Written almost 172 years ago and a mere 10 pages in length, “The Black Cat” is the darkest and most disturbing of all of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. A sinister short story rife with themes of domestic violence and animal cruelty, “The Black Cat” is similar in subject matter to another of Poe’s greatest stories, “The Tell-tale Heart”, but I think “The Black Cat” is superior in both creepiness and eloquence.
The story, which is told in first person, is a confession from an unreliable narrator on the eve of his execution for the brutal murder of his wife. Certain parts of the narrator’s story are unsettling to read for sure: his descent into alcoholism and self-hatred, his delight in the torture of animals (gouging out the eye of his gigantic black cat Pluto) and ultimately the act of murdering his wife by burying an axe in her head and walling her corpse into the wall of his cellar.
What is especially compelling about the narration is that many aspects of the story are left up to the reader’s imagination. Is the cat Pluto, named after the god of the Underworld in Greek Mythology, a witch or demon in feline form? Is Pluto the same one-eyed cat with the shapeshifting mark of a gallows on his chest? Did Pluto return from death to seek revenge by burning down the narrator’s home? How does Pluto become walled in with the corpse of the narrator’s wife, climatically exposing her murder? After finishing the story, I was also left wondering if Poe’s vast literary influence helped perpetuate certain myths about black cats, that they are demons or witches in disguise, an omen of death or even that cats have 9 lives.
MARK KULAKOFF with Lacy Soto
Lacy Soto – What’s your spookiest experience?
Mark Kulakoff – I found a dead man in a river tangled among the boulders. This was in Ecuador, where I grew up. It was this small mountain town called Papallacta, with hot springs – not very resort-y at all. The non-profit organization my dad worked for actually had this big hydroelectric plant, that they built there. We were hiking up this big river. We got about a mile along, and it had this maybe 300 foot bridge over the top of it. So, when we got to this point, I saw some clothing in the rocks along the river. The friend that was with me, said “Don’t go over there.” But I got closer, and it was a dead person. The cops said it was either drug-related, he got pushed off the bridge – or maybe he was drunk – because this was the middle of nowhere. That bridge was at least a mile from town.
How old were you?
I was maybe… in middle school, so my friend already knew, when he said “Don’t go over there” – but I just hadn’t seen it. I was in explorer mode. I could go into details, but….
LS – Any favorite Halloween costumes from years past?
MK – I was the tree from The Giving Tree. This is from the Shel Silverstein book. I built a tree, and I carried around apples and gave them away at the parties I went to.
Did you slowly chop yourself down, as the night went on?
No, but I should’ve. That’s the next level.
LS – What are your technique and materials for this piece?
MK – Pen, ink, and computer.
LS – Any particular reason you chose “The Black Cat”?
MK – I have 3 unique black cats. How could I resist! :)
LS – What typically inspires your work?
MK – Problems & Constraints. I’m not a fine artist; I come from a graphic design background. A lot of it is more about problem-solving. You might have an issue that needs to be visually translated, so you have a sender/receiver. You have the client that is sending the message; you have the audience that is the receiver. You are the translator. So, it basically comes down to problems, a visual problem that you have to solve. You might look at other images, just to get a sense of the zeitgeist, you know, what other people are doing, not too weird, not too personal – it can’t really be personal. You take all these different points into the problem, and have to find a nice balance. It’s all mixed with problem-solving and intuition- it depends on what kind of issues are addressed. With conceptual art, it’s much more theoretical, there’s an idea behind the artwork that might not be communicated. You might have to be introduced to it by the artists or it’s a statement. But with design, you have to just say it. I guess that’s where my inspiration comes from. You could find weird little things, “Oh, I’d love to make a project based on that-”
But you’re more interested in, How can I get this meaning across instantly, to a total stranger, on behalf of somebody else?
Exactly. For me, that brings out things that are a challenge and inspiration.
I feel like I’ve heard people sort of deride commercial art or graphic design, as if it’s somehow not legitimate art….
Well, if you have a gallery, the gallery owner needs to sell paintings to make rent – so they might sort of force you to do your thing. So, at the end of the day, you’ll find that fine artists are kind of doing the same thing. Everything is a little commercialized. Everyone wants to make money; everyone needs to pay the rent. I’ve talked to tons of fine artists, and the ones that are more successful, they’ll say “Yeah, I can’t really try new things. They just want me to do the same old things.”
Oh, sure – same with actors, writers, bands –
Exactly. I probably get paid a little better, but I don’t know – it has its positives and its negatives.
How did those ideas – of problem-solving and communication – influence your approach to Poe?
I like abstraction in design and visual communication. I like refining something to its essence, in comic books and graphic storytelling and posters. So, I wanted to sort of tell the story in a very loose – it kinda looks like a comic, but more loosey-goosey. Some of it is illustrated in a surreal way; some is more literal – like the cat hanging, because he hung the cat – but there’s an eyeball holding a flag – which is not in the story, but the cat’s eye does get ripped out. So, there are playful things, and there are things from the story, and some that I just wanted to do because they’re cool images! I don’t know. I really like the eyeball, but it is such a cliché, whenever someone wants to do “sight” or “vision”. This was a good excuse to draw eyeballs, which are weird and fun.
LS – Any book recs for artists?
MK – Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Do you still teach?
Right now, I teach a class at Cal Arts. It’s motion graphics, animation, design, illustration mixed with live action and 3D. I’m not the best animator, but this is more on concept development, ideas, visual languages.
What’s the coolest project you’ve ever done?