spooktober marches on with a spoooky caturday!
this is the THIRD cat-horror book i have read from grady hendrix’s treasure trove of pulp horror, Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. in both Panther! and Cat, the killer animals featured were these kinda cats:
Feral features…these kinda cats:
and you may scoff and think that a little lap-sized cat is a silly thing to be afraid of, and then i will know you for a dog-owner. any of us who have lived with a cat knows that they may be ostensibly domesticated, but they don’t always have the temperament of a domesticated creature.
cats are highly adaptable
if it were just ONE naughty little killer-cat, you may still have scoffing rights. but what if there were hundreds?
hundreds of cats with the taste for human blood?
hundreds of cats who give zero fucks?
i mean, you know about japan’s cat island, right?
picture these cats, turnt.
it’s cute when they come knockin’
but less so when they come nommin’
so anyway, that’s what this book is. what else is this book? terrible. i mean, i’m sorry, but it’s fucking TERRIBLE. i didn’t hate reading it at all (three
stars cats for FUN!), but the writing is shockingly bad, even by pulp horror standards, it would be a generous two.
and maybe you don’t believe me that a horror novel about killer cats from 1974 could be anything other than award-winning prose with a well-constructed storyline and delicately nuanced characters, but don’t worry—i’ll walk you through it.
let’s dig into the plot: a couple moves from the big city to an isolated house on long island for the summer. they get a kitten and name it sneakers and enjoy its company, but at summer’s end, when it is time for them to return to the big city, it’s like their brains melt with WHAT CAN EVEN BE DONE WITH THIS CAT BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER OWNED A CAT IN THE CITY BEFORE AND WE MUST RID OURSELVES OF IT BEFORE THE CITY DENIES US RE-ENTRY, and they end up dumping poor sneakers on the lawn of some rando house in the village AT NIGHT because who knows, maybe this family wants a cat! they have kids, after all!
quick interruption to discuss how quickly things move in this book. it begins on page 9 and pages 9-18 are devoted to their being shown the house and deciding to take it. pages 18-28 detail the events of their first summer there, including the entire sneakers story arc. and then on page 29, it’s already the following summer! time flies when you don’t care about your craft! and this second summer is the summer of the cats. there have been, in pages 9-28, hints dropped of feline presence and unusual animal behavior, but now it’s gonna get way catty.
SO—on page 31, they find a dog who has been all tore up by an animal, and they take him to the local vet dr. tucker, who, while smoking a cigarette in the examination room, tells them that the perp was probably a cat. shock and disbelief is expressed until dr. tucker uses his best medical-words to explain cats to them,
“Those cats, those strays—they’re not just wild. They’re crazy. They’re half sick and half starved and, I think, really crazy. They act like it, anyway. I live out Northwest and those woods are full of cats. And there’s more of them every day. Talk about rabbits! Those darn cats will breed three or four times a year.”
“That’s a lot of kittens,” I said.
after that absolute mess of a paragraph, doc tuck goes off on a rant about ’summer people’ who dump cats all over the island when they go back home, forcing the cats to fend for themselves. shock and disbelief shift into deep shame and guilt, and from where i’m sitting, they deserve all the mayhem of what’s to come.
dr. tucker may share my contempt for kitty-abandoners, but my kinship with him was quickly tarnished by his odd and off-brand smug attitude after telling a gruesome story of a cat who, unbeknownst to him, had curled up under the hood of his car to stay warm and was cut in half by the radiator fan:
Amy stared at him. “Ugh,” she said. “That’s horrible!”
“Yeah,” Dr. Tucker said. “I thought so, too. It was a real mess. But it sure got rid of that cat.”
sooooo, not the most consistent feline advocate.
anyway, to take a page from this book and skim over the plot—the area has become overrun by cats. so very many hungry cats who have already ingested most of the local wildlife and are going to have to climb up a rung on that food chain to survive.
our lazily-written couple may be in a less-populated part of the town, but they are not all on their own; they are blessed with several peripheral characters who enter their lives in order to provide ominous exposition about the town’s unusual and worsening cat situation, featuring dialogue notable for being among the worst i’ve ever encountered.
a plumber who comes to fix the toilet helps flesh out the feline origin story:
”It’s a nice place,” he said. “It’s real pretty. But I don’t know—I wonder how I’d feel without some neighbors around me.”
“I’ve got a neighbor,” I said. “I understand there’s a family named King just back of the ridge on the Fresh Pond road.”
“You mean Miss King?” he said. “She died last winter.”
“You never knew her?”
“She was some old lady,” he said. “She used to teach at the Amagansett School. I had her myself in the fifth grade. Then she retired, they finally got her to quit, and she started collecting animals. You know—strays. These woods are full of strays. Old Miss King, she’d take in anything that came to the door. She had dogs of every size and shape there is. And cats—she always had a yardful of cats. And I remember one time, she even had a goat.”
He reached out his thumb and pushed the lever and watched the toilet tank fill. He fitted the lid back in place. He picked up his toolbox.
“Old Miss King,” he said. “She must have been close to ninety when she died. They found her dead in her bed one morning—a niece that used to come and see her. She just died away in her sleep.”
“What happened to all her animals?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never heard. I guess they went back where they came from. I guess they went back to the woods. I told you they were strays.”
on a lark, i cut and pasted this passage into https://wordcounttools.com/, which is the resource i use whenever i’m writing a review for LARB or somewhere else where i need to stay within a certain word count. one of the additional features the site provides is a “readability level.” i suspected this one would be low, with its short sentences, basic grammar constructions, and repetition, but i had to laugh when i saw HOW low: 5th-6th grade student. so you don’t have to trust my opinion, but you can’t argue with that Dale-Chall readability score!
a chicken farmer with a yardful of cats of his own—sitting, strolling, sprawling, stretching, preening, sleeping cats. There were black cats and white cats and gray cats and tiger cats and tortoise-shell cats and calico cats and Persian cats and—many strange combinations, provides local color and more detail about local cats:
”That’s quite a collection of cats you’ve got out there. Are they all yours?”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “I got plenty of them. They just keep coming. I can’t hardly keep track. But, sure—they’re all mine. Every goddam one.” He wiped his hands on a towel and leaned against the counter. “A stray comes along here, I blow his goddam bastard head off.”
INSTANT KINSHIP LOSS #2
he goes on, inspired to one helluva long monologue. you can almost hear the rustling of playbills, the crinkling of hard-candy wrappers:
”Have you had trouble with stray cats?” I said.
“Not no more,” he said. “But I did—I sure hell did. All last spring. I go in a henhouse in the morning. I or this guy I got, and it don’t look right. Something wrong. Last night I got twenty hens in there. Now—I only count nineteen.”
“A cat got one?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what to think. The first time, I think, What the hell, I guess I made a mistake. I guess I only got nineteen hens in here. But I only think that once. The next day, I got another hen gone. And then it’s a couple of fryers, or a broiler. So it’s got to be something is getting in the houses at night. But I don’t know what. And I sure hell don’t know how. You know these chicken houses—how they’re built. They got to be rat-proof. When you lock the door, the only way in is the window, and that window is ten feet up. Maybe twelve. So what kind of bastard animal climbs a wall like that and around a push-out window and down another wall and takes a chicken and comes back up and out? I guess maybe I better find out. This guy I got, he goes home most nights. It’s up to me. O.K. This night I don’t go to bed. I take my gun and I go out and find a good place to sit and watch. I don’t smoke or nothing. I just sit and wait. And pretty soon—son of a bitch! Here comes a cat across the field—down from the woods where they live. I watch him come up to a henhouse. I don’t do nothing. I want to see what happens. And when it happens, I just can’t hardly believe it. That goddam cat goes up the side of that henhouse like some kind of human fly. And he twists around the window there just as easy. And in. I hear the hens begin to squawk. And then back the bastard comes. He’s got a hen in his mouth. I let him hit the ground. Then—blam! I’ve got him. There’s nothing left but pieces. I got the hen, too. But i can’t help that. You got to pay to learn. And I sure as hell learned what a hungry cat can do. So the next day, we got some chicken wire and fixed like a screen on all the chicken house windows.
what i will carry in my heart forevermore from this passage is not the sacrifice of the noble, truth-seeking farmer-detective just trying to make ends meet, nor the cat turned into bloody confetti just trying to keep himself from starving. no, what will stay with me in my most reflective moods is the image of A (GODDAM) CAT GOING UP THE SIDE OF A HENHOUSE LIKE SOME KIND OF HUMAN FLY. it is a simile to move one to tears.
other exposition-pals include a birdwatching guide:
We were in some old fields out northwest where the birding is usually fantastic. I don’t understand it. I mean, it’s strange. It’s damn strange. Don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do. It is strange.”
There was a pause. Payette cleared his throat. “Well, anyway,” he said. “Tell your wife I have her book.”
“I will,” I said, and hung up.
I put a new sheet of paper in my typewriter. But then I got up and walked over to the window. It wasn’t really strange about the birds. Or rather, it was strange, but it wasn’t exactly a mystery. I looked down at the depths of the lilac clump. I thought of the little red finch that had nested there. But it really was strange. It gave me a very strange feeling.
despite the overuse of the word ‘strange,’ this one attains a 9th-10th grade student level!
incidentally, many things in this book are strange: It had been strange to leave and now it was strange to be back. there will be many more instances. feel free to turn it into a drinking game.
there’s also a local stable owner:
”We had some tough years, you know. But we’re beginning to get the breaks. We finally got that new pasture we wanted. And we finally found a really reliable feed company. And we won that lawsuit against that fool that got kicked. And I still can’t believe it—but we’ve finally licked the rat problem. I don’t know what we did right. But it must have been something. Because the rats are gone. I haven’t seen a rat in the stables or anywhere else since way back in the middle of May.”
“I’m not kidding,” he said. “I’m telling you the truth. We haven’t got any rats.”
“None,” he said. “Well—maybe one or two.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean—it just seems strange. I’ve never heard of a stable without rats.”
“Neither have I,” Tom said. “But…” He shrugged. “I’ll give you a call about riding.”
there’s that ‘strange’ again! GLUG! both of these passages are notable for characters who can’t seem to stick to their own stories: is it strange or isn’t it? are there rats or no rats? but they also have the most charmingly abrupt ways of concluding a conversation with a digression. ‘welp, that’s that chapter wrapped up!’
you can tell by what i’ve already (over)shared how bad the writing is, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. it’s so…lazy.
Sam thumped the floor with his tail. He got slowly up and slowly stretched and moved slowly toward the sofa.
because synonyms are hard. it does leave the reader with one burning question: BUT AT WHAT SPEED DID SAM THUMP THE FLOOR WITH HIS TAIL? WHY SO SECRETIVE, BERTON ROUECHE?
it’s sloppy and repetitive and oddly-phrased.
The tumble of branches was full of cats. I counted seven. I counted eight of them. I counted eleven crouching cats watching me through the branches.
and as for the pacing, the authorial decisions here make no sense. i’ve already mentioned how rushed everything was in the first twenty pages, and that’s true for most of the book, but then there are passages like this that boggle the mind with their unnecessarily granular details.
are you ready for this action sequence that tales place at the post office?
I locked our box and carried the deck of mail across the stale, refrigerated room and spread it out on the counter under the warning: IT IS A FEDERAL OFFENSE TO ASSAULT A POSTAL EMPLOYEE. There was a copy of House & Garden with the cover torn halfway off. There was an appeal from the Environmental Defense Fund. There was a flier from Grant City at Bridgehampton. There was a bill from the Amagansett Lumber Co. There was a catalogue from L.L. Bean. There was a letter from my brother in St. Louis. And there was a big green and gray Modern Science World envelope. That was what I wanted.
good lord, the PADDING!!
and this little bit—were there no editors in 1974?
Amy raised her head. “I just thought of something,” she said. “I know somebody who might have some ideas—somebody who maybe could help.”
“Dr. Tucker,” she said. “You know, the vet. Maybe you could talk to him.”
“I thought he was very sympathetic,” she said. “I liked him very much.”
“So did I.”
“Why don’t you call him.”
“I liked the way he talked,” I said. “I think he knew—I think he suspected something. I think maybe you’re right. At least he might listen.”
“I think you ought to call him.”
“I don’t suppose he would be free this afternoon,” I said, “But maybe we could make a date. Maybe for tonight.”
“Jack,” she said. “I want you to call him—right now.”
“Well,” I said.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! OR LESS, I’M NOT SURE.
I opened the telephone directory on the counter in the pantry. It contained three listings for Dr. Tucker. One was Albert C. Tucker DVM res. The second was Albert C. Tucker DVM ofc. The third was Tucker Animal Hopsital. I dialed the hospital number. It was the same as the ofc listing. The number rang, and I waited. It rang and rang. I began to count the rings.
that is a lot of needless description about making a phone call. by contrast, a woman who dies of cat-related septicemia gets only this:
She stood in the doorway, catching her breath.
“What?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, Jack!” She shook her head from side to side. “The most awful thing. I just saw Linda. I ran into her at the store. And Naomi died last night. She’s dead!”
and the chapter ends and then on the next page they are at a cocktail party where something else that no one cares about takes up a chunk of the page:
The bar was a harvest table at the end of the living room, and there was a crazy-looking picture framed in silver on the wall behind it. I found a useful bottle among the empties and poured myself another drink and looked up at the picture. But it wasn’t exactly a picture. It was a coat of arms—the coat of arms of a family named Prather. I thought for a minute, and remembered that Prather was Dorothy Winter’s maiden name. So that cleared that up.
SO THAT CLEARED THAT UP!
the on-page horror is slim. there are many cats. they roam the grounds. they kill the animals. the way cats do. maybe slightly more aggressively in this “many cats/limited resources” situation.
they kill people, but mostly anecdotally—the stray cat biting poor departed naomi, dooming her to septicemia, some children are attacked and succumb to their injuries, etc. there is only one on-page human-killing, and yeah, it’s rad, but all of the human casualties, and many of the animal ones, are delivered offscreen—our hero hears screaming and rushes to see a man with his face torn up by something that was maybe a cat but even the victim is unsure, rabbits and a baby deer are found torn up and eaten by something that maybe could have been a cat, but who even can say, and View Spoiler »their dog gets attacked a second time and dies, but unlike the ‘mail i have received’ sequence, it is so spare with the details, it was not immediately clear whether the animal they found was sam, or if the animal was a corpse or only injured. « Hide Spoiler those details are inconsequential, i suppose. and obviously, duhhh, it is the cats doing all of the things, but it’s all just hints and whispers of stuff happening elsewhere while instead, we get to know quite intimately the contents of a man’s mailbox.
now, as for cat-on-cat violence, and the trigger-happy retaliation for these cats going to extreme measures to stay alive—there’s a lot of that on-page. many cats getting gunned down. many furry corpses. many cats falling on the bodies of their fallen brethren and eating them. which is a solemn death ritual in some human cultures, so let’s not judge these cats for their grieving rites. be a little more woke, yeah?
i’m on the side of the cats here, who are the clear victims of this story. you abandon a hunter, it’s gonna hunt. you shoot cats who are just out roaming your property, maybe looking for food that isn’t you, you deserve whatever pushback you get. you feed strays and you get bit and diseased, that’s on you. the people in this book were very dumb. the man is an editor for a science publication and he refers to these cats as “prototype tigers,” proving he has no clue about evolution and should be in a different line of work, and *karen’s hot take* deserves to be outsmarted by cats.
one good thing, though, is that during dr. dummy’s scene, he discusses how resourceful cats are; that dogs are bad at surviving on their own, while cats thrive. this allows me to plug the verybest cat book i have ever read, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, which discusses this, and other fascinating cat-info, in great detail. you should read that book. you can read this one, too—it’s a bunch of dumb fun, but The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World is a must-read for the cat-mad booknerd.
i’m running out of reviewing-steam, and i’ve already dragged this on way longer than i ought to have, but i do want to share the blurbs, because the praise for this book is bewildering!
“Pure horror fiction at its nightmarish best!”
“This one could scare the daylights out of you.”
-San Francisco Examiner
“A brilliant little horror”
-Los Angeles Times
“The most frightening takeover since The Day of the Triffids”
-The New York Times
“A chilling novel…reminiscent of the great classic fantasy, The Birds”
“A climax that is bloody , shocking; as terrifying as…The Birds”
“Mounts inexorably to a horrifying climax”
“A feline Jaws…Roueché develops it with his impeccable timing and step-by-step respect for suspense.”
-The New York Times Book Review
“The story builds to a screeching climax of horror.”
“A humdinger of a scare story”
-Los Angeles Times
oh, god, these COVERS!!