The snarling hybrid on the cover of The Cat-Dogs suggests this 1995 anthology has an animal theme. On the contrary, this collection has only a few actual beasties in it. Editor A. Finnis curates an eclectic and largely British assortment of horror, featuring everything from mythical predators to a haunted train station. No two stories are alike in this diverse omnibus.
Susan Price starts things off with the anthology’s namesake. A girl named Liz discovers what she thought were stray kittens, but she and her parents learn these are no ordinary felines. They partly resemble cats, yet other traits suggest they are somehow part dog. While the premise of “The Cat-Dogs” feels straight out of a cheesy “B” movie, the execution and writing are what sells the whole thing. A creature-feature film often shows the monster too much. Price, however, knows less is more if the audience is to remain scared. She also has the good fortune of being a writer, because her words are potent proxies for the feral antagonists. Price phrases their attacks and the characters’ dread with gravity.
The inevitable chase is drawn out into a display of humans hopelessly evading the rapacious shadows stalking the nearby woods. A readily available expert on these animals — an Icelandic guest reveals they are mythical fox-cat abominations known as skoffins or skuggabaldurs — is a timeless yet welcome trope. In the end, Price emphasizes an opinion other storytellers nary consider in tales of man versus nature; once humans fall off the top of the food chain, there is little to no chance of them getting out from under.
“Soft scuttering sounds of pads in the street behind, at night. A movement, low and quick, seen from the corner of the eye. It could be a fox. It might only be a cat.”
The Cat-Dogs is in fact a retooled version of Thirteen More Tales of Horror, which was released in the U.K. in 1994 under Scholastic’s Point Horror banner. For some reason the publisher chopped off the last seven stories for the U.S. market. In either version, Diane Hoh stands out as the sole American author. “The Piano” follows teenage pianist Laura, who feels trapped after her father’s death leaves her in the care of a callous stepmother, Sally. Having been denied a social life and forced to practice at all times, Laura’s frustration summons an unexpected friend. Her late grandmother’s piano has now come to life and is committing terrible acts to appease Laura.
Hoh, who is known for the series Nightmare Hall and various Point offerings, retreads a familiar idea; people are seduced by cursed objects. The author follows the same formula as others by having the demonic item do everything in its power to attain its own treasure. The piano’s dark sense of humor provides a touch of non-grisly amusement; it plays the Jaws theme when thinking or doing anything wicked. Laura herself is not a sympathetic character, seeing as she feels next to nothing when her human obstacles are done in by the percussion instrument. There is not a lot to ruminate on once “The Piano” is over, although it is entertaining enough in the moment.
Malcolm Rose’s “The Devil’s Footprints” looks back at an English phenomenon and puts a creative spin on its most popular theory. In February of 1855, in the Exe Estuary in Devon, an extensive and perplexing series of hoof-like patterns in the snow led to wild speculation about Satan himself coming to visit that unseasonably cold winter. Rose plays into the notion by having the goat-headed Devil crash a teen party in the same area 150 years later. Uninformed readers are brought up to speed about what happened in 1855 by Brian; the protagonist’s enhanced computer serves as a precursor to Alexa and other virtual assistants of today. So, what began as a teen slasher quickly transforms into a supernatural home invasion with a built-in history lesson.
“The personification of evil, the creature’s stance was roughly humanoid but the body was pure animal…”
Animals come into view again in Stan Nicholls’ “Softies”. This lone phase of the anthology has a distinct air of sci-fi to it, whereas the other stories are unequivocally horror in nature. In this fictional world, humans are bonded with Companions from an early age. These Companions are sentient animals — think of them as people-sized teddy bears — who then grow up with their humans up until death. The events here describe a surreptitious uprising in the making. “Softies” regretfully ends as things begin to get interesting.
Skipping ahead to the final entry, Colin Greenland‘s”The Station With No Name“, readers may be underwhelmed by this standard ghost story. Two young taggers step foot in an underground train station one night, and the one who stays behind is unknowingly haunted by the undead commuters. Greenland describes the eerie stage in great detail, but the author delivers a bland outcome.
Now, the collection would have been better off ending with Garry Kilworth‘s penultimate tale. In “The House That Jack Built“, a man named Caleb finds himself lost in Bodmin Moor. His only refuge is a lone house, but upon going inside, he is ensnared by the dwelling itself. The home is alive and seeks humans to maintain its appearance. When one servant dies, another is brought in. Caleb has the misfortune of being the latest victim. Gilworth waives any explanation for the house’s origin, but the absence of information is what makes his contribution so utterly haunting.
“Caleb saw in the cupboard what his eventual fate was to be.”
Any occasional dip in quality in The Cat-Dogs and Other Tales of Horror is hardly enough of a reason to pass over this impressive gathering of weird and uncanny stories. This anthology’s surprising maturity will also make it an enjoyable read for both teens and adults who sometimes like their scares in short bursts.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.