Hope you’re enjoying some spooky reads this October!
Literary cat shout-out: Azreel
Danny Torrance has been through enough weird stuff in life that a psychic cat doesn’t faze him, even if it is named after the Angel of Death for good reason.
One of the coolest and most mysterious cameo characters in Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, is Azreel the cat (named for the Judeo-Islamic Angel of Death, Azrael, though King spells it with a double-e). He appears in the 2013 novel and the 2019 movie.
Adult Dan Torrance finds himself working as a hospice orderly in New Hampshire, where he uses his “shining” talent to help dying residents cross over when their time comes. And his trusty sidekick comes in the form of the nursing home’s resident cat, the fuzzy and preternaturally wise Azreel, who has a knack for predicting when someone is about to die.
Can we just take a second to appreciate the wonderful combination of Ewan McGregor and a cat? 😍 … Okay. Moving on.
Azzie is described in the novel as a stray that wandered in off the street and got adopted by guests, and he’s said to never have been wrong in his predictions in the six years he’s been around. He wanders the nursing home freely, lounging where he pleases, coming around for his twice-a-day bowl of Friskies, but he’s also regularly found outside of residents’ rooms when it’s their time to go.
When staff see Azzie outside someone’s door, they don’t call a doctor; they call Doctor Sleep, a.k.a. Dan Torrance. Dan follows where Azzie leads, and together they comfort people as they move on to the next plane of existence—Dan with a psychic projection of the person’s fondest memories, Azzie with a steady purr and reassuring weight on their legs.
Dan’s colleagues call Azzie Dan’s assistant and, despite the cat belonging to no one in particular, insist he’s Dan’s cat because of their unique bond.
You may have heard the real-life story of Oscar the cat, a therapy cat who lives in a Rhode Island nursing home and got his 15 minutes of celeb-purr-ty (apologies) in 2007 because of his track record predicting the deaths of terminally ill patients. King said in an interview Oscar was the inspiration for Azreel.
In fact, he inspired the whole novel. To quote King: “I saw this piece on one of those morning news shows about a pet cat at a hospice, and according to this story the cat knew before anybody else when somebody was going to die. I thought to myself: ‘I want to write a story about that.’ And then I made the connection with Danny Torrance as an adult, working in a hospice. I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m gonna write this book.'”
Oscar’s style is similar to Azzie’s, choosing to nap next to people a few hours before they die. The theory is that Oscar can smell biochemicals released by dying cells. His ability his been debated, but I prefer to think like King that he’s just a psychic little Angel of Death.
Can we just take another second to appreciate how Kubrick-Shining that hallway shot is? Thoughtful touches like this are one of the many reasons I love the Doctor Sleep film. The director Mike Flanagan killed it in the adaptation department. AnYwAy, we’re here to talk about cats, but I highly recommend this movie.
By the end of the book after many years have passed, Azzie is still alive and kicking, albeit with a limp, doing his spooky stuff around the hospice. He’s even in the last few pages, assisting Dan with a special patient. It’s a lovely scene that makes my eyes do this weird watery thing… King is not afraid to write about death, and there’s a lot of comfort to be found in watching his characters cope with it.
And if death includes a warm, purring cat by your side, there are worse ways to go.
When evening gave way to night and the pulse of Rivington House slowed, Azzie became restless, patrolling the corridors like a sentry on the edge of enemy territory. Once the lights dimmed, you might not even see him unless you were looking right at him; his unremarkable mouse-colored fur blended in with the shadows.
He never went into the guest rooms unless one of the guests was dying.
Then he would either slip in (if the door was unlatched) or sit outside with his tail curled around his haunches, waowing in a low, polite voice to be admitted. When he was, he would jump up on the guest’s bed and settle there, purring. If the person so chosen happened to be awake, he or she might stroke the cat. To Dan’s knowledge, no one had ever demanded that Azzie be evicted.
They seemed to know he was there as a friend.—Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Animal Farm
All of the animals in George Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm come in groups: the pigs, the dogs, the cows, the horses, the chicken, the sheep—but there’s only one cat.
While she may not have a name or any spoken dialogue and only appears six times in the book, the cat manages to be one of the most curious and mysterious characters in Animal Farm.
She’s generally shown to be apathetic, elusive, and somewhat manipulative, but also kind of amusing. Most mentions of the cat read almost as punchlines, like, The dogs did X, the pigs did Y, the horses did Z, and meanwhile the cat did whatever TF she wanted. And, since Animal Farm is a pretty bleak book, the cat, bless her, adds a little bit of fun.
Her first appearance in the story shows her personality right out of the gate: All the animals are gathered in the barn for a meeting, and the cat is the last to arrive. She looks around for the warmest place to sit, finally settles, and purrs contentedly throughout Old Major the pig’s speech “without listening to a word of what he was saying.”
The 1954 animated film shows the cat in this scene, too, only she makes even more of a grand entrance as all the animals go silent and wait for her to strut across the barn and find a seat. She then immediately takes a nap. (The cat is not featured in the 1999 live action film adaptation, but we don’t talk about that one anyway because it’s—how do you say?—bad.)
Throughout the story, the cat is seen to be shirking off work, though conveniently returning in time for dinner, and once when the animals take a vote, she votes on both sides. She makes clever excuses and purrs her way out of things, and the other animals can’t help but be taken in.
For only a few days, she joins the Re-education Committee to teach other animals about human-less society, telling the sparrows that all animals are equal so they should come right over and perch on her paw. She actually does help defend the farm once by attacking a human with her claws, but notably only joins the fray after seeing that all the other animals are fighting.
Almost every character in Animal Farm represents a figure from the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, so who is the cat supposed to be?
I’ve read a lot of different interpretations of what the cat represents: the Russian elite (who lived luxuriously and didn’t care about the plight of the working man); the educated (who didn’t believe communism was the right path but were also wealthy and did not work); the thieves and criminals of society (who freeload without contributing anything themselves); and opportunists (who are only interested in what will serve them most)—the one I tend to agree with.
Cats are self-sufficient, independent creatures. The Animal Farm cat doesn’t want to be tied down to any kind of society, but she’ll also take what she can get from it, if it doesn’t cost her. She’s intelligent, but self-serving. Her attitude and work ethic I think can best be summed up by something lawyer Jeff Winger says in the TV show Community: “The funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work.”
And the behavior of the cat was somewhat peculiar. It was soon noticed that when there was work to be done the cat could never be found. She would vanish for hours on end, and then reappear at mealtimes, or in the evening after work was over, as though nothing had happened. But she always made such excellent excuses, and purred so affectionately, that it was impossible not to believe in her good intentions.—George Orwell, Animal Farm
Literary cat shout-out: the cat from Coraline
Mysterious, clever, and a bit magical, the unnamed cat from Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy (and awesomely creepy) children’s book Coraline is a paragon for black cats everywhere. Throughout the book, he serves as an aloof guide for eleven-year-old heroine Coraline—he’s kind of like the Cheshire Cat if the Cheshire Cat were actually helpful.
He appears in the 2002 novella by Gaiman (both in Gaiman’s text and in illustrations by Dave McKean) and in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion film adaption. While the book is wonderfully creepy, no matter your age, the movie is really great too, with its gorgeous animation and perfectly cast voice acting, including Keith David, the enigmatic and dark voice of the cat.
When Coraline Jones and her parents move into a new apartment, she explores the grounds and occasionally sees a black cat around who she describes as haughty and avoidant of her attempts to interact with it. But when she discovers and enters a secret portal to another world through a small door in her parlor, she encounters the black cat again, and this time, he sticks around for a chat.
It seems that whatever space Coraline enters through her parlor door lends some magic to cats, or at least this one. When she spots him on the grounds in the other world, he greets her with a casual “Good afternoon.” Coraline thinks the cat’s voice sounds like the voice at the back of her head, “the voice she thought words in, but a man’s voice, not a girl’s.”
They have a conversation about names, and he insists that cats do not need them (T. S. Eliot has left the chat) while proceeding to disappear and magically reappear behind various things in the garden, demonstrating his comfort and familiarity with this mysterious place.
Despite his occasional sassiness, he’s pretty reasonable, as far as magical cats go, and he helps Coraline multiple times, giving her information about the world she’s walked into, the evil entity—the other mother, who looks like Coraline’s mother with buttons for eyes—she must defeat, and dropping clues on how, exactly to defeat it.
It’s even thanks to him, in the end, that the two are able to escape the other mother’s clutches and get back to the real world.
Once safely home, Coraline explores the garden with newfound fervor for real life, giving her new friend belly rubs when she runs into him, and even without his being able to talk in this world, they manage to converse.
Here’s to mysterious, fictional cats, who know all the answers but can’t always be bothered to share them.
“You must be the other cat.”
The cat shook its head. “No,” it said. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.” It tipped its head to one side; green eyes glinted. “You people are spread all over the place. Cats, on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”
“I suppose. But if you’re the same cat I saw at home, how can you talk?”
Cats don’t have shoulders, not like people do. But the cat shrugged, in one smooth movement that started at the tip of its tail and ended in a raised movement of its whiskers. “I can talk.”
“Cats don’t talk at home.”
“No?” said the cat.
“No,” said Coraline.
The cat leapt smoothly from the wall to the grass near Coraline’s feet. It stared up at her.
“Well, you’re the expert on these things,” said the cat dryly. “After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.”
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.—Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Literary cat shout-out: Buttercup
This scrappy fuzzball from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins belongs to heroine Katniss Everdeen’s sister Prim. He appears in all three novels (and four films) as a comforting companion to Prim and an annoyance to Katniss, with whom he’s not on the friendliest of terms due to her (expositional) attempt to drown him in a bucket—bad Katniss! Eventually, though, she accepts Prim’s attachment to him.
Buttercup is said to be a good mouser and even catches the occasional rat. He’s described in the novels as looking a little worse-for-wear with a mashed-in nose and half of one ear missing—which tracks, considering his rough life in the impoverished District 12. His name comes from Prim insisting that his muddy yellow coat matches the bright buttercup flower.
In fact, the makers of the Hunger Games films tried to pull a fast one by casting a black-and-white cat as Buttercup in the first movie. Collins and fans (rightfully) demanded he be changed to a yellow-haired cat for the rest of the films to stay true to the novels and his namesake.
When the Everdeen family moves into a new, much larger house in Catching Fire, Buttercup and Katniss bond over their shared dislike of their new home. Katniss even starts sharing scraps from her hunting kills with him and deigns to give him the occasional behind-the-ear rub.
At one point in Mockingjay when the resistance is on lockdown in a bunker during a bombing from the Capitol, Buttercup helps ease the tension by entertaining the troops, so to speak, chasing a flashlight beam and giving Katniss an epiphany about how her enemy is taunting her. And making everyone LOL. (Even in wartime, people can still laugh at cat antics. Call it a testament to the human spirit.)
We don’t get to see a ton of Buttercup, since he lives in District 12 (and eventually 13) and our POV character Katniss is usually off fighting for her life somewhere else, but he makes his few appearances count.
Case in point: this passage from Mockingjay, which I’ll close with. Now that I’ve typed it out, I need to go find whoever’s chopping onions around here…
My head snaps around at the hiss, but it takes awhile to believe he’s real. How could he have gotten here? I take in the claw marks from some wild animal, the back paw he holds slightly above the ground, the prominent bones in his face. He’s come on foot, then, all the way from 13. Maybe they kicked him out, or maybe he couldn’t stand it there without her, so he came looking.
“It was a waste of a trip. She’s not here,” I tell him. Buttercup hisses again. “She’s not here. You can hiss all you want. You won’t find Prim.” At her name, he perks up. Raises his flattened ears. Begins to meow hopefully. “Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s never ever coming back here again!” Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. I clutch my middle to dull the pain. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.” A new sound, part crying, part singing, comes out of my body, giving new voice to my despair. Buttercup begins to wail as well. No matter what I do, he won’t go. He circles me, just out of reach, as wave after wave of sobs racks my body, until eventually I fall unconscious.
But he must understand. Because hours later, when I come to in my bed, he’s there in the moonlight. Crouched beside me, yellow eyes alert, guarding me from the night.—Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
Literary cat shout-out: Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Socialite Holly Golighty in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s has a cat. Or, not really. It’s more like they cohabitate. Sometimes. He comes and goes as he pleases, and she simply calls him Cat, not presuming to claim him with a name: In her eyes, he’s an independent creature, like her.
He appears in Capote’s 1958 novella as well as the 1961 film adaptation that famously features Audrey Hepburn as New York City café society girl Golightly. He’s described as a red, tiger-striped tomcat, and Holly often takes him on her fire escape with her while she plays guitar and sings.
While he merely pops in and out of the narrative to serve as a loose metaphor for Holly’s independent spirit, he ultimately plays an important role in the story’s ending.
In the final act of both the novella and the film, Holly is leaving New York for Brazil, incidentally also leaving the protagonist, who’s fallen in love with her. Defiantly trying to prove to herself that she doesn’t need sentimental attachments, she takes Cat on a cab ride and leaves him in a neighborhood far from her building.
Which she immediately regrets. She feels deeply sad moments after leaving him, realizing that she did have a bond with the cat, and she goes back to look for him in a fit of desperation.
In the novella, she never finds him. She moves to Brazil. She travels the world. She stays true to herself and her free spirit. She learns, like the protagonist does, that you can love something and let it go. The protagonist hears tell of her later in life and wonders what adventures she might be on.
In the film, she finds Cat, while also realizing she loves the protagonist back, kissing him in the rain, and deciding to (presumably) settle down with him in New York.
So, the movie and the book end on two very different notes, one of wistfulness and one of predictable romance. The book ending seems more on-brand for Holly. I can only guess why the filmmakers decided to change it, and in turn, stifle the most important part of Holly’s character—her brazen independence—but even Capote biographer Gerald Clarke agrees with me that, “The book is more authentic.”
In any case, Holly’s cat represents that we inevitably grow attached to others as we go through life, often without even realizing it. Try as you may to be self-reliant, it’s nearly impossible not to form bonds with people (and cats) as you move through the world, no matter how you live your life.
She was still hugging the cat. “Poor slob,” she said, tickling his head, “poor slob without a name. It’s a little inconvenient, his not having a name. But I haven’t any right to give him one: he’ll have to wait until he belongs to somebody. We just sort of took up one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I. I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like.” She smiled, and let the cat drop to the floor.—Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Literary cat shout-out: Pluto
If you’re a character in a Poe story, chances are your fate is doomed. Such is the case for Pluto—aptly named for the Roman god of death—from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.”
Pluto is a large, friendly black cat who belongs to the (unnamed) narrator and his wife. They’re both very fond of him, and vice-versa. Everything is great, until the narrator gradually sinks into alcoholism and, with that, becomes a lot more contentious.
One night coming home very drunk, he thinks Pluto is avoiding him. Offended, he finds the cat and uses his pen-knife to remove one of its eyes. Pluto slowly recovers over time, but as our unreliable narrator slips further into the bottle he becomes irrationally enraged once more, fashions a noose, and hangs his once-adored pet from a tree.
That’s when things really get messed up.
The night our inebriated narrator commits this heinous deed, he wakes to a mysterious fire in his house. The next morning, he sees an impression on the wall of a “figure of a gigantic cat” with “a rope about the animal’s neck.” Henceforth, he’s haunted by thoughts and visions of Pluto, even succumbing to guilt over what he’s done.
Some time later, he comes across another black cat in a tavern who acts and looks exactly like Pluto. Becoming quick friends with the cat, he takes him home and he and his wife dote on him. But soon, the pattern repeats.
Once again, the narrator becomes moody, easily enraged, and intolerant of the cat, ultimately failing in an attempt to kill the creature and—oops—killing his wife instead. It just so happens the murder takes place in a cellar, where he can conveniently hide her body by removing a portion of the wall and resealing her inside it.
Everything is great again (well, relatively speaking) until the cops come to investigate and—oops—a howling, yowling meowing comes from behind the wall, screaming the narrator’s guilt. You might as well call this story “The Tell-Tale Cat.” In fact, it was published the same year as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843.
It’s no leap to conclude that Pluto and his successor (who, for all we know, due to our unreliable, drunken narrator, could be one and the same cat) aren’t cats so much as nasty reminders to the narrator of his destructive alcoholism. He tries to kill it, but it always comes back to haunt him.
Poor Pluto didn’t do anything wrong except be a metaphor. A metaphor for a thing that haunts and stalks the narrator. A neutral entity that takes on a malevolent aura when filtered through the wrong perception, that turns into something evil, intent on bringing bad luck and ruin.
This latter 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.—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Black Cat”