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Review: 'The King of the Cats', by P. T. Cooper

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The King of the CatsONE winter's evening the sexton's wife was sitting by the fireside with her big black cat, Old Tom, on the other side, both half asleep and waiting for the master to come home. They waited and they waited, but still he didn't come, till at last he came rushing in, calling out, 'Who's Tommy Tildrum?' in such a wild way that both his wife and his cat stared at him to know what was the matter.
'Why, what's the matter?' said his wife, 'and why do you want to know who Tommy Tildrum is?'
'Oh, I've had such an adventure. I was digging away at old Mr Fordyce's grave when I suppose I must have dropped asleep, and only woke up by hearing a cat's Miaou.'
'Miaou!' said Old Tom in answer.
'Yes, just like that! So I looked over the edge of the grave, and what do you think I saw?'
'Now, how can I tell?' said the sexton's wife.
'Why, nine black cats all like our friend Tom here, all with a white spot on their chestesses. And what do you think they were carrying? Why, a small coffin covered with a black velvet pall, and on the pall was a small coronet all of gold, and at every third step they took they cried all together, Miaou -- '
'Miaou!' said Old Tom again.
'Yes, just like that!' said the sexton; 'and as they came nearer and nearer to me I could see them more distinctly; because their eyes shone out with a sort of green light. Well, they all came towards me, eight of them carrying the coffin, and the biggest cat of all walking in front for all the world like -- but look at our Tom, how he's looking at me. You'd think he knew all I was saying.'
'Go on, go on,' said his wife; 'never mind Old Tom.'
'Well, as I was a-saying, they came towards me slowly and solemnly, and at every third step crying all together, Miaou --'
'Miaou!' said Old Tom again.
'Yes, just like that, till they came and stood right opposite Mr Fordyce's grave, where I was, when they all stood still and looked straight at me. I did feel queer, that I did! But look at Old Tom; he's looking at me just like they did.'
'Go on, go on,' said his wife; 'never mind Old Tom.'
'Where was I? Oh, they stood still looking at me, when the one that wasn't carrying the coffin came forward and, staring straight at me, said to me -- yes, I tell 'ee, said to me, with a squeaky voice, "Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum's dead," and that's why I asked you if you knew who Tom Tildrum was, for how can I tell Tom Tildrum Tim Toldrum's dead if I don't know who Tom Tildrum is?'
'Look at Old Tom, look at Old Tom!' screamed his wife.
And well he might look, for Tom was swelling and Tom was staring, and at last Tom shrieked out, 'What -- old Tom dead! then I'm the King o' the Cats!' and rushed up the chimney and was nevermore seen.


Wikipedia says that The King of the Cats is an ancient British folk tale. Its earliest complete written form is dated to 1782, though Sir Walter Scott commented that it was a well-known nursery tale by then; and earlier allusions to it have been made in British literary works predating Shakespeare, with still earlier variants featuring elves found in Irish mythology.

There have been many modern variants and new literary works inspired by it, including Barbara Sleigh’s 1955 Carbonel, the King of the Cats, which I reviewed here last November. Now Perry T. Cooper has written a novel that expands upon the tale, and tells what happens to the new King of the Cats from the beginning of his reign.

West Chester, OH, Autumn Breeze Publishing, May 2012, trade paperback $9.99 (217 pages)

The old king was Thomas the Fifty-Sixth, well-beloved but so elderly that his death was expected by all in the cat kingdom. Those most concerned are his son Alexander and his chamberlain Ebon. Alexander is worried because King Thomas was recently overseen talking in human speech by a human scoundrel.

Anyway, Elihu Fox had been returning from an evening of petty theft in the countryside when by pure chance he’d passed by the castle at the exact moment when the King of the Cats was speaking in a human voice to a feline assembly. The king did this once each year on the anniversary of his coronation; it was done partly as a celebration, and partly as an affirmation that the king still retained the powers which separated him from ordinary cats. (p. 19)

Elihu Fox has been sneaking around, hoping to capture the talking cat to make a fortune exhibiting him. Ebon is unconcerned – let him look; after all, the old king is dead now. A greater worry is finding who will become the new king:

‘He was a great king, just as you said. A very great king.’
‘Yes,’ came the reply in a voice that was nearly a whisper. Then there was a pause as the smaller tom slowly lifted his head and gazed up at the old chamberlain. ‘And now who’s going to be the King of the Cats?’
The old tom shook his head. ‘No one knows. I posed that question to Cecelia; she can sometimes see things that have not yet happened, you know. But all she knows at the moment is that the king’s successor hasn’t been revealed, and that he will be someone that none of us here have ever met.’
Alexander scowled. ‘If only we did this sort of thing the same way that humans do!’
‘Yes. Then YOU would be king. And I’m sure you’d make a fine king, Alexander. Unfortunately, we have no say in the matter.’
The younger tom curled his lip, and his sharp white teeth flashed in the moonlight. ‘I know,’ he hissed. ‘But it just doesn’t seem right. My father is gone, and he’s going to be replaced by some stranger.’
Ebon gazed up at the moon. Wisps of cloud passed before it, then drifted away across the dark sky. ‘It may not SEEM right,’ he said in his deep, soothing voice, ‘but it IS right. This is the way it has always been. A king dies, and somehow his powers pass on to another. We don’t know how it happens, and we can’t control it. But we must TRUST the power that chooses our king, Alexander; because it always chooses wisely.’ He managed a smile. ‘After all, it chose your father.’ (pgs. 24-25)

That is the prologue. The story starts with Jack Tigerstripes, a brawny young tomcat lazing on a pier at a seaport on the east coast of England. Jack is mildly concerned about the death of the King of the Cats – King Thomas was well-loved; also, “The news was also a blow to the pride of every cat, for it meant that, for the moment at least, the cats of England had no king. For the moment, the cats were no different from the dogs or birds or mice. That realization was a bitter pill for any cat to swallow.” (pgs. 31-32) – but it does not really concern him. Then a cat escapes from a ship bringing an exotic cargo from the Orient to England; a strange blue-eyed, frightened Siamese she-cat named Mayura. Jack helps her to hide from the humans pursuing her, and their adventures begin.

They have several adventures, but the common thread is that Jack is the new King of the Cats and he suddenly has the human voice to prove it. He scares off (temporarily) dogs with it, and makes the mistake of showing off his new power to humans. Ebon, Alexander, and Cecelia arrive to take him to his coronation, but Alexander feels that, human voice or not, Jack is a common boor who does not deserve to be King of the Cats. Several others agree with him. Crazed Elihu Fox is waiting, unsure whether to enslave him for his value as a raree show, or kill him in case he is a demonic goblin. Jack is horrified when the seeress Cecelia predicts that he will face terrible difficulties; he will suffer terror and pain; and he will end his life in exile.

The King of the Cats is being promoted both as a children’s novel and as a book for cat-lovers. Certainly, but Furry fans are sure to enjoy it as well. The vocabulary is adult; there are talking animals besides the cats; the personalities are distinct, and several show character development. This book does not have an age rating, but I would say that it is a good read for 12 up, definitely including adults. And it has a very attractive cover by Moa Wallin.

Comments

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Interesting - I certainly encountered the original (oddly creepy) story in books of fairytales when I was small.

~ Huskyteer

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My elementary library had a collection of short story collections edited (well, probably not actually edited, but at least introduced and possibly selected) by Alfred Hitchcock; I was introduced to Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds," Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" and Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" in grade school via the Spellbinders in Suspense (I recently came across a collection associated with Hitchcock called Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do On TV, which is the best title ever). I respected the man's literary taste; he always seemed so smart in those "Three Investigators" books, after all.

This probably explains a lot about me.

One collection he did (Alfred Hitchcock Presents Something Something MONSTERS!, so it was my first pick, of course) featured a short story entitled "The King of the Cats" (I cannot remember the author's name) wherein the new King Tom is actually disguised as a human and totally macking on the narrator's would-be girlfriend; a friend who is into mythology and fairy tales advises him to tell the fairy tale of "The King of the Cats" around this strangely catty gentleman, and, well, I've already spoiled the ending, haven't I? It was my introduction to the fairy tale; whenever I read the old version, I feel like the story is only half right. No, dude, it wasn't the cat; it was this really cat-like dude who shouted, "Then I am the king of the cats!"

Because of the "you're telling it wrong" feeling, the story feels more like an urban legend than a fairy tale to me.

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I remember that at least one of those "Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do On TV" appeared on his program soon after the anthology came out. They ruined the story by the sappy new ending they gave it to get it onto TV.

Fred Patten

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Of course, the real irony is today, most of them would be not only completely fine, but also tame to do on television (though a few, he admitted, were more about lack of special effects, which also wouldn't be much of a problem anymore); I think the only one that wouldn't work even today would be the Ray Bradbury one, "The Halloween Game" (or something; I'd describe it, but it works on a twist).

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About the author

Fred (Fred Patten)read storiescontact (login required)

a retired former librarian from North Hollywood, California, interested in general anthropomorphics