A pink cat on the cover of Berton Rouches Feral

What was that? A sound in the night? Oh, don’t worry. It’s just Fluffy. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. But that might just be because he hasn’t had a chance to taste human blood and go feral. Today we’re taking Thrift Store Finds into the world of killer animals. There’s no telling what we’ll find, but after this, you’ll never look at Mittens the same way again.

I think I was about eight when I really thought deeply about how strange it is that people have pets. I mean, here we are. We’re humans. We’re deeply flawed physically, and we can die from so many things that we constantly have to keep guard against: war, weather, and especially germs. And yet, even though we spend countless hours cleaning house and cooking food to make sure it doesn’t kill us, we still keep actual animals in our houses.

And it’s not just germs that make keeping pets so odd. There’s also the weird potential that many of our pets could kill us. OK sure, a cocker spaniel isn’t much of a threat on its own, but pump Buddy full of rabies and the chance of survival changes really quickly.

I love pets, of course. But it’s clear I’m not the only person out there that’s had this realization. Horror writers all over the world have contended with our frailty at the hands of the animal kingdom in dozens of books, like today’s book by Berton Rouche.

A pink-tinted cat jumps from a black background on the paperback cover of Berton Rouche's "Feral."
I think we can all agree pink cats are pretty scary.

At its core, Feral is the classic tale of thoughtless humans disrespecting the animal kingdom and reaping lethal results. But while most “animals gone wild” stories feature mutated creatures, ancient curses, or supernatural cryptids, Feral sticks to a moderately realistic premise and injects it with 150 ccs of rocket fuel.

In Feral, Jack and Amy are the proud owners of a new summer home in rural Long Island. It’s the perfect place for the couple to relax, made all the better when Amy brings a kitten home to join the family. But, alas, all summers must end, and as Jack and Amy get ready to go back to the city, they realize that they won’t be able to take their kitten, Sneakers, back with them. So instead of doing any of the humane things a normal person would do (ask the neighbors if they would take him in; call a shelter), they drop Sneakers off on the side of the road and peace out.

A group of slightly anthropomorphic black cats glare at the viewer in front of a dark forest.
That front guy kinds looks like my uncle Greg, tbh.

Unfortunately for Jack and Amy the practice of summer people dumping unwanted pets is a common occurrence in these parts. In fact, it’s such a problem that all those sweet little domestic kitties have bred countless evil wild cats that now stalk the woods around Jack and Amy’s home. 

This turns into a big problem for the couple when they decide to move in to their summer house full time. Before they know it, every day turns into a fight to keep the beasts at bay as the cats become increasingly hostile. 

Things come to a head when their property becomes so overrun with killer kittens that Jack is forced to call the police for help. Thing is, the cops don’t really take frantic calls about murderous cats too seriously. (Would you?) So Jack and Amy are forced to watch as their lone rescuer is swarmed and torn apart. Sure, more cops show up later to tear gas the rest (!!!), but it’s that moment of mass cat murder that really acts as the major climax of this little book. 

A giant surrealistic cat head sits in the middle of a forest in this illustration for the hardcover jacket version of the book.
That is either a giant cat head or a small forest, but either way I wanna go home.

It’s a great premise. But the book isn’t flawless. This puppy (lol) comes with a big style warning, and by style I mean writing style.

There’s no denying author Berton Rouche was an accomplished writer with a mess of impressive credits under his belt. Rouche was a medical writer who had a whole department at The New Yorker created just for him. Starting in 1946 “The Annals of Medicine” was a regular series in the magazine, highlighting medical detection processes and the study of diseases. His work was so fascinating that in 1956, his research into cortisone was turned into the film Bigger Than Life

But his literary output didn’t stop there. In addition to working for The New Yorker for fifty years, he also published twenty books, including The Medical Detective, which later inspired the TV show House

I feel judged for some reason?

I’m telling you all of this because I want to make sure it’s clear that the problem here is not Rouche. The problem here is me. Because if I’m totally honest I almost put  Feral down several times. 

I can’t speak to Rouche’s medical writing, but in his prose, he likes to employ an excessive amount of repetition to get his point across. And while that’s a valid, poetic technique writers employ, Rouche doesn’t miss an opportunity to drill it into your brain until you’re not sure if the characters are going insane or you are.

Try this passage on for size:

“It wasn’t really strange about the birds. Or rather, it was strange, but it wasn’t exactly a mystery. I looked down at the lilac clump. I thought of the little red finch that had nested there. But it was really strange. It gave me a strange feeling.”

Before anyone crucifies me. I get it. It’s poetry. It’s rhythm. But it also makes me feel like I’m listening to a car backfire. Call me uncultured if you must, but I just couldn’t get into it, no matter how much I acknowledged the guy’s talent.

It would be one thing if he peppered this technique throughout the book, but nary a page went by without a full paragraph of sentences that start with “I,” “he,” or “she.” Combine this style with Rouche’s penchant for throwing his reader into scenes without ever describing the setting or scenario, and you have a recipe for confusion. The whole book passed by in a haze. People are somewhere, but you can’t tell where. They do a series of things, but to what end? How did they get there? What do they want? Difficult to tell.

These choices give the first half of the novel a experimental literary style that kept me at arms length. But I can’t say it wasn’t effective. The hypnotic nature keep me gliding forward without much impact until suddenly the main character was blasting away cats with a shotgun, and I was left feeling much like Jack, wondering “How the hell did I get here?” And maybe that’s what Rouche was going for all along.

In need of more monsters? I almost hate to suggest you check out The Cellar. So just know I warned you.

1 Comment

  1. Thrift Store Finds: The Worms - Paperback Horror Reviews

    […] Need more horror from the animal kingdom? Send Fluffy to the litter box, and then check out Feral. […]

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