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Russell, Randy. Ghost Cats of the South. John F. Blair, Publisher, 2011.
This one comes from half of the duo that gave us Mountain Ghost Stories from last year. It’s exactly as advertised – supernatural stories of cats from all over the South, including photographic illustrations. The author did a similar one for dogs, as well.
It has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Mountain Ghost Stories. There is basically no investigation of the folkloric background to these tales, despite an introduction by the author that discusses his work as a “ghostlorist.” In fact, it’s hard to tell the original legend in some of them (and some even sound like thinly veiled fiction). Russell claims that the South has older stories than any other region of the U.S. But even those two oldest that he claims for this collection (the Cherokee Wampus Cat and the 1740s San Marcos Cat of “Rose Perfume” from St. Augustine, FL) are not likely as old as those of New England and Eastern Canada.
Perhaps the most outrageous in folkloric terms is also the creepiest – an eternally hungry cat ghost called “Eat-Your-Face Cat” from Tunica, MS that haunts a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. “Butcher Cat” from Tuscaloosa, AL sounds downright terrifying (albeit its story is told from the impossible viewpoint of a victim). So do the malevolent Voodoo haint “Chimney Cats” of Savannah, GA. And “Run-Over-Flat Cats” from Birmingham, AL gets downright metaphysical with its two Schrodinger-like cats, pet(s) of a lonely longhaul trucker.
The book is also pretty lacking in North Carolina content. There are only 3 NC stories out of the 22 in the book and they’re all from the Mountain region. One (“Camp Cats”) is from Black Mountain in the west and I was fairly disappointed at the lack of markers for further research in it. It is a sweet story, though, about a young girl who misses her dead cat so much that she brings the kitty’s ashes with her to summer camp. After she dies relatively young in a car wreck, she and the cat come back in feline form as a benign haunting of the place she loved so much.
Another from Hot Springs, “Wedding Cat,” is about a bridesmaid who makes an inadvertent stop in a holler after her car breaks down. In gratitude to the old widower who puts her up for the night, she agrees to take an old “Wampus” mask, that once belonged to his wife, with her to the nuptials. This has the unexpected effect of “birthing” a mischievous ghost cat at the service that figuratively gets the bride’s tongue.
The one from Sylva, NC (“Cat Cookies”) is also a tad vague in historical or folkloric detail, but is gentle in tone. In it, an old spinster (who may or may not be a witch), uses magic cookies to find homes for her many kitties on Halloween among the local children. This one got a “d’awww” from me.
Others deal with witches, too, but those tend to be rather misogynistic (whether the author’s writing or the original source material, I wasn’t sure). The one from Gatlinburg, TN (though most of the locations in the story are near Judaculla Rock in NC) is about the Native American legend of the Wampus Cat (“Slivers of Bone”). Taken from a story by Davey Arch, a contributor to Living Stories of the Cherokee, it involves a Cherokee woman who is cursed for putting on a cougar skin to spy on the menfolk during their night war meetings against the Colonial settlers.
In “Lightning Cat” from Baton Rouge, LA, a luckless witch caught in a storm is eventually forced to take shelter in a tree, where she is trapped (perhaps eternally) by a bolt of lightning striking the tree. Her attempts to escape cause a periodic discharge that locals mistake for ball lightning. I ended up feeling sorry for her.
If you don’t like feline fatality, this may be one to avoid. Almost all of the cats in the stories end up dead, some of them gruesomely in the manner of urban legends (though usually with a more tragic than comic spin to the storytelling, except in the case of the boisterous “Cat Shine” from Edgefield, SC). My favorite part of the book, though, was the collection of vintage black-and-white photos of cats (and their owners) interleaved with the stories. These ranged from adorable to gravely gorgeous. I wish there were more historical information on them.
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