Cat out of Hell by Lynne Truss

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Cat out of Hell by Lynne Truss

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Category: Horror
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An engaging adventure yarn, perhaps, but not a particularly funny book, and not particularly horrific – so just further evidence of Hammer's intent to go to very strange places in print.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Hammer
ISBN: 9780099585343

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Meet Alec Charlesworth. He's retired and decamped to an isolated coastal cottage with just his dog and loving memories of his colleague wife, now that she has died before her time. But the fusty librarian cannot rest too long before engaging in exploring some unusual computer files that were pinged across by someone at the college he worked at, just before he left. Bizarrely they show photographic and audio evidence of a talking cat called Roger, replete with Vincent Price voice – although they are also damaged by being included alongside some bad screenplay attempts about said cat. Worryingly, we soon see what at the most only a few of the characters can, that this cat is being accompanied by unusual and unexpected death – much like Alec's wife. It's only when Roger testifies to having been pushed through the ends of endurance and out the other side that we begin to doubt where the true evil in this story lies…

It's OK for the author to include a valuable afterword about her influences, and there seem to be many from diverse areas of life, but to me the book really felt like one from someone much in admiration of Susan Hill and her short horrors. The academic narrator introducing the story to us, then bowing out after a promising beginning for another authorial voice; the very way the narrator is reluctantly drawn into the story and the horror begins to imbue their life and move with him through the pages and beyond; the very word count – all smack of something Susan Hill's fans would easily recognise. I know Hill however is strictly of a serious bent, and would never have her characters discuss the BO given off in college libraries, or bring a peculiar fascination with Daniel Craig's James Bond into proceedings, but the connections are there.

But there are many ways in which this book is inferior to Hill's best. Too much of the narration is done at a remove – the final threatening quarter is voiced calmly a month after the event, and too much is done 'off-camera', so beyond a death or two there really isn't any horror. Taking something so completely common as a moggie and giving it horrific elements would normally work, but not when it's talking due to an unknown and unexplained quirk. Alec seems hardly ever to be under threat, and I ended up fearing more for the dog.

Nor is the book as riotously funny as the copious blurbs suggest – there are giggles and some quick, light touches, but if it is a melange of parody and reference, then I have to say that they all passed me by in a peculiar admixture of email chains, tape transcripts and Alec's reportage. So what the book is is the more enjoyable kind of failure – a brave mish-mash of styles and ideas that sometimes hit, sometimes don't. It's a yarn – a shaggy cat story, if you like, where nobody should worry for the lead characters, nobody should take too much on board as the lurches in tone and style negate so much of what's come before, and everyone gets a book that energetically goes where none others have gone.

Truss can point out some other fictional talking cats, and other ghost stories etc, but this isn't that great at being a catty comedy or a chiller. I will remember it for the effervescence with which she takes her readers – and herself – so far away from anything else she has written that we can only acknowledge the effort. If you don't think this is at a great remove from her oeuvre, bear in mind that this is from someone with four books about grammar and punctuation under her belt yet is where a sentence is allowed to have not a double, not a triple, but a quadruple negative. I don't want to seem too negative myself about this volume, but I did think to find something a little more coherent, more coolly comical and more chilling.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The latest of those brilliant and short Susan Hill books is Printer's Devil Court. If it's talking cat books you require, then the year's best has been I Was the Cat by Paul Tobin and Benjamin Dewey, which actually has a surprising amount in common with the Truss.

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