A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.—Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
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
My trip to the Hemingway House
Last month I visited the Hemingway Home and Museum in gorgeous Key West, Florida.
I started in Miami, drove through the Keys over two days, and spent my last two nights in Key West—the whole trip planned around winding up here. The house and property were amazing, and the journey there wasn’t bad either ☀️🌊
There are myriad cool stories and legends associated with this house, like:
Hemingway wrote some of his best received work while living here, including the 1935 non-fiction Green Hills of Africa, and the 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.
The swimming pool on the property cost $20,000 when built in 1938—an equivalent of $330,000 now—and was the first swimming pool in Key West.
The ~50 cats that live on the property! About half have thumbs and extra digits, but they all carry the polydactyl gene even if they have the normal amount of toes. Some are allegedly descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat Snow White (or Snowball, some say) given to him by a ship’s captain. (Apparently thumb-cats were preferred as ship’s cats back in the day because they have better balance than regular cats and are better climbers 👍)
The fountain base that used to be a urinal, taken by Hemingway and friends from a nearby bar.
Hemingway allegedly chose the house because it’s across the street from the lighthouse (the tallest structure on the island) so he could more easily find his way home from the bars. I see a theme here.
Hemingway’s writer’s retreat with the actual typewriter he used.
Cool house, cooler history, highly recommend.
Visit the Hemingway Home & Museum site for more info 🐈