Saturday, March 5, 2016

Theodore Sturgeon: "Helix the Cat"

Theodore Sturgeon (1918--1985)
"Helix the Cat"   a short story
from The Ultimate Egoist:  Volume 1, The Complete Stories

This is one of Theodore Sturgeon's short stories, one that I hadn't read before.  As usual, it's a bit quirky, as most of his tales are. It is an early story, written in 1939 and rejected at that time and finally published in 1979.  Why? I don't know.  I think it's a delightful little tale with an interesting cast.

It's a first person narrative, and it takes place in the home of Pete Tronti, the narrator.  Pete has a small lab at his place, and that's the cause of what happens in the story.  Most of the story happens there.

Another character in the cast is Helix.  Pete tells us, "Ah, he was a cat.  A big black tom, with a white throat and white mittens, and a tail twice as long as that of an ordinary cat.  He carried it in a graceful spiral--three complete turns--and hence his name.  He could sit on one end of that tail and take two turns around his head with the other.  Ah, he was a cat."

The third character is a soul, the soul of a dead man, Wallace Gregory, and he, or actually his soul, turns up because he was trying to escape from Them, the Soul Eaters!  This is why we find Pete in his lab, apparently talking to an empty bottle.

To be brief, Pete has invented a new type of glass and has just completed making a bottle of  it.  It is a flexible glass that bounces when dropped, and it has other properties, as Pete unfortunately discovers.  Wallace, or his soul,  explains that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body, and this is when They, the Soul Eaters, enter the scene.  They eat the souls of dead humans, but not all dead humans.  Something happens to the souls of people who know they are about to die.  Wallace doesn't know what--maybe grow a protective cover or something.  Any way, They don't go after the souls of those who had known they were about to die.

Wallace explains that he didn't know he was about to die, and therefore his soul didn't have enough time to get protected.  They were about to grab him when he spotted Pete's latest invention and somehow realized that the glass bottle would protect him, so he dived into the bottle.  As long as he stays inside the bottle, he will be safe from Them.  Perhaps some time in the future, he will find a human who is willing to die and let Wallace occupy the now empty body.

All goes well until Wallace gets bored.  The thought of spending an eternity in a bottle doesn't excite him any more than it excited the various djinn or genies we hear about in various tales.  He is getting desperate trapped there. But, he has an idea.  He tells Pete that by making some appropriate changes, he could occupy the body of a small animal, such as a dog or a . . . cat.

Pete looks at Helix and is horrified.  " 'You 're being emotional,' said Wally scornfully.  'If you've got any sense of values at all, there'll be no choice.  You can save my immortal soul by sacrificing the life of a cat.  Not many men have  that sort of an opportunity, especially at that price.' "

Pete makes his choice, and sadly, he makes the wrong one.  He's somewhat appeased when Wally tells him that Helix's soul is in no danger from Them.  His soul will just leave and go where animal souls go.  And, since Wally's soul is in telepathic communication with Pete's soul, Helix is unaware of Wally's existence and therefore, Wally's plans for him.

Wally modifies Helix (souls can do all sorts of things that they can't do while in a live body), so that eventually Helix is able to talk and read and write, and now it's time for the Great Transformation.

But, things did not progress as planned, by anybody. This should have been expected since deception was a part of the plan and that never bodes well.  In fact, everybody involved was deceiving somebody--the double-cross was SOP in the Great Transformation.  Another complication is that several of the cast knew things that the other members didn't know that they knew, but they didn't know everything.  The outcome, once again, disproved that old adage, because, let's face facts,  "what you don't know CAN hurt you."

But it did show, as usual, that another old adage is true:

 "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
       (and cats and souls and Them)
   Gang aft a-gley."

However, the situation ended, and contrary to Shakespeare, it did not end well.  


  1. Ah, a shaggy cat story with a shaggy dog story ending? Don't Hindus believe in living again as animals? Any connection to Felix, the cartoon/comic character or just coincidence? Hey, I could use some weird humor today. So it goes.

  2. R.T.,

    From notes provided with the story: "The title 'Helix the Cat' has a bit of personal significance: the creator of the very popular cartoon 'Felix the Cat,' Pat Sullivan, was a friend of Sturgeon's mother when she was doing public relations work in New York in the 1920s, and it was through that friendship that she acquired her nickname, 'Felix.'"

  3. R.T.,

    A shaggy cat story--I like that.

    Yes, Hindus believed that if one doesn't live as one should, one will come back as an animal.

  4. Sounds like a fun story, Fred. At first I thought that if I read the story, I might not enjoy it so much if I didn't like Wallace, but when I saw where it was going, just as well to dislike Wallace. Sounds like they should have used a dog. Go, Helix!

  5. madamevauquer,

    That's the flow of the story--I was sympathetic to Wallace at the beginning, but . . .

    It's a short read, bur it makes an interesting point about loyalty
    and also going where no man (or cat) has gone before.