Welcome to We Read Dead People, where authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & Strange, The Smaller Evil) and Daniel Kraus (The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, Rotters) read a novel from the glory days of direct-to-paperback horror—the magnificent 1980s—and determine whether it was worth the suggested retail price.
Dee Conner is all snuggled into her forest cabin, ready to work on her new novel, when scratching and purring noises—and an awful smell—start coming from the woods. Enter gun-happy bodyguard Carl Garrett, who knows what’s going on: Satan! Led by ancient god Anya and her demonic cat, Pet, the Devil’s minions are hell-bent on destroying rural Ruger County with any number of monstrous forces. Or something like that? Caution: You are about to enter the narrative black hole of William W. Johnstone’s Cat’s Eye (Zebra, 1989).
DK: My six-word summary: Gun Nut Butts Baffling Beelzebub Beast.
SK: Satan Kills With A Teletype Machine.
DK: Man, I don’t even remember a teletype machine.
SK: Someone in the police station tells Carl over the phone that something is coming through the phone and then they BURST INTO FLAMES and Carl just magically knows it’s because they looked upon the Face of Satan.
DK: Yeah, that sounds par for the course. We didn’t know how good we had it with Tricycle.
SK: Right? Like, a coherent plot. A manageable number of characters. Actions that made sense.
DK: This. . . I just. . . I don’t want to be speechless only two books into this project, but. . . what the fuck was that?
I got a bad feeling by about page 50 that it was just going to be scene after scene of weirdness.
SK: I got a bad feeling by about page 50 that it was just going to be scene after scene of weirdness.
DK: First off, the book cover promised a diapered cat-baby with disturbingly long human legs. It did not deliver on that! Instead it gave us, well, anything that happened to pop into William W. Johnstone’s head at the moment.
SK: First it was about Anya and Pet. Then it was about Bad Satanic Teenagers. Then maggots. Also God and His ghost wolves. People turning into zombies. But also apes?
DK: And also worms, “Old Ones,” and a lizard-man.
SK: Also the headless body that goosed somebody.
DK: And don’t forget the matching severed head that was licking someone’s living-room window.
SK: What were the Old Ones? What was Anya and Pet? Did you understand any of that?
DK: This might be a good place to mention that this is a sequel to a book called Cat’s Cradle. It was a real downer figuring that out halfway through the book. So I’m willing to cut Johnstone a little bit of slack. Still, the portal-to-Hell plot, where literally anything goes, is my least favorite horror plot ever. There is no more boring villain than “EVIL”. I guarantee that if you pinned Johnstone down and asked him to explain this book, he’d say, “I don’t know. It’s like, Satan and stuff.”
SK: And all that was mixed in oddly with some moralizing about how rock-and-roll lead teens to Satan worship and seducing their own parents. But then the law-and-order morality was negated by Carl’s willingness to be a renegade. Mixed messages!
DK: There is no making sense of it, don’t even try.
Johnstone, I think we can safely say, had some Women Issues.
SK: One thing I quite enjoyed was Dee’s backstory of dropping out of college to become a famous writer because she was independently wealthy. Dee was the only character I liked! Well, and her dog, Dingo.
DK: Yeah, I was encouraged by Dee’s backstory. Here’s an interesting, motivated woman doing interesting things. But that interesting backstory lasts for about one page. Then Carl shows up and you know what Dee does for the rest of the book? All she does? SHE MAKES COFFEE. Get ready, I’m about to blow your mind.
SK: I’m ready.
With a fresh cup of coffee at hand, [Dee] went into her office. (13)
The coffee was very good, and unlike any that Carl had ever drunk. He guessed that [Dee] ground her own beans and they were very expensive. (19)
“I don’t need any lights to make coffee.” —Dee (32)
“Let’s make some coffee, Dee.” (34)
“What do you take in your coffee, Mike?” —Dee (75)
“I have coffee gentleman,” Dee called from the kitchen. (155)
The cops had gathered and Dee was brewing a fresh pot of coffee. (170)
“Somebody [Dee] make a fresh pot of coffee and let’s all try to relax.” (242)
Dee was in the kitchen, fixing coffee. (280)
“I’ll make some coffee and sandwiches.” —Dee (293)
SK: I love that second quote. I read it out loud to my poor family while we were at Disney World.
DK: Johnstone, I think we can safely say, had some Women Issues. He has Carl (our hero!) just casually calling someone a “slut.”
My favorite Carl-ism is when he invents the word “subteens.”
SK: There were some really disturbing rape scenes that I could’ve done without.
DK: In Johnstone’s worldview, the only way a woman can really contribute to a situation is by making a fresh pot of coffee.
SK: But Dee has also been the guardian of the portal to hell, right?
DK: No, I think she just moved into that cabin recently.
SK: Maybe it’s my fault for thinking this book has any continuity at all—but didn’t her grandfather build the cabin on Satan’s burial ground? For some reason?
DK: Even if you’re right, she hardly guarded it. She just made coffee for Carl. God, I hate Carl.
SK: Carl is my least favorite type of male character: his flaw is that he’s too capable! He wins every pissing contest with every other male and also, as a bonus, defeats Satan. Though I did enjoy it when Carl called someone a “hotdog” as an insult.
DK: My favorite Carl-ism is when he invents the word “subteens.” He says, and I quote, “Where are the young kids? The subteens?” Who the hell says subteens? I can picture Johnstone going, “What’s the word for someone younger than teens? Ah, screw it: subteens.”
SK: His editor didn’t help him out with that one.
Dingo, in dog-language, gives a sweeping, Independence Day–style motivational speech to the other dogs.
DK: Carl also does the single stupidest thing you could possibly do in this book. The woods next to Dee’s house are literally belching out Satan’s spawn and what does Carl say? “Hey, let’s have a cookout!” I never understood why Dee didn’t just leave.
SK: She was too stubborn because that’s the type of Strong Woman she was.
DK: I suppose if she left, who would make the fresh, hot pots of coffee?
SK: The cookout did give us the book’s funniest scene, where everyone starts being tempted by weird sex visions because of the singing in the woods.
DK: For unintentionally hilarious scenes, I’ll take the part where Dingo, in dog-language, gives a sweeping, Independence Day–style motivational speech to the other dogs.
SK: Forget dogs. What did cats have to do with the story? It’s called Cat’s Eye. I wanted evil cats.
DK: All right, all right, let’s attempt to say something smart about this book. It’ll be like plunging a toilet, though. So what do you think would draw someone to read this back in 1989? What were they getting out of it?
SK: There was a high body count and a lot of gore. And I guess there was meant to be some deeper message about “evil” permeating our society through permissive parenting, and that we all need Old Testament God to keep us in order.
DK: I can’t imagine any deeper message was getting people to pick up a book with a diaper-wearing cat-baby on the cover. My guess is that there were a lot of people enjoying the 1980s horror-movie boom, but when they tried reading stuff like Stephen King, they found it too slow.
SK: I do think there are people who don’t want a lot of character development and just like a lot of action and a big spectacle. It’s how I feel about Transformers movies. I can’t stand them, but people love them!
DK: Right. This hardly feels like a “book” to me, just like a Transformers movie hardly feels like a “movie.” Neither plays by normal rules of what a book or movie is supposed to include. It’s just flashing lights in front of your eyes.
All right, time to check the ol’ Incest-o-Meter.
SK: Incest was present, but only as an idea. There’s a teen seducing her dad, right? And then he calls her out on it, because he’s a good parent or something.
DK: Yeah, Johnstone gave incest the college try, then got distracted by satanic maggots. Satanic Maggots would’ve been a far more accurate title, by the way.
SK: I’d like to add that if we also had a Cat-o-Meter, that would also be pretty low.
DK: Final thoughts. Was Cat’s Eye worth the $3.95 cover price?
SK: I do think my enjoyment was hampered by the fact that it was a sequel. I was in it for the campiness at the beginning and the promise of evil cats. But then it became a slog and finishing it at Disney World was a challenge. Satan isn’t an appealing villain, the rules were too confusing, and Carl was too macho for my liking, so . . . not really worth the price, unfortunately.
DK: A resounding HELL NO from me. Look, I can get into a mindless splatter-fest as well as the next guy. But this is just lazy writing. There is maybe 30 pages of actual book here. I find Carl a borderline offensive character, and the fact that Johnstone clearly thought Carl was a stand-up guy makes me look askance at Johnstone.
SK: And no cat-baby! Possibly the worst offense of all.
DK: You’re really fixated on the lack of cats. It’s time to let it go.