27 May

Sometimes a story  just seems to pop up out of nowhere and all of a sudden it’s there, pretty much complete and just waiting to be put into words.

It’s nice when that happens, but it doesn’t happen to me very often.

Usually I find that I’ve got a piece here and a piece there and it can take years for the whole thing to come together into something I can use as the basis for a story.

Let me give you an example.

More than thirty years ago I read a short story. It was about a newly married couple who take up with an American tourist on their honeymoon. This American is a nice enough fellow but he has a slightly morbid interest in instruments of torture, but we’ll come back to that. He’s also something of a humorist and when he sees a cat playing with her kitten, he decides to drop a pebble in order to give them a surprise. Unfortunately the pebble hits the kitten on the head and kills it.

The mother cat is distraught and she seeks her revenge. Eventually she has her opportunity as a result of the American’s interest in a  particular instrument of torture and… well, you might read the story yourself some day so I won’t spoil it.

I’d give you the title and author of the story, but I really can’t remember either. I thought it might have been by Edgar Allen Poe, but I can’t find it amongst the collections of his writing that I’ve been able to look at.

Many years after reading this story I saw a film called Cat’s Eye. It was written by Stephen King and it was based on three of his short stories which were all strung together with the linking theme of an itinerant cat who features in all of the stories.

He plays a fairly minor part in the first story, a more significant role in the second and he ends up being pretty well heroic in the third and last (and my favourite) of the three stories.

Overall, the film didn’t really work for me. I liked the basic idea and I was very impressed by the cat, but I on the whole I thought it could have been much better.

As often happens when I find something that doesn’t quite work for me, I wanted to do something in a similar vein and find a way to make it work better.

So for a period of years I had this idea that I’d like to write a story about a wandering cat who drifts in and out of other people’s lives. I wanted the story to be, if not a horror story, at least a story that would have something a little dark and threatening about it.

During this period I was living with a cat called Pugsley. He was my best pal for about sixteen years and I felt that he was a cat who deserved to have a story written about him. Unfortunately, however, I could never find a story to suit him. (Aside from anything else, he was a spectacularly unspooky cat, even if he was a bit of a rogue where the ladies were concerned).

Some time later I came across a book called Mapping Murder. It was written by Professor David Cantor, a forensic psychiatrist, and it was about geographical profiling, which is an investigative technique that he had been involved in developing. (He didn’t coin the term and he doesn’t share in the profits that have been made from geographical profiling software. He made his own software available free of charge to whoever could make good use of it).

This book isn’t especially salacious and it does not sensationalize or glamorize the various offenders who feature in it, but there was enough detail about the likes of Fred West and Robert Black to make me more than a little uncomfortable. (I should point out that I’m not exactly squeamish about these things in general, this probably isn’t a book for those of a sensitive disposition).

One of the ways I have of dealing with things that I find disturbing is to write about them, which prompted me to think about writing about a serial sex offender. (Not my usual choice of subject).

And in the meantime, I had lost Pugsley and two other cats had moved in; Tiger (promptly renamed Tigger), who is a big tabby tomcat with a touch of Siamese in him (to judge by the shape of his face, and his voice), and Holly, a pretty little white cat with psychotic tendencies.

Both are rescue cats, both are eccentric (even for cats) and I suppose they would have stayed at the cat sanctuary for long enough if I hadn’t turned up. (I seem to have an affinity with the kind of cats most people wouldn’t want to share their space with, although there was one cat there, a gorgeous auburn coloured cat, who was a bit too hostile even for me).

I can’t say why it is, but Holly was much easier to fit into a story than Pugsley was (or is). Maybe it’s because of her preternatural aggression. (Local dogs tend to hurry past my garden just in case Holly’s hiding in the hedge waiting to ambush. them). Or maybe it’s just because I know nothing about her early life and how it shaped her. I can see some of the effects, but I have no idea what the causes were. (I knew far more about Pugsley’s background when I took him on). So she’s a bit of a mystery cat, then. (They all are, but she is more so than most).

At about the same time I was reading the classic Jack London stories White Fang and Call of the Wild. I wouldn’t say that either story had a great influence on the plot of my story, but if you’ve read White Fang in particular you’ll probably notice a small spot of plagiarism that I’ve indulged in. (I could call it an homage, but why bother? Everyone steals from everyone and if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best).

Another source I tapped into was a tear-jerking advert for the RSPCA featuring an abandoned dog.

The title of my story was derived from a sort of private joke.

Every now and then amongst a population of bears you get a white bear, (not an albino or a polar bear, but a bear that would normally be black or brown, but turns out to have a white coat). In Native American cultures, such bears were considered to have a special significance and they were called ‘spirit bears’. I’d known about this for some years when I first met Holly and since she is a white cat, it seemed natural to call her a ‘spirit cat’.

So there you have most of the threads that came together to form Spirit Cat. The ones that I’m conscious of, anyway.

As usual, I didn’t want to write pure fantasy, I like an element of fantasy, but I prefer to have it grounded in reality.

In consequence nothing that any of the animals, or humans, do is impossible. Each individual act carried out by each character is perfectly possible and is based on observable behaviour. Admittedly, when you string all these individual actions together you do end up with a sequence of events that suggests a degree of purpose and understanding that you would not expect to see in most cats, or dogs, but I think that’s permissible.

I should add that the character of the cat in this story is not based on Holly alone. She has Holly’s aggression, but her intelligence is more attributable to Tigger or Pugsley. (Holly’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the box). The strong maternal instinct is probably more attributable to another cat called Tessa.

(Tess was also a highly intelligent cat. She was a lethal little hunter and also incredibly perceptive about human behaviour. She always knew when you were trying to sneak upon her with medication or flea treatments and she was an expert in the art of not taking pills).

I’d say that the caring aspect of the cat probably also came from Pugsley. He was incredibly tolerant of brash young cats who insisted on eating first (Although he was also quite capable of putting them in their place if they tried to usurp his favourite spot in front of the fire).

If the ‘spirit cat’ of the story also has a faintly demonic aspect, then I suppose that came from another cat called Max (as in Mad Max). I very nearly called him Damien, for his slightly disquieting beauty. (He had a mostly white face but the skin around his eyes was black, which made it look as though he was wearing mascara, in addition to this, he had the face and figure of an Egyptian Cat God and a distinctly louche character).

But somehow Max seemed to stick as a name, while Damien sort slid off, if I can put it that way, so Max is what he was called.

So having described the origins of this story, I suppose I’d better make it available in case anyone wants to read it.

The story divides quite neatly into four parts and I’ve split it into instalments in the hope that this makes it a bit easier to read. (I seldom read a blog post that’s much more than two thousand words and I don’t expect other people to either, which is one of the reasons why I’ve tended not to publish my fiction on this blog).

I should conclude by stating what is probably obvious by now. This is not a children’s story, in spite of having animals for two of the central characters. I don’t know if anyone’s going to like it much, but it’s one of those stories you write because you, sort of, have to, rather than because it’s likely to appeal to anyone.


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