Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Two Gothic Horror Stories

Review by Ann Skea

Cat out of Hell.
Lynne Truss.
Arrow Books with Hammer / Random House. 2014. 233 pp.
ISBN 978 0 0995 8533 6.

Lauren Owen.
Jonathan Cape. 2014. 517 pp.
ISBN 978 0 2240 9639 3.

Two gothic horror stories. One by established author Lynne Truss, the other a first novel by Lauren Owen. Both suitably macabre, horrifying, and bloody.

Lynne Truss's Cat Out of Hell joins the series of Hammer Horror novellas already commissioned from literary writers like Helen Dunmore and Jeanette Winterson. Truss describes it as the comic, full, and frightful tale of a missing woman and a talking cat, and she clearly had fun writing it. So much so, that she, like her narrator, is "quite captivated by Roger," her murderous, conniving, highly literate cat, who can do cryptic crosswords with ease, quotes Tennyson and Milton, and has "a profound aesthetic response to cultural sites." Roger, however, is a scary beast, and he tells us more than we might like to know about the latent devilish powers of our feline "friends." Purring may no longer hypnotize us, and paddling our laps does not now shred our femoral arteries, but the dead mice and birds they bring us are not gifts but proof that they believe they will get their evil powers back "if only they do enough killing."

So much for Roger. But we also meet his owner Wiggy (Dr Winterton); Alec, our narrator, whose sister and her dog have suddenly and mysteriously disappeared; The Captain, who is Roger's devilish cat-mentor; and The Cat Master (the first of whom was, apparently, Sir Isaac Newton) who owns that rare leaflet—Nine Lives: The Gift of Satan—which holds the secret of ultimate power.

There are devilish deeds and gruesome deaths, and it comes as no surprise to learn Lynne Truss has recently changed her allegiance from cats to dogs. It is a pity Roger mesmerizes her into offering a happy ending. An ambiguous one would have been so much more worrying.

Lauren Owen's novel, The Quick, takes considerably longer to read and is not comic at all. True to its genre, it is horribly gory. It begins quite calmly in 1890 with two orphaned children, James and Charlotte, growing up in the crumbling ruins of Aiskew Hall in Yorkshire (of course!). We follow their lives until James, who has ambitions to be a writer, goes off to Oxford University and then moves on to London. There, he falls in with a group of young men who frequent exclusive London clubs, and he meets and begins to share rooms with Christopher. Up to this point in the book, only the illicit love that develops between the two men provides the tension, but the dramatic ending of Part One signals the start of the real horror story.

Suddenly we are thrown into a terrifying world where warring groups of vampires kidnap, dismember, and otherwise bloodily destroy each other, as well as preying on The Quick, who are their source of nourishment. A Dickensian cast of scruffy children and oddly dressed men and women represent one faction of the un-dead; the members of the Aegolius Club, a sinister, mysterious, philanthropic society intent on a diabolical form of social reform, comprise the other. At the heart of the Aegoilius Club is Augustus Mould (Doctor Knife), whose notes we read, and whose experiments are particularly gruesome. Charlotte and James become inextricably involved with all of this.

For a first novel, The Quick is admirable, but the first 100 pages of the book serve little purpose other than to introduce Charlotte, James, and Christopher, and there is little relationship between this part of the book and the rest. The lives of a number of other characters, too, are told in unnecessary detail, especially since they all end up summarily dispatched in a variety of gory ways. After a while the constant immersion in blood-sucking and gore becomes repetitive. A shorter book would, I think, have more impact, and as with Cat out of Hell, the almost happy ending to this horror story comes as an anticlimax.


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