A Tale of Horror

Thanks to my cat, I can, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combinèd locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”

Porcupine NPS11952
A fretful porpentine after listening to Hamlet Senior.
Got that? Harrowed soul, frozen blood, eyes popped out and hair on end. (Question: were dreads the ‘in’ thing at the University of Wittenberg, or was Hamlet just bad at combing his hair?)

If, however, these effects on your soul, blood, eyes and hair do not constitute your idea of a good time, allow me to redirect your attention to some other cat-related posts:

the nine poses of the cat,

weird things cats bring in,

cute kitten baby photos,

my senior cat’s snobbisms,

cats and their creatives,

the question of whether cats are really dragons (according to E. Nesbit, yes)

and a discourse on cats in cones.

As a bonus, here’s a picture to explain what cats think of snow:
Black cat being snowed on
Still with me? Let the horror commence.
Picture to yourself the scene. A quiet domestic evening in a comfortable (if somewhat cluttered) living room, perhaps with a cosy logfire to drive away the winter chill.

A cat calls, without. (Sounds like a stage direction by Shakespeare.) Cat then enters through back of living-room cupboard. This is entirely appropriate: small children have known for years that terrors emerge from the back of wardrobes and the like.

The cat proves to have a bird in his mouth. This household has a strict Thou Shalt Not Eat Bird policy (as least as far as the cats are concerned; two-legged members of the household have been known to roast and eat free-range chickens). I therefore leapt upon the Kitten (for it was he) and compelled him to release the poor thing.

Barn cat with bird
He complained vigorously (albeit in a rather muffled tone), but at length complied, letting it drop limply to the carpet. At this point, my first order of business was to determine whether the bird was in any way salvageable. This may sound foolishly optimistic to you, but I have had my successes. After a night resting in a quiet cat-free pigeon-hole in the woodshed, at least three birds have been sufficiently recovered to fly away under their own steam, leaving nothing but a splot behind. A fourth required bolstering up with a worm from its mummy (or possibly daddy, I didn’t ask), before it felt able to depart.

The first thing which caught my eye about this bird was the limp way its neck flopped. Broken, thought I to myself. Deceased; no hope. But wait! My eye, feverishly scanning the sad little lump of feathers, caught sight of a pinkish pulsing patch. The bird lives – what then? But scarcely did I have time to wonder what the most humane course of action would be (and whether I had the skills to carry it out) than my eye was arrested by the bird’s face.

There was something wrong with its beak, it looked like. Perhaps a congenital deformity which had rendered it easy prey to the blackguardly cat. I looked closer, squinting in the dim light of the bulb far overhead. My heart lurched.

H. de Fromantiou Trompe l'oeil 1666
The ‘deformity’ attached to the face of this head-lolling bird was a snail. Confused, I looked back to the bare and pulsing patch, only to have my worst fears realized, as it dropped away and began to crawl across the carpet.

The bird was alive… with maggots.

I ran for the ash shovel and the toasting fork (which, as God is my witness, will never be used for the toasting of foodstuffs until it has been suitably cauterized in the fires of, e.g., Mount Doom), and scraped the whole sorry bundle off the carpet – not exempting the carpet-perambulating maggot – and flung it into the darkness outside, no doubt setting a new snail speed record as I did so.

There is one comfort to be had from all this: it does rather support our theory that at least some of the broken-necked birds which the [insert disgusted epithet here] cat brings in have died of natural causes (counting cats for the present as unnatural, which I am strongly inclined to do). Windy nights and broken necks have a high correlation, it would appear.

How have I coped with this distressing experience, I hear a kindly reader ask?

The Scream
Not too badly, I thank you. Apart from a steadily decreasing tendency to suddenly cry “Maggots!” in a traumatized tone, I seem to have taken the horror in my stride.

But I will never look at snails the same way again.

Seven Evil Uncles of Fiction

The Evil Uncle is a well-established and familiar form in fiction, and has been since – well, let’s take a look, shall we?

The classickest of evil uncles, to my mind, is Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, who kills his brother (Hamlet Senior), steals his brother’s wife (in that order) and usurps the throne which was rightfully Hamlet Senior’s and is now rightfully Hamlet Junior’s. Confronted with this heaping pile of villainy, he feels a modicum of remorse (see Act III, Scene iii) – but not enough to actually try to put things right to the extent that he still can.

Claudius_at_Prayer_Hamlet_3-3_Delacroix_1844Slightly younger than Uncle Claudius is Uncle Richard, aka the Duke of Gloucester. (Only slightly younger – c. 1592 as opposed to c.1599-1602. Not 1485 – I am putting him in the fictional category as Shakespeare’s version doesn’t adhere all that closely to historical fact. Probably because he was writing under the rule of the grand-daughter of the man who killed (and replaced) Richard.) Shakespeare’s Richard orphans one niece and nephew, marries off the former to a nobody and imprisons the latter, has two other nephews murdered, and tries to marry another niece. That is a bad uncle.

Zipping on two or so centuries, to the late 1830s, we come to Kate and Nicholas Nickleby’s Uncle Ralph, a cold-hearted Scrooge of a man who uses his niece as bait for objectionable men and tries to ruin his nephew. He veers from the classic mould in not actually killing his brother (possibly because his brother doesn’t have a throne), but he doesn’t give a damn that he’s dead, either.

Nicholas Nickleby, (1875?)
C.S. Lewis furnished the world with two fine examples of the Evil Uncle genus. First (in 1951), Prince Caspian’s Uncle Miraz, who returns to the purity of the classics by killing his brother and pinching his crown – as well as planning to kill the rightful heir. Unlike Claudius, however, he does not pinch his brother’s widow, being already married to the hilariously named Prunaprismia.

Lewis’ second example is the magician who has the nephew in The Magician’s Nephew (1955) – Digory’s Uncle Andrew. A fool, perhaps, but an ambitious, meddling and arrogant fool, which to my mind qualifies him for the title of an Evil Uncle.

“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle’s face… and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew’s grand words. “All it means,” he thought to himself, “is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”

Carl Spitzweg 015
So far the list of Evil Uncles seems to be dominated by the fruitful minds of the male of the species: two of Shakespeare’s, two of Lewis’, and one of Dickens’. But now, at last, we come to an Evil Uncle from the mind of a woman.

The woman in question is Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael, and also of Iveta de Massard’s Evil Uncle Sir Godfrid Picard (from The Leper of Saint Giles, 1981). He may be further from the murdering, throne-stealing Claudian mould than many of the above, but he’s still prepared to force his niece to marry a rather nasty man who is older than her father, purely for his own financial gain. And to blackmail her into pretending to like it by threatening the life of a young man she cares for. In short, a rotter.

The final Evil Uncle of the list is due to make his appearance in January 2018. Also from the mind of a woman (mine, in fact), he follows the classic mould in killing his brother to seize the throne, and trying to kill the rightful heir as well. (Why mess with a winning combination?)

man-1519667_640It is perhaps worth noting that of the first six Evil Uncles on the list (spoilers!), five are dead by the time the tale is wound up. I decided to be boldly different, and as a result, the death of Princess Lily’s Evil Uncle Phelan is announced before Chapter One is wound up. But of course, that’s not the whole story…

What fictional Evil Uncles have I missed? Feel free to add entries to the list below!

O For a Muse of Fire – or Not

The last thing I need is a chamber-pot of burning coals dumped on my head every time I get a bright idea.

Jean Raoux - Vestal Carrying the Sacred Fire

There are two broad schools of thought when it comes to muses, which one might call the Pooh and Rabbit Schools. (See this quote post for the difference.) Which do you belong to? Do you wait for the muse to descend, or do you go out and hunt the fickle wench down?

Some creatives swear by the former (“I’m not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work” – Ray Bradbury) and some by the latter (“I don’t wait on the muse, I summon it at need” – Piers Anthony). Some just don’t believe in muses at all (the Eeyore School of Thought?).

Earlier this year I went to see Plum at the Court Theatre in Christchurch. P.G. Wodehouse’s muse appears as a dapper if dissolute young lady in waistcoat and trousers, and she is, as one would expect, as much fun as a barrelful of monkeys.

Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14627, Marlene Dietrich

Naturally, being a writer myself, I started to wonder whether I had a muse, and if so what she/he/it looked like. Of course, writing isn’t the only muse-related area. The Greeks had Muses for everything from history to dance to astronomy. Perhaps one could have a Muse of Housework, who frolics about the house with a frilly cap and feather duster, singing forbidden songs.

But what exactly are we talking about when we say “muse”? Someone who inspires us? An anthropomorphic representation of inspiration? Our own self or variant thereof when the creative juices start to flow? Well, judging by classical depictions, the only qualification for being a muse is an ability to look classy while leaning on something, wearing nothing but a sheet.

25.Euterpe auf Brunnenwand(1857)-Friedrich Ochs-Sanssouci-Mittlerer Lustgarten Steffen Heilfort
22.Brunnenwand mit Polyhymnia(1857)-Friedrich Ochs-Sanssouci-Mittlerer Lustgarten Steffen Heilfort
Palais Erzherzog Albrecht - Musensaal Muse
Plaque of Calliope, Muse of Heroic Poetry, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons and Thomas Bentley, 1768-1780, blue jasperware - Chazen Museum of Art - DSC01993

See what I mean? Anyone could do it! Sheet, piece of furniture – voila.

Not all muses are the lady-in-a-sheet sort, though. Kerry Greenwood (author of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, among others) says “If I ever saw my muse she would be an old woman with a tight bun and spectacles poking me in the middle of the back and growling, ‘Wake up and write the book!’” Like this, perhaps:

Senator Rebecca Felton 150010v

Stephen King seems to have a male muse, judging by this description: “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

Man smoking a cigar

Definitely not as cute as Jubilare’s fuzzy little muse, despite the pointy teeth.

I like the idea of a chic waistcoated muse, or a savage little fluffy one, or even a plain old draped version. But having thought about it, I’m afraid my muse is kind of a cross between Hamlet and Cookie Monster.
“Words, words, words – om nom nom nom!”

Difficult to illustrate, particularly without running into copyright or trademark issues. Something googly-eyed and berserk with a mouthful of sentences and the occasional stray crumb of a letter dropping to its furry tum? With inky paws, I suspect.

What’s your muse? I’d love to hear!