An Anthology Of Cat Tales Designed To Provoke And Terrify

Legendary editor Ellen Datlow has whipped up something evil and fun for SF/fantasy fans who are drawn to cats. Her new anthology, Tails of Wonder And Imagination, is devoted entirely to felines, and they aren't exactly your cutesy wufflemuffins.

Out this month from Night Shade Books, Datlow's anthology is simply packed with stories, and includes giants of the genre like Stephen King, Kelly Link, Carol Emschwiller, and George R. R. Martin. She's also defined "cat" rather broadly, so you've got everything from sabre toothed tigers resurrected by mad scientists, to manticores, tigers, and house cats. And there is certainly enough here to delight anyone who has been mesmerized by a furry pal who can suddenly turn into a screaming ball of WTF.

However, I should issue a warning to cat lovers. This book is not a sweaters-and-tea vision of our little animal friends. In fact, if you are the kind of person (like me) who reads Cute Overload and has been known to snorgle on teh kittehs in your house - this book is going to freak you the fuck out. In these stories you'll find cats being burned alive, skinned, tortured by evil scientists, strangled by psychos, and murdered in at least a dozen horrific ways. While I'm glad Datlow went the dark route instead of the wufflemuffin road, some of these stories are jarring and unpleasant to read.

A case in point is "Catch," by Ray Vukcevich, where two scientists work out their marriage problems while torturing cats to death in the lab. I'm not one to shy away from dark horror, but the torture here seemed egregiously horrific. That said, Kelly Link's haunting "Catskin" is also full of cat torture; but the intensity of her story depends on those scenes, which are completely integral to this tale of a young man raised by his witch-mother's spirit in the body of a vengeful cat.

There are, of course, many tales here that explore the strange, mystical bonds that form between humans and animals. Charles de Lint's story "Dark Eyes, Faith and Devotion" is a sad, evocative tale of an ex-con who comes to the aid of a woman - or is she a cat? - under the spell of a modern-day wizard. And Carol Emschwiller's story "A Safe Place To Be," with its spare, intense tale of a woman and her cat trying to flee the city from a disaster they know is coming, reminds us that animals are sometimes the best humans.

Rarely printed stories appear here, too, like Peter S. Beagle's hilarious "Gordon, the Self-Made Cat," about a mouse who goes to cat school. And there's also Susanna Clarke's never-before-in-print story "The Dweller In High Places," which previously aired as a radio story on BBC.

Cats turn out to be the secret protectors of humans in Neil Gaiman's semi-autobiographical, sweet-but-gory "The Price," where it turns out that the only thing standing between the Devil and Gaiman's family is a fierce black cat. And in George R. R. Martin's amusing "Guardians," psychic cats help a wandering environmental engineer to stop sea monsters from destroying the human outposts on a colony planet. Of course psychic cats abound in this book, whether because they're secretly megapowerful sex goddesses (Sharyn McCrumb's "Nine Lives To Live") or because they're just ordinary housecats who need a friend on the day they're killed at the pound (the ultratragic "Returns" by Jack Ketchum).

While filled with a lot of great stories from top writers, this collection suffers from extreme unevenness - there's a just plain bad Joyce Carol Oates story called "The White Cat," for example, which fails embarrassingly to emulate Poe's style. And sometimes the exoticization gets out of control in several stories that try to deal with Native or Asian myths about cats. But for every dud, there's an amazing story that rips your heart (or intestines) out.

Ultimately Datlow has succeeded in doing something that seems impossible, which is that she's put together an anthology about cats that's not for cat lovers. It's for people who love science fiction and fantasy, and who will be intrigued by the myriad ways that great writers try to tackle the often-evoked figure of the feline.

Tails of Wonder and Imagination via Night Shade Books