Beware the Cat  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Beware the Cat (1561) is a short English novel written by the printer's assistant and poet William Baldwin (sometimes called Gulielmus Baldwin), in early 1553. Beware the Cat is notable as the first horror fiction text longer than a short story, and it has been claimed by academics as the first novel ever published in English.<ref>Ringler, William A. and Michael Flachmann eds. "Preface." Beware the Cat. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1988.</ref>

Publication history

Beware the Cat predates Shakespeare's work by some decades, but has similarly archaic language and ideas that are typical of the 16th century in England. The work languished unpublished after 1553, due to the change in the political climate under Mary Tudor, but it was eventually published – perhaps with some revision – in 1561 (suppressed by the state, and now lost) and again in 1570 (now only known via a Victorian transcript, other than four pages that still exist) and finally in 1584. The work was dedicated to the actor John Young. On publication in its 1570 edition it was subject to an anonymous poetic riposte of 56 lines, "A shorte Answere to the boke called: Beware the Cat", which rebukes the author for making fun of the narrator Master Gregory Streamer (who is not otherwise known to have really existed). The novel survived the centuries, and was published in Typographical Antiquities (1786) as a fine example of black-letter printing. It was also known in mid-Victorian times, since it was published by the Chetham Society in their volume Remains, Historical & Literary (1860). It received almost no attention from literary scholars, although William P. Holden produced an obscure edition in the original archaic English, issued from Connecticut College in 1963. A full scholarly edition only appeared in 1988 (Ringler and Flachmann), after which some further scholarly papers appeared.


There is an anti-Catholic undercurrent in the plot, but many of the allusions are now lost and many such aspects of the book may not even be noticed by modern readers. The initial setting is in London in the reign on Edward VI. The story is framed by the oration of an embedded first-person narrator on a cold Christmas night, one Master Streamer, who recounts a complex cycle of interlinked stories to two of his friends as they share his bed. These stories feature an Irish werewolf, the Grimalkin, and an underworld society of talking cats, among several other horror and magical/supernatural elements such as an ancient book of forbidden lore and magic potions. The use of dialogue is highly advanced for the time, the characters are clearly drawn, and the description of the London streets is vivid (such as a unique account of a Tudor printing house and its yard at Aldersgate). The subtlety of the anti-Catholic sentiment also sets it apart as a knowing piece of effective propaganda. The first two sections are essentially horror stories, and the book is then lightened with a third and more comedic section.

In its structure the book resembles the ring composition method found in fairy tales and preliterate storytelling.


An abridged adaptation, put into modern English, was published in Tales of Lovecraftian Cats (2010).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Beware the Cat" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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