by Richard Harland
Published by Omnibus/Scholastic
128 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
It's a simple fact that children love a good scare -- without any real threat -- and a gross out as much as they do a ride on the ghost train or the roller coaster at the amusement park. Novel franchises featuring pony clubs, baby-sitters or girl and boy detectives come and go (with the possible exception of the hundreds of Enid Blyton novels still in print), but scary children's fiction -- whether it's Roald Dahl or R.L.Stine's Goosebumps books -- never goes out of fashion.
The quality varies, of course. Many of the franchise books read as if they've come straight off the assembly line, which they more or less have, written, as they are, to a strict set of guidelines and to a formula. They can't possibly be compared with the dark classics of, say, Alan Garner or of Dahl. Children devour these books like peanuts, but seldom reread them. No doubt that's fine with the publishers, who have more in the series to sell.
But there's still room for the carefully crafted individual tale with characters you can care about and cheer on, instead of waiting gleefully for them to be devoured by the monster or taken over by that restless spirit haunting the old house.
Richard Harland's Sassycat is one such. Possibly a scarier title or cover might have helped establish this as a horror novel, but there's not much wrong with the story and it's certainly a novel touch to read a book from the viewpoint of the family cat.
Sassycat fits her name well. She's cheeky, self-centered and vain: in other words, a typical cat. With her personal human, Rebecca, and Rebecca's mother and brothers, Sassycat has moved to the country town where Rebecca's late father came from. In fact, a large chunk of the local cemetery across the creek is occupied by Rebecca's ancestors. Sassycat soon discovers that the town's animals have banded together to protect their humans from the ghosts on the other side of the running water. These aren't the spirits of the beloved dead, but something altogether nastier. As one of the animals explains to Sassycat, humans are just too messy in their departure from the mortal plane. What's left behind wants only to be alive again, even if it means taking over the body of a family member.
The trouble is, our heroine has done some stupid things which have cost one brave cat his life and have made it possible for the ghosts to cross the creek. Her beloved human, Rebecca -- the one who feeds and cuddles her -- is the first target. Can Sassycat become a team player in time to help save her?
It's nice to read a children's horror tale which doesn't read as if it was written over a weekend, and which has a rich vein of humor running through it. This is fairly typical of Richard Harland, whose adult and young adult novels do generally have humor, no matter how scary -- or gross -- they are. Harland's feline heroine, despite learning and developing, is, after all, still a cat, something the author never forgets. Whatever heroics she performs to save her human, she is still going to be demanding breakfast and having a snooze the next day before chasing mice.
This novel is less like peanuts than an enjoyable dessert that you wouldn't mind having again. | October 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.