By Berton Roueche (Harper & Row; 1974)
Killer kitties? That’s the subject of this novel, one of the first of the “nasties” that would come to define the 1970s horror fiction market. As such it’s not nearly as gross as better known nasties like James Herbert’s THE RATS and Guy N. Smith’s NIGHT OF THE CRABS, being more suspense-oriented, and evidently inspired by THE BIRDS. As in that scenario, FERAL concerns a shocking and inexplicable attack against humans by a pack of animals whose motives are never explained.
Convincingly imagined by an author who specialized in medical detection nonfiction, and related in notably stripped-down, fat-free prose, it centers on Jack Bishop, who relates the story in the first person. Jack is a city-dweller who with his wife Amy and cat Sneakers relocates to a secluded Long Island home. Sneakers is let go after he begins acting weird, which, it’s suggested, may be a catalyst for the feline mayhem that follows.
After abandoning Sneakers the Bishops find a dog cowering in the wilderness. They take him in and name him Sam, but of course he’s not long for this world. Neither is a neighbor woman who’s bitten by apparently rabid cats and dies shortly afterward. The cat attacks grow increasingly severe, and eventually force the Bishops to barricade themselves in their house while hundreds of cats amass outside. They call the police, insuring that further strife is imminent, as well as a record amount of cat kills.
FERAL’S sprightliness extends to its pacing, and also its page count (137 in the hardcover edition)–which is not an entirely good thing. Judging by the rapturous back cover blurb by Ross MacDonald, this novel was a ground-breaking shocker in its day, but now it seems a bit too scant for its own good. It’s impressively drafted, certainly, boasting a compellingly atmospheric portrayal of rural Long Island to go with its concentrated prose. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that there’s ultimately not much here you won’t find in countless other nasties. Certainly FERAL deserves credit for being one of the first such books out of the gate, but there’s a reason it’s become so obscure.