“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”

This is the piece of weird fiction being discussed this week over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2013.

Cover by Elizabeth Story

Like a lot of Kiernan I’ve read, the plot on this one is rather obscure but the prose lyrical.

It’s more a meditation on movies and the experience of seeing them in the theater, of the compelling nature of light reflected from the silver screen, than about the fictional movie contained within the story. We even are invited to identify with an unnamed movie critic addressed as “you” throughout the story.

We don’t seem to ever get the title of this movie about Elizabeth Bathory von Ecsed, the famed Blood Countess of history. The movie recounts her descent into depravity and her predations on the local women sent to the castle including having one ground into sausage and fed to her unwitting parents.

However, the main part of the story is her relationship to a her lover, a “witch of the woods” named Anna Darvulia.

The other major character is a servant girl who says she had the same tutor as Anna and was taught the same secrets of magic. We don’t know where the servant girl came from (perhaps she is somehow the ghost of one of the murdered girls or Elizabeth’s daughter). Like Anna, the girl urges Elizabeth to run off into the woods as the authorities come to lock Elizabeth up . 

Elizabeth increasingly worries about her sins, that she will be punished in the hereafter. The girl says she can protect Elizabeth. But the latter thinks the girl is there to damn her. However, earlier in the story (when another such girl asked about her protection from shadows in the castle), Elizabeth says she knows the Prayer of Ninety Cats to protect her. 

The girl is upset that Elizabeth is going to make her “face the moon alone” and throws herself off a balcony, is killed, and buried. 

There is a scene with Darvulia speaking to some apparition and she says she has passed her debt on to Elizabeth. Elizabeth tries the spell of cats. The girl shows up again (perhaps she is a symbol of the natural affection and love Elizabeth rejected) and tells her the prayer is useless.  She again says she’s Elizabeth’s daughter, but she also says she has “many mothers” and “many daughters”. 

She says, in response to a question by Elizabeth about her identity, “I am the peace at the end of all things.” The film ends with Elizabeth hurling herself from the walls of the castle. 

Like almost all the Kiernan, I’ve read, it’s beautifully written with a sensual, precise vocabulary. But – and she’s admitted she wished she could dispense with plot – Kiernan’s work sometimes strikes me as the literary equivalent of aerogel: ethereal and mysterious but not possessing a lot of substance and with nothing weighty to sink into the mind of the reader. Still, it transports the reader, however briefly, to another place and that’s not to be denigrated in the field of weird fiction.

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