"Hell Cat of the Holt" Book Review
Written by Shane D. Keene
Published by Herbs House
Written by Mark Cassell
2017, 148 pages, Fiction
Released on June 1st, 2017
When it comes to reading, anyone who knows me is aware that I'm no snob, reading all over the board, from crime to splatterpunk to horror and beyond, and all around the globe, with Japanese crime and horror fiction being some of my absolute favorite material. And another favorite of mine, one at the absolute top of the literary food chain for me, is British horror. Some of my favorite authors of all time have come from the island, including great masters such as James Herbert, author of The Secret of Crickley Hall, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, and that now legendary gentleman, Ramsey Campbell. And the tradition of great English horror continues into the modern age, with some huge monikers such as Adam Nevill, M.R. Carey, and David Moody flowing smoothly and instantly off the tongue like familiar and beloved flavors of ice cream. Black, terrifying ice cream. So, when I saw that Mark Cassell was both an English author and one that had been compared to some of those previously mentioned, it was an easy decision to take a read of his latest novella from Herbs House.
In Hell Cat of the Holt, Anne, a hapless young woman living in the house her grandparents left to her after dying tragically the previous year, is searching for her lost cat but having no luck and, in fact, having a lot of troubles along the way. The English village of Mabley Holt has dark secrets and as she progresses in her search, she finds herself learning more and more uncanny and terrifying details of the evil that has infiltrated and is threatening to engulf the town she grew up in. It's a story that's stylistically deserving of some of the earlier author comparisons, particularly that of Herbert, but doesn't quite meet the mark in terms of content. While the book has an intriguing premise and is well written by someone who obviously knows what he was doing, I had a few problems that made it difficult for me to get through it.
First off, some of the things that really work about this story. One is the fact that Mark Cassell's alacrity with place and setting is exemplary and praiseworthy. The sense you get of the English countryside and of the gloom that overshadows the Holt is nothing less than perfect, and the mood of dark dread is well established from the very first and maintained throughout. And as far as setting goes, the scenes nearing the end of the story are simply brilliant. I can't describe the set elements without giving away important details of the story, but I can tell you he grounds you firmly in his location and makes you feel almost as if you are there, or have been at some point in the past. That ability is rare in genre fiction, and is something to be treasured when you can find it. It's an aspect that tells me two things about Cassell and his work: one, that he's a damn good writer, and second, I want to read more of his work.
The few problems I have with the book were simple but important. First, there’s the fear factor. It is nonexistent until the final scenes. The last third is terrifically horrifying, but prior to that, I felt no trepidation or concern of any sort and I had great difficulty suspending my disbelief. The reason is the almost non-existent backstory. Anne, the main character, has some small amount of history but not enough to make me care about her, and Leo is a huge frustration. There are some vague references to things he’s experienced in the past, but nothing to flesh him out or lay a foundation for the supernatural elements. He is so incredibly intriguing but I know almost nothing about him and never did find out much. I assume that his tale is covered in the first book and I think my enjoyment of Hell Cat of the Holt would have been much improved by having read it first. Hell Cat should be considered a sequel to The Shadow Fabric, and should be read in chronological sequence.
In the end, the story redeems itself somewhat by having an extremely satisfying conclusion, packed with action and a lion’s share of body horror and Barker-esque descriptions. It makes me glad that I stuck with the book and my opinion of the book would have been much higher with some prior knowledge. So, all that said, if you have read the first entry in the series and have some knowledge of the mythos, I highly recommend you check out Hell Cat of the Holt. If you haven’t, I’d emphatically suggest you do so before picking this one up. It will greatly improve your experience with this one.