"Where the Cats Will Not Follow" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Kindle Press
Written by Stephen Stromp
2018, 274 pages, Fiction
Released on May 1st, 2018
I have a soft spot for genre-bending novels which are tricky to classify, and Stephen Stromp’s Where the Cats Will Not Follow fits that bill perfectly. With a title as weird as that, you really do get what you pay for with this strange and heady fusion of fantasy, horror, surrealism and the continual bleeding of a nightmarish dream world into our own reality. Or is it vise-versa? That’s part of the charm of this quirky novel, it really is hard to tell.
The tale opens with the sole narrator, Ayden, being held captive in a remote cabin by a former friend of his elder brother Everett. Philip is seeking help in finding his long-term girlfriend, who has recently gone missing. However, he is not seeking assistance in the conventional sense; he believes Ayden has special powers which he can manipulate to locate the missing Ginger. This odd ability revolves around Ayden’s dreams, which Philip believes if they are deciphered correctly can either predict the future or reveal crucial clues to help identify her whereabouts.
Why does Philip think this? The answer to this question is revealed slowly and is integral to the plot. For much of the narrative, Stephen Stromp abandons the kidnapping situation and revisits the childhood of the three boys, and later Ginger, when the boys are of university age. This flashback element covers the backbone of the plot, many years of their lives and crucially lots of both dreams and nightmares are covered. On one level it’s an entertaining coming-of-age story with two brothers growing up together, but it is also a subtle examination of the brother’s manipulation of each other. But who is using who? Ayden is quiet, withdrawn and an easy target at school, whereas his brother is confident and not afraid to use his fists in defending his younger sibling. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the author keeps many of the cleverer plot developments nicely shrouded, especially when the novel heads towards its terrific climax.
As so much of the novel is told via flashbacks, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the adult Ayden is being held hostage by Philip. Meanwhile, the child version of Ayden, whom we spend much more time with, is consistently terrified by the monsters which live in his dreams beyond his bedroom wallpaper. This is something which is much more unsettling than childhood night terrors and is a stain on his childhood. Looking for comfort, he turns to his elder brother Everett, who realises there is indeed something very real about these dreams. In this other reality the monsters are very real, but can be controlled, manipulated and defeated, which Everett becomes a deft hand at helping his vulnerable brother with.
Sometimes Ayden’s dreams come true, but not precisely as you’d imagine; whoever said clairvoyancy came with a guarantee anyway? For example, on one occasion he dreams of dead bodies drowned under a frozen river, the brothers interpret this, and soon discover ancient skeletons on neighbouring land. Coincidence or prediction? You’re never quite sure, and from then on things get progressively stranger as the two brothers regularly take on swathes of demons in the dream world, whilst contending with day-to-day problems with Ayden being mercilessly bullied at school. Of course, the two sets of problems merge and this weird dream world encroaching on our daytime is convincingly handled by the author as Ayden conjures creatures from his dreams into our world with increasing frequency.
Ayden is damaged goods from start to finish and these vulnerabilities make him a great lead character who struggles for direction in his life whilst he constantly drifts from reality. Ultimately, Ayden is a classic unreliable narrator, possibly delusional or even dangerous, vulnerable, needy or a messed-up combination of all the above. The relationship dynamics with his brother is superbly written, as is his obsessive friendship with Philip, who supported him for long periods when he attended college. On occasions I wondered where the book was heading, it certainly takes its time returning to the kidnap plot it opens with, but it is a fun journey to take.
As various points it is unclear whether we are inhabiting Ayden’s dream or our reality, but perhaps that is the whole point? There are numerous very strange sequences, ranging from flying cars, slinky tree women, metal forests, to mini tornadoes made of metal shredding unsuspecting policemen into dog meat. As the novel progresses, the fantasy sequences come thick and fast, and for the most part are very entertaining. However, the demon sequences become a little repetitive, but when you arrive at the end of the book, it’s easy to forgive the author for this. There really is a lot going on in this rather wild, highly original novel which I am very happy to recommend. I love reading novels which abandon the constraints of genre and happily dance amongst several; Where the Cats Will Not Follow does this beautifully.