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Sunday, November 15, 2015
SUNDAY REVIEW / “THE BLACK CAT” PHANTASM
Edgar Allan Poe
Editor’s note:Feedbooks.com is one of many organizations on the Internet graciously dedicated
to bringing free versions of short stories from the public domain to
light.Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Black
Cat” in 1842.It first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.www.feedbooks.com
For the most wild, yet most homely
narrative, which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad
indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own
evidence. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I
die, and to-day I would unburden my soul.
purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment,
a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have
terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound
them. To me, they have presented little but horror—to many they will seem less
terrible than baroques.
perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the
commonplace—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than
my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing
more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
Edgar Allan Poe
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Edgar Allen Poe (1809—1849) remains one of
America’s most popular authors to this day.His work made him a progenitor of detective fiction, crime fiction and
infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My
tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions.
I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great
variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as
when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my
growth, and, in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of
To those who
have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be
at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification
thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love
of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent
occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer
early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my
own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of
procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, goldfish, a fine dog,
rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.
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.
was the cat's name—was my favorite 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.
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.
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.
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.
returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied
that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my
violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of
a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul
seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish
malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my
waistcoat pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat,
and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder,
while I pen the damnable atrocity.
returned with the morning—when I had slept off the fumes of the night's
debauch—I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the
crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling,
and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned
in wine all memory of the deed.
meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is
true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He
went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme
terror at my approach.
I had so
much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on
the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave
place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable
overthrow, the spirit of Perverseness. Of this spirit philosophy takes no
account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness
is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible
primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man.
Who has not,
a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no
other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual
inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law,
merely be- cause we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I
say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul
to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong's
sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had
inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a
tree—hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest
remorse at my heart—hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I
felt it had given me no reason of offence—hung it because I knew that in so
doing I was commit- ting a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my
immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the
reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night
of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from sleep by the
cry of "Fire!" The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house
was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself,
made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete.
worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to
I am above
the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect between the
disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts, and wish not to
leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited
the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in. This exception was
found in a compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of
the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had
here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire—a fact which I attributed
to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were
collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with
every minute and eager attention.
"strange!" "singular!" and other similar expressions, excited
my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas-relief upon the white
surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an
accuracy truly marvelous. There was a rope about the animal's neck.
When I first
beheld this apparition—for I could scarcely regard it as less—my wonder and my
terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I
remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of
fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd, by some one of whom
the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window,
into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from
of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of
the freshly- spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames and the ammonia
from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.
thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for
the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep
impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of
the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a half- sentiment
that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the
animal, and to look about me, among the vile haunts, which I now habitually
frequented, for another pet of the same species, and of somewhat similar
appearance, with which to supply its place.
One night as
I sat, half stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly
drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense
hogsheads of gin, or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the
apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some
minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner
perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand.
It was a
black cat—a very large one—fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him
in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his
body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite, splotch of white, covering
nearly the whole region of the breast.
touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and
appeared delighted with my no- tice. This, then, was the very creature of which
I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person
made no claim to it—knew nothing of it—had never seen it before.
my caresses, and when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition
to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it
as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and
became immediately a great favorite with my wife.
For my own
part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse
of what I had anticipated; but—I know not how or why it was—its evident
fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed me. By slow degrees, these
feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided
the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed
of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some
weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill-use it; but gradually—very
gradually—I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently
from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.
no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I
brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its
eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I have
already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had
once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and
aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It
followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make
the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or
spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to
walk, it would get between my feet, and thus nearly throw me down, or,
fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my
breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet
withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly—let
me confess it at once—by absolute dread of the beast.
was not exactly a dread of physical evil—and yet I should be at a loss how
otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own—yes, even in this felon's
cell, I am almost ashamed to own—that the terror and horror with which the animal
inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be
possible to conceive.
My wife had
called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white
hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference
between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed.
will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very
indefinite; but, by slow degrees—degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a
long time my reason struggled to reject as fanciful—it had, at length, assumed
a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object
that I shudder to name—and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and
would have rid my- self of the monster had I dared—it was now, I say, the image
of a hideous—of a ghastly thing—of the Gallows!—oh, mournful and terrible
engine of horror and of crime—of agony and of death!
And now was
I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere humanity. And a brute
beast—whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed—a brute beast to work out for
me—for me, a man, fashioned in the image of the High God—so much of
insufferable woe! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of rest
any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the
latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot
breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight—an incarnate night- mare
that I had no power to shake off—incumbent eternally upon my heart!
pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me
succumbed. Evil thoughts be- came my sole intimates—the darkest and most evil
of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things
and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable
outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining
wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she
accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building,
which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep
stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting
an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto
stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have
proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But the hand of my wife
arrested this blow.
the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her
grasp, and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a
murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to
the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the
house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the
neighbors. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting
the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire.
I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I
deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard—about packing it in a box,
as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take
it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far bet- ter
expedient than either of these. I determined to wall it up in
the monks of the Middle Ages recorded to have walled up their victims.
purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely
constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster,
which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in
one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fire- place,
that had been filled up, and made to resemble the rest of the cellar. I made no
doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the
corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything
And in this
calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crowbar I easily dislodged the
bricks, and, having carefully de- posited the body against the inner wall, I
propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I relaid the whole
structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with
every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster, which could not be distinguished
from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brickwork. When
I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present
the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the floor was
picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to
myself, "Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain."
My next step
was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for
I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet
with it, at the moment, there could have been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared
that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger,
and forebore to present itself in my present mood.
impossible to describe, or to imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief
which the absence of the de- tested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not
make its appearance during the night—and thus for one night at least, since its
introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even
with the burden of murder upon my soul!
and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I
breathed as a free man. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises for ever!
I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed
disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been
readily answered. Even a search had been instituted—but of course nothing was
to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly,
into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the
premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I
felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me accompany them in their
search. They left no nook or corner unexplored.
for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in
a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I
walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed
easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied, and prepared to
depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say
if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance
of my guiltlessness.
I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, "I delight to have
allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy.
By-the-bye, gentlemen, this—this is a very well-constructed house." (In
the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at
all.) "I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls—are
you going, gentlemen?—these walls are solidly put together;" and here,
through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held
in my hand, upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the
corpse of the wife of my bosom.
But may God
shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the
reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice
from within the tomb!—by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing
of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous
scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman—a howl—a wailing shriek, half of horror
and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly
from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in
Of my own
thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For
one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of
terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It
fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood
erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth
and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into
murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled
the monster up within the tomb!