelmed.
I didn’t cross paths with “The Black Cat” for decades, writing it-and its creator-off as archaic and lightweight. It was only after I started writing fiction that I gave Poe a second chance. Although I had published a handful of crime novels, I was struggling with my first short story. Pluto was sitting on my lap at the computer one day as I stared at the blank screen. He wasn’t the one who Googled “The Black Cat,” but damn, wouldn’t that have made a great Poe twist? I was floored by the story and went on to read others. Poe hadn’t gotten better; I had just gotten older. The Saturday-matinee Poe who scared the Jujubes out of me as a kid scared me in a completely different way as an adult. Now I could understand the thin line between promise and disappointment. Now I could imagine the terror of a mind unbalanced by demons or drink. Now I could see the rich mix of emotions, the delicate dance between the romantic and the macabre, the real and the supernatural. And as a writer, now I could appreciate the complex construction of Poe’s puzzles and his use of what he called “the vivid effect” to grab the reader’s emotions. What modern storyteller worth her salt doesn’t strive to do that? All writers today-crime, horror, romance, yes, even literary – owe him a debt. My favorite author, Joyce Carol Oates, asks in the afterword of her short-story collection Haunted: “Who has not been influenced by Poe?” Oates herself wrote a Poe paean called “The Pluto's Heritage White Cat” in which a husband becomes murderously jealous of his wife’s Persian cat.
Writers can learn much from him still.
As for readers, there is much to savor in this sly little tale.
First, it is a very modern detective story, but one in which you, the reader, must follow the bread-crumb trail of clues. Why did this man kill his wife? You have to peel back the psychological layers of the killer’s behavior-shades of Silence of the Lambs!-to find meaning for a brutal murder when none seems to exist.
Second, it is a chilling study of domestic violence, perversity, and guilt. Compare it with its bookend story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the other great example in this collection. Both narrators deny that they are insane-but are they?
Third, “The Black Cat” is one of the first stories to use “the unreliable narrator.” (This is when bias, instability, limited knowledge, or deliberate deceit makes the storyteller suspect.) With one line- “I neither expect nor solicit belief”-Poe paved the way for Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Dr. Sheppard in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the cook in Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, and Teddy Daniels in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island.
Fourth, “The Black Cat” is an early example of genre-crossing. Poe is known for horror, but in this story he blurs the line between realism and the supernatural. The paranormal, reincarnation, horror, mystery-it’s all there and more.
And last? Well, it is the first cat mystery.
Which brings us back to Pluto. Mine is still hale and hearty at fourteen. The fictional Pluto, of course, dies horribly. Which didn’t really bother me-until I started writing fiction. See, there’s an axiom among mystery writers: kill an animal and your readers will turn on you.
Poe adored cats in real life. His beloved tabby Catarina even inspired him to write a scientific essay, “Instinct vs. Reason-A Black Cat.”
Still, when he put pen to paper, he wasn’t afraid to kill the cat. You have to admire a writer who takes big risks.