Review: 'In the Long Dark', by Brian Carter
Carter, author of Nightworld (reviewed in Anthro #18) about the badgers, foxes, and other wild animals around the South Devon seacoast, presents the locale in a totally different, urban anthropomorphic tale in In the Long Dark.
London, Century, November 1989, hardcover £11.95 (vii + 243 pages; map by the author).
Paignton in South Devon is a typical English coastal small city. (It is also Carter’s birthplace and home.) It is described as Ben and pregnant Lucy, two cats who are as much husband and wife as cats ever become, stroll through it:
The buildings opposite climbed in façades of weatherbeaten stucco to a sky of deepening blue. Above the rooftops swifts screamed. People and cars passed and the door of the Labour Club opened and closed again. A shoe kicked a dandelion growing between the paving slabs below the terrace and a handful of white seeds sailed away. Ben swung a forepaw at them as an ambulance raced up Winner Street.
Threading through the railings, they dropped onto the pavement and darted across the road to come down Church Street past the Animal Magic pet shop and the butcher’s into Crown and Anchor Way. A Volvo cornered and roared through the archway of what had once been the entrance to an old coaching inn. Ben and Lucy ran ahead of the car and flung themselves into the lane on the right. The long archway magnified traffic noise but the pigeons in their roosting holes behind the bakers didn’t seem to mind.
The ferals walked up Slaughter House Lane at the rear of Church Street, between old sandstone walls, ignoring the dustbins and black plastic bags bulging with garbage. From behind green double gates the chatter of the pet shop birds in their aviaries intrigued the cats and they paused to decode the smells. (pgs. 2-3)
Ben and Lucy are members of Paignton’s tribe of feral cats centered around the old Maylands mansion in the center of town:
Maylands was the sort of home patch ferals dream about. The lady loved cats and most mornings and evenings she put out food bowls on the terrace with its sea views and called the tribe. Then she sat and smiled and chatted to them as they fed. Sometimes, though, she forgot what she was doing and they went hungry.
The summerhouse provided shelter for the ferals under the leadership of the white tom, Silver, who had strayed to the garden as an abandoned youngster just out of kittenhood. Ben and the short-haired black tom, Sam, shared the summerhouse with the she cats, Lucy, Belle, Lucky, Louise and old Jessie. Occasionally they were joined by the stray shes Rainbow, Pepper, Rita and Maria, and the gone-wild toms Scarnose, Ginger, Button, Scrumpy and Parson. These weren’t members of the kin group and they lacked Silver’s sagacity and charisma. They were accepted but were not, as Jessie put it, ‘family’. (pgs. 6-7)
Life is pleasantly laid-back, enlivened by the ritualistic nighttime sparring of the swaggering toms for tribal position and to impress the shes:
’So, is this what you’re after? Is it? Is it? Issssss it?’ Scarnose hissed, his own ears pricked and his tail swishing. He was riding an adrenalin overload and the yaraowl that seethed in his bowels threatened to take off his head on release.
Mellow slowly laid his ears tight to his head and his eyes rounded. ‘You, you,’ he said, staring at Scarnose. ‘You … you … you … you …’
‘OK, I’m a you-you,’ Scarnose said. ‘So c’mon, come and get me.’
The words flew out of him in growls but Mellow’s heart was bucking and the other toms knew it.
‘C’mon, All-Mouth,’ Scarnose crooned. Extending his neck he forced Mellow into the eyeballing. ‘C‘mon – do the thing. Do it.’
Mellow licked his lips and retreated, body close to the ground, unwilling to meet Scarnose’s glare.
‘Scarnose,’ he managed. ‘I ain’t fit to lick your hooks.’
‘Well, then, may the blowflies never nest in your brains,’ Scarnose said cheerfully and both toms grinned, although Mellow’s laid-back whiskers betrayed his nervousness. He had wanted a fight but not with a celebrated crazy like Scarnose whose flailing tail was a warning only an idiot would ignore. (pgs. 10-11)
The Maylands gang’s lazy dominance of Paignton’s feral feline life is interrupted when a new cat gang appears to brazenly claim the town as its turf. First a strange black cat briefly shows himself to the Paignton cats to arrogantly taunt that the shadows are coming:
The stranger walked slowly and stiffly around Silver and Silver changed his position accordingly. His adversary was a good sixteen pounds of muscle and bone. His dirty black coat had been sepia-tinted by the sun and he was a thickset, pugnacious-looking creature. His ears and nose carried battle scars, and either his head was too large or his ears were abnormally small but the effect was brutal. The scruffiness of his fur, the fixed manic stare and the equally manic grin created an air of aggression which Silver had never encountered before.
‘I’m a shadow, Whitey, and I’m heavily into violence.’
Ice stirred in Silver’s entrails.
‘I love violence,’ the stranger crooned. ‘I love it.’
‘Don’t we all? Silver never walked away from a fight.’
‘I could murder you, Whitey.’
They met sideways on, caterwauling. The spitting and hissing and coiling of muscles was followed by the humpbacked circling and glaring, the raising of paws and the shooting of hooks. Then came the sparring, the lunge with paw and head, the explosive hissing and the sly feint. Finally both toms backed off without engaging and sat and stared at each other. Violence crackled between them.
‘You’re a big overweight she,’ Silver said.
‘But this is just for laughs, Whitey. You belong to Skeets, and the shadows are coming as sure as night.’ (pgs. 38-39)
Is he a bluffer, or an advance scout for real trouble? Who is Skeets? As more strangers slink into town the Maylands cats become nervous:
‘Don’t worry, Louise,’ Lucy murmured. ‘The strangers won’t hurt us.’ She smiled at Ben but he was inscrutable. ‘Tell her, Ben. They won’t hurt shes.’
‘These toms are different,’ he said. (p. 44)
The Maylands cats are not used to having to seriously defend their patch. The Shadows swagger around and try to impress the shes into coming over to “the winners”. The foolish two that do are raped and savaged. Pepper escapes back to the Maylands gang with their first real description of the Shadows’ power:
’How many?’ Silver wanted to know.
‘Lots. More than us. All toms. No shes.’
‘And Skeets?’ Silver prompted.
[Pepper] closed her eyes and continued in a low trembling voice, ‘He’s more than a tom, much more. He’s all my worst dreams and terrors and bad feelings, and he has these incredible yellow unblinking eyes.’ (p. 56)
Skeets is a psychopathic killer (he has a brain tumor, which the other Shadows don’t know and wouldn’t care about), and he has collected as hangers-on those other brutal toms who enjoy his style of macho [“‘Shes are dispensable,’ [Skeets] announced. ‘We find, take, use and discard.’” (p. 59)] thrill-crazy violence. The Maylands gang tries to send their shes to safety and prepare for the coming rumble with “the Crazies” as they call the Shadows. But they are used to the traditional non-lethal sparring of toms rather than the to-the-death-for-the-fun-of-it attacks devised by Skeets’ sadistic strategy-planner Smiley.
The novel cuts back and forth between both cat gangs, and the fate of Lucy who is accidentally taken miles into the countryside just as she is about to have her kittens. The Maylands gang learns to defend itself, and Ben becomes its most savage street fighter. As the weeks pass, both sides try to maneuver for a final confrontation which keeps eluding them.
In the Long Dark is an excellent drama of the confrontation of two feral cat tribes as though they were human street gangs. It only has British hardcover and paperback editions, but it is worth seeking out by American readers.