Weird #23: “The Town of Cats'” by Hagiwara Sakutarō (1935)

Hagiwara Sakutarō

Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” comes as a slight change of pace. There’s no cosmological horror. No gruesome murders. No existential despair (well, maybe a little), and no ghosts either. There’s a mood of uneasiness, but it’s the uneasiness you feel when you’ve lost your way during a pleasant summer walk.

“The Town of Cats” is Sakutarō’s only short story. The author is known as an innovator of colloquialism and free verse in Japanese poetry, and although I have no acquaintance with the rest of his work, I can guess how “The Town of Cats” might express some of his ideas regarding the poetic imagination. For instance, “The Town of Cats” gives a sense of Sakutarō as a poet with definite metaphysical leanings: “All philosophers must … doff their hats to the poets when they discover that the path of reason only takes them so far. The universe that lies beyond common sense and logic–the universe that is known intuitively to the poet–belongs to the metaphysical” (236).

The narrator of this story is a poet and a drug addict who is currently recovering at a hot springs resort. Every day he takes a walk for his health. However, due to a condition of his inner ear, he has almost no sense of direction. He is even liable to get lost within a few meters of his own home.

One day, he happens upon a cheerful town that seems unreal, projected on a screen. Then he realizes this town is merely his own, familiar neighbourhood, but seen from a perspective where the compass points have all reversed. This change in perspective completely changes the way he imagined this space, leading to him seeing the boring old town in a new way.

All this is setup for his encounter with the Town of Cats. In a nearby town, he hears legends and folktales of two secretive towns: one said to be possessed by dog spirits while the other is possessed by cat spirits. Only a few have ever seen the okura, the spirits’ true form. The narrator does not believe the legends, but listens intently for “anthropological” purposes (235).

However, while on one of his walks, he loses his way and finds himself in a Borgesian “labyrinth of countless paths” (236). Searching for civilization, he stumbles upon a town beyond his wildest dreams: a marvelous town that is a picture-perfect image of a prosperous Japanese town, with a barber shop, photography studio, and an observatory, and plenty of shady, narrow streets. The town has a hushed, tranquil silence, a certain grace and sense of absolute harmony.

The town is described in terms resembling a poem. The narrator says it is “an artificial creation whose existence relied on the subtle attentions of its inhabitants,” just as a poem relies on the subtle attentions of the poet. “It was not just its buildings. The entire system of individual nerves that came together to create its atmosphere was focused on one single, central aesthetic plan” (238). This decadent description of the town reads like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, especially the meticulously designed chambers of Prince Prospero’s mansion in “Masque of the Red Death.” Poe once said that a short story should strive to produce one single effect in the reader, which sounds quite similar to Sakutarō’s insistence that every element in this town contributes to one aesthetic plan. Of course, this leads to the unanswered question of who’s aesthetic plan it is.

However, as with any poem, this rigid form of harmony is delicate and can be easily shattered into a million pieces by a single disruption. The sense of extreme uneasiness the narrator feels is the threat that it could all become undone if so much as one element drops out of place. This “extreme anxiety” causes the “serenity of the town [to] become hushed and uncanny. I felt as if I were unraveling a code to discover some frightening secret” (238). The smell of corpses fills the air. One senses an air of dystopia to this town, where everyone is made to confirm to a perfect ideal of not only aesthetic, but social harmony–an ideal that is impossible to sustain without a revolution threatening the sense of order.

After a sound like a kokyū, the truth of the town is revealed. A black rat appears in the middle of the street and then the universe stops “dead” (239). Cats appear everywhere: in windows, on the street. There are no longer any people in the town, just “cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, and more cats!” (239) This eruption of the underlying, spiritual reality of the town lasts as a brief sense of chaos and mischief–what John Clute might call a Revel (“The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror”).

When he regains his senses, the narrator sees that the town is just the same, boring town with “the same tired, dusty people who live in every country” (239). The narrator remarks that “an entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card had been turned over to reveal its other side” (239). There are other dimensions beyond the one we see every day, and this riddle has haunted the narrator since childhood.

By becoming lost during his walk, he crosses into another dimension and sees the cat spirits rise. Like Zhuangzi, who did not know if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, he does not know which town was the “real” town. All he’s willing to say in the end is that the Town of Cats does exist, that it is not simply the delusion of a drugged poet.

Sakutarō defied the conventions of his time to become a poet of free verse. If the Town of Cats was a poem, it could be one of the meticulously crafted, but rigidly conventional Japanese poetry forms against which he was attempting to rebel. The existential fear felt by the narrator at contemplating the collapse of that perfection was an anxiety that must have haunted his experiments in free verse–a desire to sustain the harmony of form, while knowing such a thing is impossible.

In Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” such aesthetic perfection is desirable, but its static, corpselike lifelessness is all too suggestive of death, its very harmony merely presaging its inevitable collapse. Like Poe, Sakutarō evokes the same decadent sense of aesthetic harmony and lifelessness in his description of the Town of Cats.

Next week, I will be examining Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn” (1936).

Weird #1 The Other Side (excerpt) by Alfred Kubin (1908)

In the spreading of the weird fiction virus, “which book was first sick?” (Miéville, “Afterweird,” 1116). Alfred Kubin’s novel Die andere Seite (The Other Side) can be thought of as ‘Patient Zero,’ or at least the one Ann and Jeff VanderMeer thought acceptable to identify for the purposes of their anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It is doubtful that the true Patient Zero can be identified at all. However, Miéville admits “we’re tempted to hunt [it]” (1116). The Other Side may be as close as we can get.

Kubin, an Austrian writer influenced by E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe, published his novel in 1908 and an excerpt translated by Mike Mitchell is text #1 included in The WeirdThe Other Side bridges the gap between old traditions in supernatural writing and new, more modern twentieth-century forms. In the literary history created by the anthologists, the composition of The Other Side is chosen as to represent the moment weird fiction begins to take shape.

Fittingly enough, for a genre Miéville describes as a “burrowing infestation” (“Afterweird” 1115), The Other Side begins with a disease. From the first line, the story is haunted by a sense of the inescapable: “An irresistible sleeping sickness had Pearl in its grip” (1). The omniscient narrator describes a fictional city falling victim to what is at one point explicitly compared to the sleeping spell in the Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. An American, who later becomes a prophet of doom, is the only one unaffected by the sickness, like the Prince in the fairy tale in question.

The sleeping spell spreads rapidly. Society stops what it is doing and falls asleep. This pointedly fails to lead to revolution, despite the opportunities a sleeping populace presents. A political speaker “suddenly bent down over the table, lowered his head and started to snore rhythmically” and the military “training to prepare… for the threatened revolution … just lay down on the ground” (1). With very few exceptions, the entire city is affected for six days, or “at least that was the time calculated by the barber who based his estimate on the length of his customers’ stubble” (2).

By the time the town awakens, however, the real trouble begins, for “during out long sleep another world–the animal kingdom–had spread to such an extent that we were in danger of being swept aside” (2). Creatures large and small have multiplied and infested the city. Foxes and vultures, deer and ibexes have turned Pearl into a terrifying zoo, where beasts may be hunted in the streets for food.

Here the narrative departs the scenario of a modernized fairy tale and enters fully into territory we recognize as ‘weird.’ Human beings and their civilization are being eclipsed by a power larger than themselves: the animal world. The city plunges into decay as wildlife retakes the urban core. The imagery here reminded me of films like 28 Days Later and I am Legend, minus the zombies. The Other Side‘s publication in 1909 proves that such post-apocalyptic visions are not exclusively the domain of contemporary culture.

The novel’s translated prose describes the devastation with a keen imagination and  sensuousness reminiscent of magic realism. There are plagues of locust, serpents, and buffaloes. Castringius, one of the characters, has an apartment with “bats hanging like smoked hams from his curtain rail” (4). Soon the decay of the city is not only evident in the animal infestations but the decay of buildings and artworks, as “precious objets d’art succumbed to an irresistible inner decay without any reason being evident” (5). Kubin, influenced by the Decadent movement, has provided us with this phenomenal representation of decline. It is barely a coincidence that this imagery is eerily reminiscent of the corruption of the painting in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Other Side introduces several important images and patterns of thought that will become prominent in later weird tales. For example, Kubin represents the blurring of the categories by which humanity defines its place in the world: “the nights were wreathed in a strange half-light that blurred all the contours” (5). Furthermore, one’s body and even one’s thoughts become prisons before the inevitability of death and decay. “Oh, if only I could stop thinking, but that functions automatically,” cries the narrator. “There are no certainties that are not countered by uncertainties!” (9) This despair captures the uncertainty and unease that weird fiction will continue to articulate in its later iterations.

How can narrative closure be reached amid such anxiety? It turns out that the only way Kubin can conclude this portion of his novel (keeping in mind that only an excerpt is included in the anthology) is through the narrator’s recognition of a fundamental contradiction in human experience. “Incapable of extended thought, I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence,” he says (10). The final revelation he experiences “closed off the abyss of my doubts and anxieties.”

This statement should, if anything, make the reader feel deeper anxiety. “I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence”: Kubin’s existential irony suggests that human beings are powerless before their environment, but can nonetheless gain some strength by acknowledging this fundamental lack of power. It is almost a variation of Socrates’ famous maxim that he is wisest because he knows that he knows nothing.

However, is this statement really as optimistic as it sounds? Admittedly, it does not sound very optimistic already. But added to the basic gloominess of this conclusion is the philosophical implication that the realization of our impotence does not by itself guarantee that we can have actual power. It is, after all, the fundamental nature of humanity to be impotent. Realizing our powerlessness by itself cannot give us real power, or it would contradict the terms of this thought experiment. Therefore, it can only give us inner strength.

Realizing that we are the puppets of other forces in the universe cannot by itself rescue us from our fundamental condition of enslavement. As puppets, we cannot cut our own strings. The best that can be hoped for is a certain stoicism as we recognize our place as puppets within the larger system that controls us.

There’s your cheery thought for the day.

The Weird opens with Kubin’s observation of an existential contradiction. Although it is not a very optimistic vision, the infestation of the weird has begun and I’ve cracked the topsoil in my archaeological study of weird fiction. On that note, I leave you until next week, when I will express my thoughts on The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908).