In my first book, Tales of Real and Dream Worlds, you will find a story called The Statuary Cats. Click on the “Critics’ Page” link above for some capsule reviews. The story is old-style atmospheric horror, of the kind Val Lewton and H.P. Lovecraft enjoyed. This tale and its two sequels bear no resemblance to the heavy-handed horror formula I complained about in an earlier blog post.
A couple of psychological hooks are at work here, (as well as a couple of blood-thirsty little monsters who cause all the trouble.) The tale opens at a massive estate mansion in North Carolina. Think in terms of Biltmore House. The principle heir to this vast fortune is having a showing of his art horde:
With fine wine being served to this gathering of art writers in the main hall of his family estate house, Teddy Harnes settled back in a throne-like overstuffed armchair and steadily inhaled the bouquet from the glass he held to his nose. Aspiring journalist Milli knelt by his side, gushing platitudes.
In his lavishly embroidered jacket, he looked a bit like the 18th century dandy who gazed out from the wall in a nearby oil painting. With his long wavy blonde hair and dark mustache, he was reminiscent of a face on a playing card. The Jack of Hearts come to life for a little wine tasting with the local damsels. The year was 1967, and Teddy and his younger sibling Lisette would represent the highpoint of fashion for five hundred miles in any direction.
The art collection is eclectic and widely varied — More than they know, in fact. We follow a dowdy, slightly comical minor character as she sets about exploring the rooms with her leashed white Angora cat in her arms. Mrs. Eddens makes an unauthorized stop in the private office suite of the long deceased Harnes grandfather, to view his personal souvenirs on display. It is in this rarely used room that she encounters them, sitting in a glass case:
A pair of nearly identical seated cat figures, each nearly three feet in height, dominated the display case. She gasped slightly on seeing them. They were carved from some kind of black stone, possibly onyx, and seemed to be lightly glazed. The eyes were done in a different stone, a cloudy quartz. There was an old label for them, too …
“Statuary Cats. Ancient. Variations on Bast? Acquired Ankara, Turkey, 1902.”
They were reminiscent of the Egyptian cat deity, Bast. But Mrs. Eddens’ familiarity with art was enough to know that images of Bast usually featured a ceremonial pendant around the neck, and would likely have more decorative features in the Egyptian style. These figures were not even placed on pedestals, or bases of any kind. They were merely sitting side by side on the shelf. They had a certain regal, imperious effect, with their heads held high and ears swept back. They were distinctive.
From his place snuggled at her breasts, Mrs. Eddens’ cat abruptly stopped purring.
The real cat doesn’t like his proximity to the Statuary ones. He goes from docile and playful into a recoiling, growling ball of panic. Mrs. Eddens sustains some nasty scratches during his struggle to flee the room, and we get our first tip-off that all is not right with this pair of sculptures.
Later, heiress Lisette Harnes is in her lavish bedroom going over a package of information that had been foisted upon her by a mysterious woman. There are reams of papers, including grainy, second generation photocopies of art objects, including the Harnes’ own Statuary Cats. We are not let in on just what she reads, but she is sufficiently intrigued by it to get up and go downstairs to her late grandfather’s office suite and conduct an impromptu examination of the figures:
She turned the statue upright again, cradling it in her arms like a baby while she passed the flashlight beam over its various features. The nostrils and ear openings penetrated deep inside the head, out of sight. And those eyes…
Where did the artist find stone like that? Curving striations made for a whirlpool effect in the quartz, if it was quartz. The eyes were fascinating. She had never examined them this closely before, and had never guessed that these old souvenirs, as they were called, could have such stark beauty. She held the beam near to the brilliant eyes.
She drew in closer, and then pulled back with a start. It looked as if a bug had gotten into the figure, in back of the quartz eyes, and had moved suddenly. Something had moved in there. She looked again more closely, and squinted in the dazzling reflection of the light on the
stone until she had to pull back, blinking.
It was then that she saw its mouth was open.
The lips had parted, as though they were flesh. The mouth had opened. Black fangs pointed downward from behind the upper lip. Lisette froze at the sight and took in half a gasp. She felt her fingertips sinking into the back of the cat, which was now pliable, no longer as stone.
Its jaws shot open wide and a long hissing breath streamed out against her face. As she wavered, its arms whipped around her neck, and it pulled itself toward her with irresistible strength. The compact, fanged jaws slammed shut on her nose and lip.
She roared in terror and agony and struggled to pry off the unreal creature. But it bit down again and again, and ripped at the back of her neck with its black claws. The cat was viciousness incarnate. It could not be dislodged. Lisette collapsed. Seconds later, she moved no more.
The Statuary Cats are not what they seem to be, i.e. stone figures that come to life. That would be fully supernatural, which I don’t write. In reality they are the reverse of statues coming to life. They are living animals of a species unknown to science who have control over their bodily chemistry to the point that they can “ossify,” or enter a stone-like state of suspended animation at will. In the ossified state they can sit out whole decades, maybe centuries. (That’s how they’ve remained unknown to science.) When they rouse themselves they are hungry, carnivorous predators. They can be quite tender and affectionate – with each other. They have personalities of a sort, certainly presence. Despite their unusual physiological trait, they are simply animals, in need of a good hot meal now and then.
Suspense builds due to the “time bomb effect” of the creatures sitting in plain sight, as decorative art on a shelf, completely unrecognized for the menace they are. A dreamlike (nightmarish?) mood prevails. All three Statuary Cats stories are now available as a Kindle ebook, priced to introduce you to my fiction (99c.) amazon.com/dp/B009BUCDP0
And hold on to your white Angora – there’s a screenplay in the works.