Once upon a time, long ago in the Old Country, a man returned to his cottage late one night, shivering from the cold. His wife took him to the fire and gave him a cup of broth.
"You will not believe what I have seen this night, out at the crossroads," said the man. "I saw eight big black cats, walking down the road toward me, carrying a coffin. Eight black cats, with white patches on their chests and big yellow eyes, like Old Tom there."
"Never mind Old Tom," said his wife. "What happened after that?"
"They got closer to me," the man continued, "And I saw that the coffin was solid black wood, and there was a golden crown atop it. And with every step they took, they let out a mournful cry."
The cat looked up at the man with his broth, licked his chops, and let out a hungry yowl.
"Aye, just like that, Old Tom," said the man.
"Ignore Old Tom," said the wife. "Tell me what happened next."
"They strode up next to me, and the cat in the lead stops, looks over at me, his yellow eyes shining like Old Tom's do."
"Forget Old Tom! Finish the story!"
"And the cat says to me in a loud voice: 'Tell Lord Tom that Lord Tam is dead.' And I ran for home as fast -- "
"God save us!" his wife screamed. "Look at Old Tom!"
And Old Tom had rose up on his hind legs next to the fire. He was growing larger and larger, and his eyes gleamed in the light like blood on a dagger.
"Lord Tam is dead?" he bellowed. "Lord Tam is dead?! Then I'm the King of the Cats!"
And he flew up the chimney with a howl like the winter wind, and no one ever saw Old Tom again.
This is an old, old story, and I've long found it to be one of the creepiest and most memorable old ghost stories around. I don't really know why, as it also seems, on the surface, almost plain and easily forgettable. Is it the eerie nocturnal funeral procession? Is it the way it confirms our unproveable beliefs that cats hide secret thoughts and lives that we can never truly fathom? Is it that final triumphant shout? Whatever the reasons, it's stuck in my brain since the first time I heard it.
Perhaps the oldest description of the story in print comes from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley back in 1824, and she was writing about a tale that was very, very old to her. It can be found in England, in Ireland, in Germany. It has hundreds of variations. In some stories, the cat is the household's elf. In some, the man himself kills the King of the Cats and is in turn killed by his own cat when he recounts the story at home. But the story is older than the English or the Germans.
In the Moralia, Plutarch writes of an Egyptian sailor named Thamus who is piloting a ship in the Aegean Sea. As the boat nears the island of Paxi, a disembodied voice cries out for him by name. When Thamus answers, the voice says, "When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that the Great God Pan is dead."
When the sailors approach the island of Palodes, Thamus makes his announcement. At once, the sailors hear a great tumult, and inhuman voices are raised, though none can tell if they are cries of rage, or of mourning, or if they are sounds of battle, as the spirits compete to become the new Great God Pan.
Research from reading the story somewhere as a child, from "Suppressed Transmission: The King of the Cats is Dead" by Kenneth Hite, on the subscription-only Pyramid website, and from listening to the stories miowed in my garden late at night.