Growing up, I don’t remember monsters under the bed, but I do remember ghosts visiting my room at night and making rules about which side of the bed I should sleep facing. They weren’t real, but that didn’t make my precautions less serious. If I didn’t stay completely still under the covers during their sweeps, they’d realize I was awake and come get me.
In Stephen Stromp’s Where the Cats Will Not Follow, Ayden’s monsters originate from the wood paneling on his bedroom walls. Much like seeing animals in the clouds, Ayden sees monsters in the grooves, and can’t determine whether they’re real or not. Encouraged by his older brother, Everett, to believe they exist, and that his dreams contain glimpses of the future, Ayden’s life becomes consumed with his “abilities,” and figuring out whether they’re real, and what he can do.
Where the Cats Will Not Follow is my first time reading a book written in the style of the surreal movies I love, with each chapter building on the next in a nonlinear fashion. The book is divided into sections and sometimes there’s a theme to these chapters or they cover a certain age. Then there are the chapters where you’re thrown into one of Ayden’s dreams, and it’s a sign of how effective Stromp’s storytelling is that takes a while to realize what’s going on. Dreams and real life are extremely well-mixed in this story, to the point of being hard to tell apart, and since it’s written in first person, from Ayden’s point of view, being objective isn’t an option (with outside voices smartly kept at a distance).
Experiencing these events through Ayden’s eyes, the struggle to make sense of what’s going on is genuine, though amazingly easy to read and absorb. One of Stromp’s best decisions is to stop adding more – there are essentially three species of monster and that is enough to keep Ayden occupied the entire book. Instead of expanding, Stromp goes deeper, and by limiting his story’s reach, forces himself to push these characters as far as they can go. There are details that pay off dozens of pages later, like the horns on one of the creatures resembling shark fins, and the world really feels of a piece.
Stromp also capitalizes on the book’s time jumping, by having our understanding of these characters drastically change. Everett is introduced as Ayden’s protector, but comes out looking far from benign, while reconciling the Phillip we meet as a kidnapper, with the Phillip who was Ayden’s friend in high school, is quite the ask.
There’s always something to keep readers from feeling secure in their conclusions, and because Ayden’s fears are grounded in believable causes, you sympathize and worry at the same time. Where the Cats Will Not Follow goes to some dark places and shouldn’t be picked up lightly, but will ensnare readers with remarkable dreamscapes. Highly recommended.
Where The Cats Will Not Follow is available to preorder and comes out May 1st.