Emily Black | Content Writer
*** Content Warning: Self harm, unhealthy relationships ***
Viral internet sensations tend to come in the form of controversial tweets or amusing videos, not literature. Yet Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, went viral after its 2017 publication in The New Yorker. As a result of this fragmented reception, the story received attention due to a form of mistaken identity. Whilst spiralling into the spotlight as a piece of fiction, many readers thought it was a personal essay, or confession. Written in the third person, and constructed with careful literary craft, the piece is, in fact, fiction, although there is hardly a solid line between the categories of literature and ‘truth’. What the story did secure, however, was Roupenian’s 2019 print publication of her collection, Cat Person and Other Stories.
The title story centres around Margot, a college girl who becomes involved in an uncomfortable romance with an older man, Robert. The narrator aligns with Margot’s youthful narcissism, subjecting Robert to a downplayed body-horror: more gross than grotesque. Neither character oversteps boundaries, neither character is at fault, yet a prevailing sexual unease drives the story. This unease surfaces as a predominant theme throughout Roupenian’s collection, since she focuses on the grey areas of relationships, moving in on the obscure, fantastical, compelling and the horrific.
In the longest tale of the book, Good Guy, the readers are invited to spend time with Ted, an archetypal ‘nice guy’ who christens himself moral because of his quiet quest for the love of a girl called Anna. He deems himself ‘good’ because he maintains a friendship with her despite her romantic disinterest. Ted is a prime example of Roupenian’s hunger for a love-story brand of horror. Lines such as, ‘He gets his revenge in his fantasies, which grow more and more elaborate, until at last they involve sharp knives and utter desperation’, reveal twinkling moments of terror, to cement the feeling that someone, somewhere, has lived this exact moment.
Whilst women are subjected to this modern brand of horror, Roupenian remembers that they are equally capable of inflicting it. Scarred, explores one woman’s power as she crafts a horrific, idealised man in her basement: ‘A body tailored precisely to [her] lust.’ In authentic fairy-tale fashion she finds a spell book that grants wishes, but even this cannot buffer the discomfort we feel; in the twenty-first century, this spell book is nothing but a ‘bunch of Xeroxed pages stapled together’.
The sentiment arose, amongst readers, that Roupenian had unearthed something in the collective subconscious: something too dark for our shiny modern lives, but a living and breathing beast that is suppressed within all of us. Throughout her short story collection she takes this idea and ploughs deeper into the dark-femme unconscious; a layer of the psyche we did not know we had before the writer took up her pen and dug with it.