This is the first in depth look at British mystery cats for years, and in it Merrily Harpur examines a wide variety of narratives of mystery cats and examines the various theories which have been suggested to explain them. In doing so she points out the many problems and improbabilities associated with such popular explanations as that they are the result of animals being let loose after the passage of the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act, or that they are escapees from circuses.
Real escapes she notes tend to be recaptured pretty quickly, as they are ill-adapted to life in the wild. There are just too many reports, and too many of them are of rare black leopards (panthers), yet there are none of 'ordinary' spotted leopards. Equally the chances that such a large animal could be some relict natural home population, hanging on from the ice age must be pretty remote also. How could they have escaped generations and generations of hunters and then naturalists? This must surely be true, if there were real big cats out there in past centuries then hunting them would have become a royal sport!
Nor do these animals behave like real big cats, for example they never actual kill people, and where the bodies, the road kill, the clear and unambiguous photographs? There are just too many different kinds of cat, and cases where more than one kind are seen together, and they have some very strange properties.
Harpur's researches take her to areas of folklore, mythology and occultism far removed from paws and pelts cryptozoology. She notes the animals appear in liminal places such as roads, railway embankments, hollows in the ground, and a surprising number seem associated with golf links (a kind of liminal zone between the totally domestic and the totally wild).
She is drawn to her brother Patrick's theories of the daemonic realm, derived from the Neo-Platonists. Of course daemons is just a posh word for boggarts, djinns, elementals, ultraterrestrials, fairies etc, and it can be argued that the Neo-Platonist interpretations are little more than attempts to assimilate existing folk beliefs into their philosophy. The boggarts, by what ever name one calls them, are liminal entities which stride across the realms of matter and spirit, habitat and wilderness, real and imaginary etc.
Harpur's folkloric studies take her into the folklore of the cat, itself a boggarty, liminal creature: partly a creature of hearth and home and partly a creature of the outer wilderness. Cats are notorious hunters which bring home their prey - as happened to a friend of mine when her cat presented her with a disembowelled, still living bird - where they become messengers bringing the wilderness in all its implacable otherness into the warm domestic environment.
Mystery cats symbolise the continuing wildness of nature; even in a largely urbanised and tamed place such as Britain, they give hints of the something dark and dangerous round the corner. These stories seem to contain hints of ambiguity of perception, and Harpur considers this, but tends to reject the possibility of misperception. Yet her ideas and those of mis- (or perhaps re-) perception are not as far apart as she might think.
The boggarts, daemons and djinns are the bastardised petty gods and supernaturals, they are images by which that which is beyond all images, concepts and language can be imagined. The very domesticity of some of these nature spirits points to the absence of any clear boundaries between the wild and the domestic. The mistake that an occultist interpretation of this tradition makes is to assume that the boggarts are some extra spooky ingredient to the world. Rather we should see them as metaphors for the total numinosity of everything. The mistake that anomalists of various kinds make is to assume that there is anything which is truly ordinary.
There are stories in this book which might give a hint at what is going on: witnesses see a black plastic bag, a brown paper bag or a log or a boulder which on second look becomes a big cat. These are images of the ordinary becoming the extraordinary.
What could be more symbolic of the ordinary, secular, profane, and artificial than a black plastic bag? But this bag, like a deserted old house, is going to the wild. Perhaps in that setting there is dropping of the of the guard and a momentary apprehension of what a truly awesome terrible and wholly other thing a black plastic bag really is, an experience which evokes "massive shock and awe". Such an emotion is quite inconsistent with our idea of a black plastic bag, and indeed if plastic bags routinely evoked feelings of shock and awe we could never deal with them on a day to day basis, therefore the image is replaced by something much more appropriate to the feelings evoked.
Merrily Harpur notes that mystery cats tend, despite their superficial differences, to exhibit some common patterns. one of these is a pitch black cat with a white bib. Breaking from reading this book to make lunch, what should I see on my lawn, but a (domestic) cat, black as night with a nose as white as snow, its back turned to me. It turned and gave a knowing look, then resumed its contemplation. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 92, June 2006