March 8, 2012


by Berton Roueché
124 pages, Pan Books

 Review by Pat Black

I was amazed to discover that Berton Roueché is the author’s real name. I almost wanted it to be false – it would make it more awesome if so.

Mr Roueché (it rhymes with touché) was a well-respected journalist for the New Yorker, as well as a writer of popular mystery and suspense novels. He took his own life in 1994, and that’s something else I wish I didn’t know, because it’s rather sobering in light of the hatchet job I had been planning on his otherwise silly, forgettable book. 

You may well have your suspicions, but like the name Berton Roueché, The Cats does indeed exist – I found it, lingering among a pile of paperbacks at a holiday cottage I stayed in very recently. The place was in the middle of nowhere and I did call to mind the tape in the Evil Dead, even as I gazed upon the front cover of an evil looking feline with blood in its whiskers the same colour as its eyes. Would my backwoods discovery lead to similar bloody mayhem, perhaps under the pads of pernicious pussies? How could I not read this book?

TheCats was published in the UK in 1977; it first appeared stateside in 1974 under the title Feral. “Animals Hate You” as a genre stems from this period of recent history when human destruction of the planet was becoming a mainstream concern. The Cats stands among better-remembered, well-executed contemporaries; James Herbert concocted wonderful scenes of carnage (and no little amount of sleaze) in London for his graphic shocker, The Rats, while Jaws of course triggered people’s natural, deep-seated fear of cellos and tubas.  

A slew of environmental rip-offs followed, whether in print, on the big screen, or both; take your pick from Orca, Killer Whale, streaking away with Bo Derek’s leg; Claws, about a grizzly bear that leaps out of the forest to paw people to death; The Swarm, about killer bees and Michael Caine’s painful mid-career death, Shatner vs arachnids in Kingdom of the Spiders, Invasion of the Ants, apes, dogs, insects and God knows what – they all hate you and want to eat you! Don’t ask why, they just do!

Roueché’s chosen avatar of hate is the domestic moggy. The book is set in the wilds of New York State, where a science writer, John Bishop, and his wife Amy are looking to settle for the summer. The first sign that something is going wrong is the family dog being attacked and killed.

Then a woman dies from an infected cat scratch. Then a deer is found torn to shreds. I wonder..?
The science writer does some digging – hey, he’s a science writer – and he begins to suspect that the things doing all the scratchy nastiness are actually wild cats, left out in the wilderness by neglectful summer-house owners, evolved into lethal razor-edged killers.

So you’d think the stage is set for a reign of carnage involving mewling, machete-clawed furry fury. The only snag is that the first definite piece of cat-on-human carnage – amounting to no more than a scratched face, in fact, something that happens “off-the-page” – comes about 80 pages in. And this is a 124-page book.

By the time Bishop realises he has to start protecting the house and his wife, he takes the radical step… of calling the police. Then he gets put through to the dog catching department. The dog catcher seems a nice, chatty fellow – he’s dead, surely, you think, set up to be slaughtered later. But you’d be wrong.

The dog catcher tells Bishop to buy himself a gun. “What a nice idea,” Bishop thinks. So he goes and buys a gun. This is the numb, 4/4 beat tedium that makes up most of this book. It’s a rare thing for an exploitation book not to actually exploit anything. Was a memo missed somewhere? Is the author some sort of deadpan comic genius, or was the story a protest of some kind against the publisher? Or was it a very different book before an editor got its claws into it?

Finally, though, there is one graphic death – a copper, who checks out so gormlessly that I called to mind the fatality in one of the Austin Powers movies, where one of Dr Evil’s henchmen allows a steamroller to grind him down in instalments, screaming and covering his eyes even as the vehicle takes forever to reach him.

There’s then some shotgun-on-cat violence, before a posse of cops show up and zap the crazed killer kitties stalking Bishop’s summer house, and… well, that’s it. I was expecting a showdown between Bishop and some sort of boss cat – maybe the little kitten the couple abandoned the previous summer, I was thinking – in some nightmarish re-enactment of Officer Dibble vs Top Cat, but no. That would be too much like entertainment.

A book about killer creatures has absolutely no right to be as boring as The Cats. It should have people clawed to the giblets from the first chapter. The humans should battle back with giant balls of wool, and mirrors projecting distracting spots of light on walls. There is no suspense, and no mystery whatsoever until near the end. I began to entertain suspicions about this book and its packaging in the UK, tweaked first of all by its unusually short length. Then there’s the clipped dialogue, which ranks as among the most stilted I’ve ever read in a book for adults. I have the feeling that The Cats was cut and shut by a hack editor somewhere – it reads like an edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws I recall reading as an 11-year-old which had been repackaged minus the swearing and sex as an abridged version for younger readers.  

In any case, hats off to Mr Roueché. He tries hard to include some kind of message – namely, if you take in a pet, look after it or make sure it goes to someone who can. The book is set in Amagansett, where the author himself lived in the latter part of his life, so I can imagine him getting wound up about stray animals roaming the woods, becoming a nuisance, and imagining them shredding hapless policemen.  

There was also a bit of mistrust and paranoia about officialdom included, par for the course for American fiction in the 1970s, but quite fascinating in the context of The Godfather, Jaws, The Exorcist and many other works which feature dread and suspicion of unknown, powerful forces which can destroy lives at a whim.

This book did make me smile as it reminded me of an abandoned novel I started when I was 14, The Terror of the Cats. Like Mr Roueché’s feral felines, the young Pat’s kitties were not the type to curl up and snuggle in your lap, that’s for sure.

And, for what it’s worth, as I wandered down to the country pub after dark in the middle of nowhere, with only a head torch to light the way down the road amid a closed-in tunnel of spectral winter trees, you can bet I remained alert to distant mewling, and the disquieting flickers of green eyes in the dark.

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