Feral A Harper Novel of Suspense by Berton Roueché Harper & Row Publishers, 1974
I never thought I'd read dialogue that rivals Dale M. "Moon People" Courtney. And yet here I am. I picked up this novel thinking it might be one of the original "animals run amok" novels like James Herbert's The Rats or Arthur Herzog's The Swarm. It isn't. It reads more like a fellow who wrote stereo instructions for living thought It'd be fun to write an 'animals run amok' book.
As an author, Berton spares us all the details. Like what his characters look like or when an event happens or where a scene begins. On the whole, the novel reads like a series of barely connected vignettes -sort of a literary form of Chicken McNuggets. So if this chapter-by-chapter review seems abrupt and disjointed, I promise it isn't me. (Also, of course, massive spoilers!)
(Edit: I'll try to post a chapter a week. Don't worry though, it's only six chapters long. )
The story opens near the small town of Amagansett. Berton doesn't let us know where that is, so I'm just assuming it's somewhere near Innsmouth.
Mr. Lester, a local realtor, is showing a house to Jack and Amy Bishop, a married couple looking for a country home. Jack is an editor for Modern Science World magazine. Amy is a homemaker, I guess. While showing the house they find a dead cat. Hmmm...
"I like it." I caught her eye and looked a question. "I like it very much," she said. (p4)
Later, at a terrible restaurant called the Bonac Inn, they decide to visit the house again, this time unescorted. They drive there, scope the place out, and decide they want it. Back at the car, Amy thinks she sees a cat.
Some time passes. Evidently they've moved in. Jack gets a call from his boss:
"Jack?" "Hello Doug," I said "How you doing, man?" he said. "How's the weather out there in the boondocks?" "Lovely," I said. "And I just saw a bluebird." "Yeah?" he said. "Well, you still like it then? You're still planning to stay all summer?" "That's the plan." I said. "Unless you think different -- unless you think it isn't working out." (p9)
First of all, why is he asking Doug's permission? Is Doug his father? Do they belong to the same cult? Who knows. They talk shop and Doug hangs up, presumably to approve someone else's living arraignments. Amy arrives home with a cat. She names the cat 'Sneakers.'
Some time later, they are awakened by screaming beneath their bedroom window. Jack investigates. He finds a cat with a dead rabbit. The cat runs away. Then this happens.
I heard the screen door slam. "Jack!" Amy came around the corner of the house. She was in her nightgown and her hair was flying. She had Sneakers in her arms. "She was in the bathroom," she said. "I found her in the bathroom. Oh, I'm so relieved. But I knew it wasn't Sneakers. I knew it couldn't be." "I couldn't really tell," I said. "But it looked like a bigger cat." "I can't tell you how I felt." she said. "It was a baby rabbit." I said. "I don't want to see it." she said. "No." I said. (p12)
And without further ado, Jack disposes of the dead bunny.
Some time later Jack and Amy are driving back home after a dinner party, Jack having berated his hosts on the differences between suburban and rural living. They arrive home. Sneaker is scared by something. She ought to be, as she appears to be living with two escaped Westworld robots.
Some time later Jack and Amy are almost ready to fuck off back to the city. So, is this their summer place? Did they actually buy it or are they just renting? Who knows. In town, they abruptly abandon poor Sneakers on someone's front lawn.
One has to wonder with whom Berton Roueche slept, was related to, or had major blackmail material on to get this stuff published.
We consider many such mysteries here in the Vault of Evil. And sometimes, when the gods in their perverse gaiety wish to remind us truly of where we sit in the scheme of the Universe... we find answers.
Some time later - next year? Two years? Who knows. Amy hears something in the woods. For no real reason she thinks it might be Sneakers. It turns out to be a stray dog. They immediately adopt him (Watch out, puppy! Don't trust these two!) and suddenly, with no scene change whatsoever, they're in a vets office. The vet treats a long cut on the dog's belly.
"But this fellow here," he said. "I think we can fix him up pretty good. He's a tough little fice." (p23)
Since our author has a penchant for lists, here's one of my own. This is a list of the books in which I looked up the word "fice."
The Oxford English Dictionary Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary Wye's Dictionary of Improbable Words Foyle's Philavery The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate
There's no such word as 'fice.'
(Edit: Well blow me down! It's a real word. The inimitable Dr. Strange found it here.)
But wait! There's more.
"Now -- lets get him right side up again. I want to paint these cuts on his face. And then I'm going to give him a good big shot of penicillin. And I'm going to give you the rest of the Merthiolate so you can keep up the good work. And maybe some vitamin pills to build him up a little. And I think that ought to be that." (p23)
And I threw the book across the room. And then I cursed so loud my cat ran into the room to see what was happening. And then I got up. And I picked up my cat and the book. And then I started reading again.
Anyroad, the prognosis is good. Dr. Tucker, for such is his name, complains about summer people who adopt pets for their brats and then dump the poor things on the side of the road when they leave. That's why there are so many strays in the woods around there. Amy and Jack are appropriately abashed. Well, sort of.
He turned to fill the hypodermic needle for the penicillin shot and Amy gave me an anguished look. I knew how she felt. I felt a little sick myself. But I answered her with a smile and shake of my head. We hadn't just dumped Sneakers. Not really. And yet, of course, we had. It was only that we hadn't realized. "I didn't realize," I said. (p24)
Then Dr. Tucker tells a charming story about how he started his car one cold morning and cut a cat in half. I get the feeling Dr. Tucker doesn't get out much.
Back home, Amy and Jack decide they want to live there year round. They name their new dog 'Sam.'
Amy picks up Jack at a train station, and we learn it's a Friday evening in June. Whoot! We finally have a time. Almost a date! They talk as they drive home. Amy tells Jack of a purple finch nest that's been upset and surrounded by red feathers. Dun dun duuuuun!
Some time later the plumber visits. His name is Mr. Bennett. While fixing their toilet he tells them a story about "Old Miss King" who used to collect stray dogs and cats but she died recently and that's why there are so many strays in the woods around there. Dun dun duuuuun!
Some time later, Jack is driving home from an poker game when suddenly:
I bumped up the potholed slope, and my lights reached out and touched a stirring of darker darkness up ahead. The darkness moved, and three pairs of yellow eyes sprang alight. The yellow eyes smoldered from the edge of the woods. And went out. Three shadows lept into the hedge. They were cats. (p31)
Stopping to investigate, Jack finds the remains of a possum.
Some time later, Jack is leaving the local liquor store when he runs into Tom Starr and his wife, the owners of a local riding school. Tom asks Jack to help him out exercising the horses of rich assholes who leave them stabled at his school. Then this dialogue is actually written on actual paper with ink and everything:
"You want an exercise boy?"
"We'll ride together," he said. "I'll show you trails you never dreamed of." (p32)
Suuuure you will, Tom.
After bragging about how spiffy everything is going, Tom mentions that they're no more rats around his stables.
Some time later at the Post Office, Jack sorts through his mail and I think we get a glimpse of the source of our author's inspiration.. Evidently Jack had asked the librarian at Modern Science World for information on stray cats because he gets an envelope with two old government pamphlets on the subject. They are boring. Jack is disappointed. I am Jack's complete lack of surprise...
Wait - wrong book.
Some time later they meet some friends at the beach. They hear a story about another friend who got septicemia from the bite of a stray cat. Amy seems to think it was Sneakers. I think Amy is a bit OCD. After 38 pages we find out we're on Long Island.
The story plays out like a poorly written health department pamphlet about the risks of ignoring animal bites and dun dun duuuun and all that.
Some time later, Jack visits a chicken farm to pick up some fresh poultry. He sees a lot of cats. The owner, Mr. Shine, tells him a story about stray cats killing his chickens.
Dun dun duuuoh nevermind.
Some time later Jack is at home editing an article about mononucleosis. This is the sexiest part of the book so far. He gets a phone call from a guy who leads a bird watching group to which Amy belongs. He tells Jack that Amy left her bird watching book in his car and remarks that they didn't see many birds. This is page 43. WHY IS THE AUTHOR STILL DROPPING HINTS? WE KNOW IT'S THE CATS!
Then Amy shows up and tells Jack that their friend died.
That's a great review, particularly the line "butt-clenching scenes of feline violence." I can just imagine my own dear Puss putting up a thoughtful paw at that image.
The reviewer does state that the book was read in a state of being "mildly hung over." I'm sure that only sharpened the reader's discriminatory powers, not to mention the clenching of cheeks at key moments.