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... My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.
From Wikimedia Commons
Thus begins "The Black Cat," a short story by Edgar A. Poe, first published in the August 19, 1843 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The "mere household events" which the narrator then describes are anything but ordinary. The narrator, afflicted with what is today termed alcoholism, becomes violent in his drunkenness. For no significant reason, he vents his rage onto his favorite pet, a black cat named Pluto:
One night, 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.
After some initial lament for his actions, the narrator is again seized by his "spirit of Perverseness" and kills Pluto by hanging him from a tree. Shortly after, his house catches fire, and he and his wife move to another home. A stray cat mysteriously arrives and joins them. This new cat looks unnervingly like Pluto — equally black but for a small white patch of fur which, to the narrator, looks like a gallows. Of course, this cat is also missing an eye. Tormented by this new cat, another alcohol-fueled rage leads to the narrator's final gruesome act which involves his cat, his wife, and a sharp axe.
"The Black Cat" is one of Poe's most violent tales. But, Poe's shocking tale was purposely extreme and, despite his public dismissal of didactic tales, "The Black Cat" features a moral: don't abuse alcohol. Today, the story is considered a "dark temperance" tale, meant to scare readers away from the evils of drinking. Having recently read Timothy Shay Arthur's temperance novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, I easily see the similar methods in storytelling.
Poe, of course, struggled with his own overuse of alcohol. As such, he vowed to remain sober. A few years after "The Black Cat" was published, he took a stronger step and joined the Sons of Temperance in Richmond, Virginia, making his pledge to avoid alcohol a public one.