By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered our pick of classic cat poems, and that post proved so popular that in this post we’ve set ourselves the task of compiling a top ten list of the best cat stories.
The classic cat stories below range from the comical to the horrific, the tragic to the heart-warming – but they all have one thing in common, that they are purr-fect stories about cats (sorry, we’ll stop short of making a tail/tale pun here).
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat’.
One of Poe’s most unsettling tales, ‘The Black Cat’ actually contains two black cats – although the second may be a ghostly reincarnation of the first. An unstable narrator tells of how alcoholism and an increasing short temper led him to harm his pet black cat – with devastating results for everyone (not least the cat). To say any more than this would be to risk mentioning spoilers…
E. Nesbit, ‘The Cat-hood of Maurice’.
After he abuses the family pet, a young boy named Maurice gets a taste of what it’s like to live as a cat in this wonderful short story from one of English literature’s finest storytellers for young readers. The story is included in Nesbit’s 1912 collection The Magic World.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Brazilian Cat’.
Imagine being trapped in a cage with a giant jaguar, which you know is going to start taking a ravenous interest in you sooner or later. This is the setup for this nail-biting story by the master storyteller and creator of Sherlock Holmes. The story is one of many classics included in the affordable collection Tales of Unease (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural).
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’.
One of Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), and the longest tale in that classic collection of origin stories, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’, as the title suggests, describes the cat’s independent spirit and refusal to be fully tamed.
Few short story writers have written so well about children and animals, but Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1914), better known as Saki, could write about both. ‘Tobermory’ is about a man who teaches a cat to talk, with disastrous results: the cat begins to tell the ‘respectable’ people at the party exactly what he thinks of them, and to gossip about everyone. Beware, though: cat-lovers may not like the ending.
P. G. Wodehouse, ‘Good-bye to All Cats’.
Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a master of comic fiction, and the best introduction to the world of Wodehouse’s brilliantly comic prose, Weekend Wodehouse, contains this classic cat story from 1934, a delightfully farcical piece about how Freddie Widgeon’s stay at a country house goes terribly wrong thanks to … cats.
Fritz Leiber, ‘Space-Time for Springers’.
Leiber (1910-92), pioneering SF and fantasy author, was a cat person. He loved them, and wrote about them in a number of his short stories. This classic cat story centres on Gummitch, a remarkably clever ‘superkitten’ with an IQ of 160 and big ambitions.
Ever looked at your cat and thought it must be sitting there thinking how much cleverer than you it is, and how it could dominate the world if it could only talk? This story will strike a chord with you.
Italo Calvino, ‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’.
A woman lives alone – except for all the cats. When a lawyer comes to try to draw up an offer to buy up her house so that the land can be developed, the cats attack the lawyer, tearing up the contract – stubbornly refusing to give up their territory. A story that is by turns amusing and unsettling.
Ursula Le Guin, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’.
A strange and at times frustrating story – postmodern in many ways – by one of science fiction and fantasy’s most acclaimed authors, ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’ is concerned with something that preoccupied Joseph Conrad: the reality of our perceptions of the world, and the link between language or storytelling and ‘the real’.
Le Guin’s story is named after the famous thought-experiment designed to explain quantum physics – the cat in the box may be alive or dead, and until you open the box you have to act as though the cat is both alive and dead – and, sure enough, the story climaxes with such a speculation about a literal cat in a box.
Angela Carter, ‘Puss in Boots’.
Angela Carter’s classic book The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories, in which she offers her own distinctive take on classic fairy tales, features this idiosyncratic retelling of Puss in Boots, a story dating back as far as the sixteenth century.
Carter herself said that ‘Puss in Boots’ was ‘the first story that I wrote that was supposed to be really funny, out-and-out funny’. Told by Figaro, a cat living in Italy, the story fuses commedia dell’arte tropes with its genuinely laugh-out-loud feline narrative voice.
A number of these classic cat stories are included in Diana Secker Tesdell’s anthology, Cat Stories (Everyman’s Library POCKET CLASSICS). For more book suggestions, see our pick of the best books for cat-lovers.
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All excellent stories, but I would like to put in a word for Cissy, Clara and Muffin in Gahan Wilson’s short story ‘Best Friends.’ Only gradually does the reader realise the truth – or some of the truth about them…and it is disturbing, to say the very least.