"The Black Cat" is a famous short story from horror-master Edgar Allan Poe. It was first printed on August 19, 1843, in the Philadelphia edition of a newspaper called the United States Saturday Post. We think a newspaper is a perfect place for it. This lurid tale reads like something right out of the headlines – bizarre headlines to be sure. Gruesome news items were just as popular in Poe's time as they are in ours.
Like many news stories, "The Black Cat" can be a downer. Stripped to bare bones, it's a story about domestic violence and brutal murder. It's the death-row confession of nameless man who destroys himself, his wife, and his pets. As is often the case with real life murderers, we can't pinpoint exactly why he went out of control. This mystery is part of what has kept "The Black Cat" in circulation for over a 160 years.
Because Edgar Allan Poe is such a fascinating person, and has a popular reputation as a creepy guy, some readers are tempted to imagine that Poe and his narrators are one in the same. As far as we know, Poe was no murderer. He seemed to have loving relationship with his wife, and is reported to have been a cat lover (source).
If Poe wasn't a creep, you might be wondering, how did he get that reputation? Well, he was involved professionally with a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold. (Yes, that was his real name.) In any case, the two men had a complicated and not altogether friendly relationship. When Poe died at age 40 in 1849, Griswold became Poe's self-declared biographer. This is where the trouble began. Griswold distorted and sensationalized Poe's life and had a large part in creating a fictionalized Poe.
How, you might be wondering, do we know Griswold is stretching the truth and making stuff up? The evidence, of course. While we can never really know Poe, his letters, essays, and reviews speak for themselves. Letters to Poe, as well as things written about him are also taken into account by scholars looking to provide a more balanced view of the man. Still, much of Poe's short life is a mystery, and we just have to accept that fact. (For more on Poe and Griswold, click here.)
So, confession time. Raise your hand if you like being scared. Are you into riding roller coasters? Listening to ghost stories? Watching horror movies? All right, Shmoop’s seeing a lot of hands up. And with good reason, since recent scientific research suggests that people really, really love experiencing all sorts of pain as long as it's not actually going to harm them (you know, like eating spicy food).
And you know who really loved to tap into that masochistic vein that we all apparently share? Our good friend Poe, whose stories practically created the genre of horror fiction by taking the spookiness of an earlier genre called Gothic, which tended to set its scares in distant places, and adding in a splash of contemporary realism.
After all, what's more terrifying—creepy monks in a story set long ago and far away, or a crazy dude who could easily be… right down the block from your house! Almost all modern horror since Poe has stuck to this immediacy. Think Stephen King, or the Saw movies. They make their millions on the concept that stuff that seems closer is inherently more frightening.
But Poe's not just after scaring you with gross violence and the quick thrill of the jump-out-at-you-boo! experience. Sure, there are plenty of cheap shocks in this story, from the disgustingness of picturing a man gouge out a cat's eye to that last heart-stopping reveal as the police unbrick the cellar corpse. However, what really makes this story haunting is Poe's exploration of one of the really big questions: the nature of evil. Yowza.
In the long history of humans wondering what evil is and where it comes from, there are two distinct approaches.
One focuses on the idea of evil as a huge, supernatural, overwhelming force that controls all the badness from some seat of power. We're talking Satan, Tolkien's Sauron, George Lucas's Emperor, or even The Nothing from The Neverending Story. What's interesting is that this version of evil is never all that scary because it's almost always part of the same kind of narrative. A small and wildly overmatched hero takes on the seemingly undefeatable monster and despite all odds triumphs.
But the kind of evil Poe is interested in is a more modern version—local, small-time, even ordinary. Archetypes for this idea of evil come from real life more than from fiction—mass murderers, serial killers, the totalitarian bureaucracy of Orwell's 1984, the Nazis. This kind of evil is super-scary specifically because it's not supernatural or otherworldly, but is instead so ordinary that it is actually banal, which makes it all the more likely that all humans have a shred of this kind of evil inside them.
Think about it: Poe’s narrator is just a regular guy who commits acts of savagery and violence for really no reason at all. Maybe it's the alcohol, but plenty of people drink without murdering those around them in gruesome ways. More likely is that the narrator is just acting on an impulse that we have all had and been able to suppress. But, the story asks, will we always be so lucky?