Cat Out of Hell, by Lynne Truss – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Cat Out of Hell, by Lynne Truss.
London, Hammer Books, March 2014, hardcover £9.99 (233 pages), Kindle £4.31.

British cover

British cover

As usual, this review lists the first, British, edition. American readers will find it easier to get one of the American editions (Melville House, March 2015).

An unnamed narrator is writing from an isolated English seaside vacation cottage. His wife of many years has died; despondent, he quits his dead-end Cambridge librarian’s job and rents this cottage in an off-season winter month to wallow in grief. But it is too lonely, and he becomes bored.   He has his laptop computer, and when a Cambridge ex-colleague e-mails him some lengthy mysterious text and audio files named “Roger”, he opens them.

The files, from Roger and a man identified only as “Wiggy”, make it clear that Roger is supposedly a talking cat. Although incredulous at first, the narrator gradually comes to believe that the files are genuine. Roger really is a talking cat. What most convinces the narrator is Wiggy’s unmistakable denseness. The witty, sarcastic Roger constantly makes references and comments that go over Wiggy’s head, which the narrator gets. (Wiggy also tells enough about himself in bits and pieces to identify himself as a youngish amateur actor in Coventry named Will Caton-Pines.)

The first files relate to a screenplay about a talking cat that Wiggy is writing and is enthusiastic about selling. Roger is bored out of his mind. He doesn’t want to reveal himself to the public, and he is sure that Wiggy’s screenplay will be unsaleably bad. Different parts of the files explain how Wiggy acquired Roger (he was the pet of Wiggy’s sister, who has disappeared), and give Roger’s life story at length.

Roger was born in 1927. (If you think that cats don’t live that long, Roger sardonically comments that the fact that he is a talking cat should tell you that he is Special). He was raised by a large black stray named the Captain. They toured the world during Roger’s kittenhood. It was rather horrible:

“‘At Symi, you see, something rather horrible occurred. The first of a series of horrible things. And I blame myself: I had ignored the signs. I had assumed the Captain was as happy as I was. A kindly waiter at a harbour-side taverna would sometimes tickle me under the chin and fling me a piece of octopus. I thought it was nice of him, and I played up to it – scoffing the tit-bit and miaowing for more. His name was Galandis, and I stupidly mentioned him to the Captain. I even made the excited suggestion that we might want to settle down at Galandis’s taverna, and be looked after for a while.

“The Captain pretended to be interested in my suggestion. He made me point out Galandis when we were sitting on the harbour wall one evening. The next day, when Galandis was feeding me, I noticed the Captain was watching. It all seems so clear to me now, but at the time I thought he was weighing up the idea of making our home here, so I was (what a fool!) quite pleased that he saw me purring and nudging at Galandis’s ankles. Two days later, I arrived at the taverna, and there was no Galandis. His wife was sobbing, people were shouting (they’re always shouting in Greece, but this was different), and the church bells were tolling. The focus of attention was a black hand-cart dripping sea-water onto the ground. I hopped up on the harbour wall to see what was in it; what was causing the dripping water; what was causing all this unseemly human grief. It was Galandis’s body, of course. My sweet Galandis! He had drowned himself.

“The Captain joined me on the wall. ‘What a shame,’ he said. ‘That was your nice human friend, wasn’t it? They’re saying he jumped into the sea from his little fishing boat last night, and he had rocks in his pockets.’

“‘But why?’ I said.

“‘Who knows?’ shrugged the Captain. ‘Sometimes humans just lose the will to live.’” (pgs. 38-39)

American cover

American cover

Roger realized after a while that every time he let the Captain see that he was becoming attached to a human, that human “lost the will to live” and committed suicide. Roger was accidentally “kidnapped” from Greece and taken back to England, where he escaped and lived as a stray cat for decades, so no-one ever noticed his long life span. This first part of Cat Out of Hell ends with the narrator realizing (I feel as though I should use the British spelling “realising”) that Wiggy is suspected of having murdered his sister, whose body has been discovered; and that the Captain has returned.

I cannot keep summarising in detail without giving away too many spoilers. In Parts 2 and 3, the narrator is identified as Alec Charlesworth, and he is led to fear that his Cambridge academic colleague who sent him the “Roger” files has been targeted by the Captain to “lose the will to live”. Further discoveries imply that Alec’s wife who died tragically was actually murdered by either Roger or the Captain, and that Alec himself (not to mention Wiggy) may be in danger for having learned Too Much about impossibly long-lived, talking cats.

Cat Out of Hell (cover art by Christopher King) is a very British novel, leisurely paced at the same time its implications become increasingly sinister. There is a high body count, and not all of the victims sedately commit suicide. Some are very gruesomely murdered. Are Roger and the Captain really special, or are all cats Demonic? Are Roger and the Captain rivals or in cahoots? Will Roger help Alec or try to kill him? Will Alec survive?

The writing displays such dry wit that different reviewers have praised it as an excellent horror novel, as an excellent comedy, or as both simultaneously. Many have said in one way or another, “You will never look at cats in the same way again.” People who live with cats know how self-centered and arrogant they can seem — Roger is too uncomfortably believable. Cat Out of Hell is not the usual sort of anthropomorphic fiction for furry fans, but it is an unputdownable thriller – strangely slowly paced, humorous at times, but a thriller. Don’t miss it.

– Fred Patten