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Literature / The Cats of Ulthar

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"In Ulthar, no man may kill a cat."

"The Cats of Ulthar" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft.

This story is about how the town of Ulthar made the decision to forbid anyone from killing cats. The narrator recalls that in the time before the law was passed, there was an old cotter and his wife who trapped and killed their neighbors' cats. The villagers, too fearful to confront the old couple, decided to just keep their cats indoors and out of trouble.

Then, a caravan of strange travelers arrived one day to Ulthar. They were wearing strange clothes and performed foreign prayers that the villagers could not understand. Traveling with the wanderers was a small orphan boy named Menes and his pet kitten.

On the third day of the caravan's stay, Menes could not find his kitten. He searched through the whole village and eventually gave up and started crying. The villagers knew what had happened to Menes' cat, and took pity on him and told him of the cotter and his wife's cat-killing spree. Upon hearing of the old couple's violent acts towards cats, Menes stopped crying and invoked a prayer that made the clouds in the sky change form and darken with an unknown force.

The caravan left that night, never to be seen again, and the villagers returned to their homes to discover that all of the cats had disappeared from the entire village. The villagers assumed that the caravan had cursed them and stolen their cats in a fit of revenge, but by morning all the cats were back in the homes. Oddly, every cat was really fat, and they all refused to eat their food for days. A week later, a few villagers had noticed that the old cotter and his wife had not been seen at all, and that their house's lights were never lit. A few people got enough courage to confront them and visited the old couple's house, broke down the door, and went inside. All they found were a pair of skeletons on the ground, completely clean, flesh gnawed off the bone...

And so, a new law was passed: "In Ulthar, no man may kill a cat."

That law is mentioned in passing in Lovecraft's other Dreamworld stories. By the time Randolph Carter gets to Ulthar on his Dream-quest, the streets are full of happy, well-cared-for kitties.

Can be read here (or listen to a YouTube reading). There is also a video game adaptation here.

Tropes in "The Cats of Ulthar":

  • An Aesop: Don't be cruel to animals (especially cats). Don't harm your guests or their pets.
  • Arc Words: Did you know that in Ulthar, no man may kill a cat?
  • Asshole Victim: The cat-killing old man and his equally sadistic wife get their just desserts for killing a young boy's kitten.
  • Author Appeal: H. P. Lovecraft loved cats.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: A cotter and his wife whose favorite hobby is killing their neighbors' cats. They even target a young boy's kitten, seemingly just because.
  • Cats Are Magic: "For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see."
  • Evil Old Folks: The elderly couple who lure and kill the villagers' cats never receive complaints or retribution from their neighbours simply because they are so inexplicably creepy that no-one dares to confront them.
  • For the Evulz: The narrator states that they did not know why the old couple chose to kill cats, other than for this reason.
  • Gypsy Curse: The mysterious travelling people are more or less Fantasy Gypsies.note 
  • Just Desserts: The old couple are killed and devoured by cats as retribution for killing Menes' kitten. Nom nom!
  • Kick the Dog: It's not enough for the cotter and his wife to trap cats, or even to trap others' cats. No, these two have to kill an orphan boy's kitten.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The cruel cat-killer couple are devoured by all the cats in Ulthar.
  • Loony Laws: The story starts by telling us a law that most people wouldn't object to, but that is unusually specific. Then we get the full story on why the town decided to put this law on the books.
  • Mugging the Monster: The old couple have been killing the cats of the town with impunity because the townspeople are too scared of them to fight back. Then they kill the cat of a traveling orphan boy, who promptly curses and kills them.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The people of Ulthar are worried when every cat in town refuses to partake of the meat and milk usually set out for them. It turns out they're just full from feasting on the cat-murdering couple.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Menes' parents were killed by a plague, and his only comfort is his little black kitten. When the evil cat-murdering couple kills his kitten...well, that's when things get ugly. For them, that is.
  • Revenge: The cotter and his wife kill Menes' kitten. Menes then magically compels every cat in town to devour them.
  • Sacred Hospitality: It's an awful thing to wantonly kill the cats of your own town, but to kill a visitor's cat? That's a severe violation of hospitality.
  • Space Whale Aesop: If you're cruel to animals, mysterious travelers may compel all the animals in town to kill and eat you!
  • Stripped to the Bone: When the villagers find the bodies of the cat-killing couple, they have been reduced to skeletons with every scrap of flesh picked clean from their bones.
  • Tranquil Fury: When Menes got the bad news, "his sobbing gave place to meditation" and then he placed the curse.