Book: Feral by Berton Roueché

Unfortunately very silly

Berton Roueché
Pocket, 1975 (originally published in 1974)
SBN: 671-80152-X (Really, it seems that Standard Book Numbers weren't international then)
174 pages
Out of print; as of this writing, second-hand copies seem readily available inexpensively

Googling a half-remembered joke, I find that the historian Russel Lynes is reputed to have said, "Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it". I have the highest respect for Berton Roueché's non-fiction articles on medicine. Unfortunately, that respect does not extend to this novel he wrote.

In the book, Jack and Amy Bishop live at the far eastern end of Long Island, near the town of Amagansett. The book seems to be set around the same time that it was written, and the area is largely woods and farms (these days it's is full of million-dollar second homes). Jack works as an editor for a science journal that has its offices in New York city. He telecommutes, or since the internet hadn't been invented, he postal-commutes.

Mr Roueché's writing is as clear as ever and he captures the atmosphere of early-1970s New York suburbs characteristically well. (Neighbors greet one another as one carries a large box of bottles to his car from the town's liquor store.) All that's splendid as far as it goes. But I'm entirely unable to swallow the book's premise.

The "feral" in the title refers to cats. Not tigers and lions and so forth. I mean house-cats. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of stray cats in the area near where the Bishops live have turned vicious and fearless and have learned to hunt in packs. And they attack people. Mr Rouché does his best to make the kitties fearsome, but I just wasn't able to believe it. And then there's the idea of cats cooperating. Can anything be less probable?

It may sound like a bit of a spoiler for me to mention the vicious cats, but it's really not. One reason for that is that Mr Roueché telegraphs what's going to happen in the book in the fashion of a B-movie. People wonder aloud why so much of the local wildlife seems to have disappeared. The owner of a stable for horses finds that his rat problem has disappeared almost overnight. And people see cats behaving oddly with increasing frequency. If that weren't enough, my edition has a cover blurb, "A NOVEL OF SCREAMING TERROR MORE CHILLING THAN THE BIRDS" over a photo of a leaping cat that has been colored red and given extra-long teeth.

The book's premise made writing it convincingly very difficult. I'm not sure that I know of any writer who could make house-cats fearsome. But that problem is compounded by Mr Roueché's plain, matter-of-fact writing style. That style works extremely well when he's writing non-fiction, but it's not suited to the portentousness that horror fiction needs. Take, for example:

        I gave the fire a poke and the flames licked
    up and I dropped on another log. I sat back in
    my chair and picked up my drink. I took a good
        My God, yes," I said. "It was eerie. There was
    something about all those little round faces --
    all those eyes. I was scared. I was really
        "I would have been absolutely petrified," Amy
        "I was probably that too," I said. (pp. 83-84)

Alas, that just doesn't send any chills down my spine.

Posted: Thu - May 24, 2007 at 05:49 PM   Main   Category: