A Black Cat, Evil Doings, and Neil Gaiman
I’ve always been fascinated with feral cats. I spent a good portion of my childhood on a cattle farm watching a varied collection of Tom and Molly cats prowling about. To be clear these were not indoor cats we put out at night, and they didn’t have proper names (some did acquire nicknames if they hung around long enough). These felines were wild animals. They may not have been lions on the African planes, but they were feral hunters and that is what fascinated me. I used to wonder what kind of lives these wild and free animals led. That question brings us to Neil Gaiman’s “The Price,” eight pages of well crafted, evenly paced fantasy.
The first person narrator of “The Price” is an author who relays a series of events that occur over a period of a few weeks after his family takes in and cares for feral cat known simply as Black Cat. During the brief time Black Cat stays with the narrator’s family it receives several wounds from fighting with some unknown animal. The narrator is determined to capture this animal in an attempt to protect Black Cat from any further harm. It is during the climactic moment of the story that we learn what the unknown animal is and the importance of this Black Cat to the narrator and his family. Gaiman’s resolution is a punch in the gut, which is what makes it great short story. But a closer look at a couple of points of this story shows Gaiman inverting some common conventions of fantasy literature and folklore.
The first convention Gaiman inverts is that of the black cat as a familiar of witches and others disposed to evil at night. Black Cat is described as, “patch of night.” This a common description of the witch’s familiar, but in this story Black Cat is portrayed as protector, willing to stand against a stronger foe to defend others it doesn’t know. The other convention is that of the black cat as an omen of bad luck and ill tidings. Quite the opposite plays out in this story. Black Cat not only defends this family but it appears to somehow carry the burdens of the family which may explain why it is, “surprisingly heavy.” Black Cat’s presence is a stroke of luck for this family. Gaiman’s inversions of these common conventions help establish depth for both the story as a whole and the Black Cat in particular.
Gaiman’s story “The Price” took me back to a time when I would wonder what the feral Tom and Molly cats were doing when I wasn’t watching. Of course there was no Black Cat on the farm, and I never did see anything like what the narrator of this story sees. But maybe that’s what makes the story all the better. Just because I didn’t see doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
“The Price” by Neil Gaiman from Smoke and Mirrors (1998).