The scene: a cottage on the coast on a windy evening. Inside, a room with curtains drawn. Tea has just been made. A kettle still steams.
Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table. A man and a cat.
The story about to be related is so unusual—yet so terrifyingly plausible—that it demands to be told in a single sitting.
The man clears his throat, and leans forward, expectant.
"Shall we begin?" asks the cat.
Fun fact: I do most of my reading with a cat on my lap.
She came into her name, Page, by interposing herself between book and user from birth, basically; by sleeping in, on and under the many novels lying around in the library; and by chewing her way through on a fair few too. This latter habit hardly made me happy, but she's been treated like a Queen in any event. Despite resolutions arrived at when she was a bitty little kitty that I wouldn't make the mistake of spoiling her... well, I have, haven't I? She's irresistible, really.
But with rather alarming regularity, she appears in the periphery of my vision—paws primed to pounce; frenzied eyes fixed on mine; tail wagging to say she's acquired a target; ready, by all accounts, to eat me, or at the very least mistreat me. So I have had call to wonder why even the cutest cats seem to harbour such hatred. In her first full-length fiction for in excess of a decade, Lynne Truss offers a potential explanation:
They get all the best seats in the house, they have food and warmth and affection. Everything is on their terms, not ours. They come and go as they please. Why aren't they permanently ecstatic? Well, now it's explained. It's because they're conscious of having lost their ability to do serious evil, and they feel bloody humiliated. (p.173)Imagine the following in Vincent Price's voice, for so, it is said, Roger's repartee resembles:
Up until, say, two thousand years ago, all cats had powers unimaginable to the average cat today. The species had been vastly diminished by time and domestication. In the modern world only one cat in a million has the character, the spirit, the sheer indomitable life force to fulfil that universal feline destiny of nine lives as part of a conscious programme of self-completion. I am that one in a million. And if I seem quite pleased with myself—well, so would you if you'd survived the shit I had to go through. (pp.34-35)Roger is a cat, in case there's any confusion. "The feline equivalent of Stephen Fry," (p.44) at that... which is to say smart, charming, warm and—from time to time—quite, quite wild. Having "travelled romantically in the footsteps of Lord Byron in the 1930s [he] now solves cryptic crosswords torn out daily from The Telegraph" (p.86) when he's not otherwise occupied killing or merely maiming his keepers. So it seems, at least.
Cat Out Of Hell kicks off with an assortment of documents—including substandard screenplays, image descriptions and audio transcriptions—which serve to introduce us to Roger and his current quarry, "the man named throughout [the narrative] as 'Wiggy,' through whose pitifully inadequate understanding these events are mainly delivered to us." (p.5)
Indeed, it is Wiggy's utter idiocy which convinces Alec, the more measured narrator of the framing tale, to take all this silliness seriously. Once he's flicked through the files—sent to him by a friend of his late wife's—he feels it's fallen to him to put a stop to Roger's depraved reign. Fittingly, he's fairly upfront about his reasons, which death's door disclosure adds a certain sad sweetness to his character:
It was alright to argue that my eager and obsessive pursuit of this story had been about avenging Mary: there was some truth in that. But at the same time I needed to admit that pursuing these evil cats had also been a very effective way of putting her dreadful loss right out of my mind. (pp.188-189)His pursuit of the ghoulish puss is a diversion, then—and the same statement could be made with respect to Cat Out of Hell. It's a long novella—or a short novel at a stretch—designed, as have all of the Hammer-branded books released in recent years, to be read in a single sitting. But be assured of an immensely memorable evening, at least.
What makes Cat Out of Hell more than disposable is the fact that it has heart, and a super sense of humour, too. Alec is lovely, if unlucky, and Roger is really far from the monster he fears. Even Wiggy isn't as despicable as his insipid screenplays suggest. Their coming together of the course of the story brings out the best in our three heroes, and in the meantime, their many miseries are most amusing.
Crucially, Truss' tendency to poke fun—at herself, at the daft narrative, at its hapless cast of characters—comes through beautifully in this book. Expect good times with grammar: no surprise, perhaps, from the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation, yet these are among the most gratifying moments in a novel that should satisfy many masters.
Humourous horror is not a particularly common genre, but on the back of Cat Out Of Hell, I wish it were. That said, I doubt there are many authors with the wit, never mind the willingness, to render the glib and the gruesome as well as Lynne Truss does.