In order to celebrate World Book Day, I’ve decided to put together a short list of my favourite characters and reads that centre on big cats. Some are heroes, some are villains, some aren’t so easily classified. Cats carry mystery with them – so no wonder they make such excellent characters and subjects for these great books.
Bagheera is the black leopard that offers his sage like wisdom to Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Born in captivity as part of a Rajah’s menagerie, he plans his escape into the jungle following the death of his mother. He is described as having the cunning of a mongoose, as bold as a buffalo and as reckless as a wounded elephant. Kipling describes him as having a voice like honey and skin softer than down. The Jungle Book is a real favourite that I return to again and again.
The Tiger – John Vaillant
This is the true story of a man-eating tiger on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. To the horror of a team of hunters, it emerges that the attacks are not random; the tiger is engaged in a vendetta.
Injured and starving, it must be found before it strikes again, and the story becomes a battle of survival between two main characters: Yuri Trush, the lead tracker, and the tiger itself.
Coeurl is an alien cat-like creature that appears in A. E. Van Vogt’s short story ‘Black Destroyer’. It later became incorporated into his novel ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’. Coeurl is unusual in appearance as a feline as his front legs are twice as long as his hind ones, and he has two tentacle-like appendages attached to his shoulders that possess suction cups. Coeurl feeds on the id of other beings – a potassium based organic compound.
When a human starship arrives on the planet, they find Coeurl but assume him to be an unintelligent animal, and even allow it to come on board. Coeurl realizes it can feed on humans but plays along in order to learn more about them and their ship. Eventually however, it gives in to hunger and kills and feeds on one of the ship’s crew. The crew suspects the Coeurl did it, and tries to prove it by feeding the creature organically-bound phosphorus similar to that in the victim’s bones, but Coeurl is smart enough to pass the test. I remember this book in particular because it was one of the first to ever put you inside the mind of the beast.
The Nature of the Beast – Janni Howker
It started out as a game. A game that Billy and his friend Mick play to take their minds off the fact that the mill might be closing and everyone could lose their jobs. They’ll hunt down the Haverston Beast, that’s killing sheep and hens and maybe even men, and kill it. So what if the farmers say it’s just a dog – they know that it’s real and they’re out to prove it. But then Billy’s dad finds out that the mill might close for ever, and suddenly the game doesn’t seem so much fun any more – and the terrifying Beast might be closer to home than Billy imagined… An astonishing novel about the monster that is unemployment, and its devastating effects on a local community, The Nature of the Beast is as painfully truthful and relevant today as it was when it was first published, to critical acclaim, in 1985.
Elsa the Lioness
Elsa is arguably the most famous lioness in the world after appearing in both Joy Adamson and George Adamson’s books, as well as the movie adaptations. Born Free was a book I used to love reading to escape to a world where man (or woman in this case) and beast walked side by side. Seen through the lens of history, it now appears Joy Adamson was much warmer towards animals than people and both her life and death are subject to controversy, but her stories offer tales of a time and place now gone and much changed.
The Beast in the Garden – David Baron
When residents of Boulder, Colorado, suddenly begin to see mountain lions in their backyards, it becomes clear that the cats have returned after decades of bounty hunting drove them far from human settlement. In a riveting environmental tale that has received huge national attention, journalist David Baron traces the history of the mountain lion and chronicles one town’s tragic effort to coexist with its new neighbours. As thought-provoking as it is harrowing, The Beast in the Garden is a tale of nature corrupted, the clash between civilization and wildness, and the artificiality of the modern American landscape. It is, ultimately, a book about the future of our nation, where suburban sprawl and wildlife-protection laws are pushing people and wild animals into uncomfortable, sometimes deadly proximity.
There is of course, another big cat in Kipling’s Jungle Book. But in contrast to Bagheera’s role as teacher, Shere Khan is the undoubted villain. Despite being born with a crippled leg and scorned by his own mother (classic roots for a psychopath anyone?!), Khan is arrogant and regards himself as lord of the jungle. It is his hunt of humans that separates a certain man-cub from his parents in the first place.
Kipling portrays Khan in the way they were depicted at the time. Cowardly, injured animals that perhaps couldn’t hunt other prey. And although not necessarily true of other big cats, there does seem to be a grain of truth in this. Nearly all of the tigers that Jim Corbett, a famous hunter of man-eaters in India tracked and killed sported injures, just like Lungri – or ‘the lame one’ as Khan’s own mother called him.
If this list of big cats in books hasn’t been quite enough to sink your teeth into, why not check out my novel Shadow Beast. You might just recognise some attributes from these famous felines! Shadow Beast is in Amazon’s Top 100 chart for British Horror. Read it now before the thrilling sequel, The Daughters of the Darkness hits the shelves.