Truss is perhaps best known for the phenomenally successful Eats, Shoots and Leaves which attempted to explain punctuation. Cat Out Of Hell has been serialised on Radio 4 as the most recent Book at Bedtime, which is always a good omen about any book. Horror is a genre I usually steer well clear from – I scare ridiculously easily. Still, Cat Out Of Hell is not your average horror story; the dedication is “To Gemma, who loves proper horror, with apologies“. If you’re in the mood for terror, look out for some Stephen King. If you’re in the mood for a comic masterpiece, read Cat Out of Hell.
It has a very Gothic opening section; the narrator is Alec and he assures us that the story he is about to tell us is absolutely true and was brought to his attention while he was holidaying in Norfolk with his dog Watson after the recent loss of Alec’s adored wife Mary, while he was ‘in search of silence and tranquility‘. Fat chance. The beginning strongly reminded me of The Woman in Black, a book that chilled me to my core. While on holiday, he receives a collection of files by email under the heading ‘ROGER’ from a fellow academic, Dr Winterton. While their contents initially seems incredible, Alec is convinced not by any tendency to paranoia or belief in the paranormal but rather by the ‘staggering stupidity‘ of the man who has put the files together, the utterly hopeless Wiggy. From there on, Alec finds himself dragged into a baffling world of diabolical sacrifice and feline revenge.
As the novel progresses, its format becomes far less traditional. Truss introduces the mysterious Roger through a screenplay written by the air-headed Wiggy. Other files include photographs, ramblings from Wiggy and several audio files but the screenplay is superb. After two pages of setting the scene and beginning to recount the dialogue along with several stage directions denounced by Roger as ‘self-indulgent‘, Wiggy finally remembers the most unusual thing about this particular interview – Roger is a talking cat. And not just any talking cat – he is a cat who can quote Byron and is capable of decoding a Greek ferry timetable. Unfortunately, Roger is also a bit of a bastard. He rather drawlingly suggests that Daniel Craig would be an ideal choice to provide his voice in the inevitable film due to their shared ‘emotional reticence‘ to which the hapless Wiggy bursts out, “But you sound like Vincent Price!” This prompts a prima donna sulk from Roger.
|Uberkatze. (c) BBC Radio 4|
Wiggy finds himself in Roger’s company as he tries to discover what has become of his sister Jo, Roger’s former companion but Alec observes that Wiggy is ‘rather out of his intellectual depth with Roger‘. Truss uses Wiggy to steer the reader firmly past any qualms about the talking cat scenario. As Roger points out rather impatiently, ‘Wiggy, if you can’t get past the fact that I can talk, perhaps I should stop‘. Talking animals are generally more at home in the pages of children’s fiction, but Roger’s urbane sophistication gives him an appeal that carries the reader past any doubts that they might have. As Roger explains to Wiggy how back in 1932 he became uberkatze, his contempt for the latter is hilarious, telling the story very simply so that even Wiggy’s feeble mental powers (and by extension the reader) can keep up. Quite simply, one does not try to mess around with Roger. This is a cat who can do cryptic crosswords. Beelzebub is his line manager.
It is not easy to combine horror and comedy but Truss manages it remarkably well. Alec begins to realise that his late wife had a connection to the mystery of Jo’s disappearance and so is drawn into the investigation. I read the passage when Alec returns from the university library directly before bedtime and as Watson’s barking became more desperate, I had to close the book. That being said, I have freely admitted that I am easily scared. Still, Truss does have some genuinely poignant thoughts about mortality and the nature of evil that lifts this book from being a mere spoof to a genuinely intelligent piece of comedy. It’s all very Radio 4.
Lynne Truss is a wonderful writer, she manages to transplant the classic trappings of horror; spooky houses, dark and stormy nights, epistolary format and of course rat-induced dementia; into the twenty-first century. Alec researches the elusive Seeward on Youtube, Roger’s attempts to thwart the police investigation by urinating on an iPhone are thwarted by Cloud coverage. I am always impressed when a writer manages to make a plot work using modern technology – so many plots from classic fiction would crumble if the central characters had only had 3G coverage – and this is an even more impressive achievement given that Truss has written a mystery.
I grew up watching cheesy Hammer horror films with my Dad, usually with me cowering behind a cushion while he sniggered at my cowardice. Films like The Abominable Dr Phibes or Tales From the Crypt may have had slightly rickety special effects and the acting was often rather over the top but there was a kind of chill to them that more recent big budget gore-fests do not deliver. Cat Out Of Hell is a nostalgic piece, its plot devices are not new but Truss uses them with flair and energy, making this novel an absolute delight.
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Published by Random House on 2014
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