While browsing in a Barnes & Noble bookstore (one of three left in the entire city of Chicago) I came across Cat Out of Hell (2014) by Lynn Truss. The blurb on the book was enticing enough for me to make an impulsive purchase and I started it that very day. I didn't stop until I was finished. I can tell you that never happens with me reading a new book any more. What made it such an "un-put-downable" read? It's 100% original, 100% unpredictable, and 100% just plain fun.
On the dedication page Truss has this public notice: "To Gemma, who loves proper horror, with apologies". I don't know who Gemma is, a relative or friend of Lynn Truss, but she's a girl (or woman) after my own heart. I love proper horror, too. And this is the real thing. Plus, it's funny! Why Truss finds it necessary to tack on an apology I don't really know. Maybe because the book is about a talking cat? A couple of them, in fact.
Roger is a cat who has literally lived nine lives. He has suffered eight torturous deaths at the hands of his surrogate father -- a wiser, older, somewhat sinister and utterly intimidating black cat who goes by the moniker "the Captain." There is a mystery about The Captain and Roger isn't telling his present owner, a middling actor who makes a living touring in a production of that British farce chestnut See How They Run! The first part of the story -- the bizarre life of Roger and his owner Will Caton-Pines, the actor -- is told through a series of documents and emails sent to Alec Charlesworth a retired librarian who is getting over his wife's recent death. It's all a bit hard to swallow for Alec. Is the story a hoax? Much of it is told in the form of a bad screenplay. And why has Alec been sent these documents about a talking cat who seems to have been responsible for the deaths of several humans? Alec has several mysteries to solve. But all will be explained as this exceptional, brightly funny, and often bloodcurdlingly gory black comedy makes its way to the inevitable battle of good vs. evil in the final pages.
When a book is this good I cannot begin to summarize the plot. I don't want to. The thrill of this kind of popular fiction so well done, so imaginatively thought out, and suspensefully told is in the actual reading. Cats have always been a source of sinister inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe to Sax Rohmer to Stephen King. The movies also are filled with tales of villainous or murderous cats with Cat People, The Uncanny, and Eye of the Cat some excellent examples that come immediately to mind. Even heroic cats have been depicted trying to thwart evil human deeds as in the nasty revenge story Shadow of the Cat with a screenplay by George Baxt. But here is a horror story in which a cat is an anti-hero, a sort of feline Tom Ripley. You can't help but like this rather unlikeable, potentially murderous ball of fur. For much of this short and briskly told novel there is a Highsmithian air of ambiguity about the proceedings. Are the villains the cats or the humans? Is it all a coincidence that Roger's previous owners have all died in a series of bizarre accidents? How do Roger and the Captain figure into Alec's life? The denouement is completely unexpected and reminded me of Dennis Wheatley, Sax Rohmer, Aleister Crowley and a dash of H. P. Lovecraft all rolled into one weird hodgepodge in the insane blood-soaked finale.
For a thoroughly original spin on familiar horror themes, an ingeniously thought out feline conspiracy theory about the purpose of cats in the world, and a well plotted multiple murder mystery Cat Out of Hell gets high marks from me. I feel like reading it all over again. Rush out and get a copy right now!