Horror Rewind #5 – “The Pet” by Charles L. Grant (1986)

Here’s a book I misjudged by its cover. I bought it in the expectation of something enjoyably trashy: maybe a family pet gone psycho, like Cujo? Or at least animals on the rampage like The Rats, Crabs, Slugs, etc.? Not quite.

It’s the story of Don Boyd, seventeen and trapped in a house with parents on the brink of divorce; in a school where his authoritarian Dad is principal and Don has no close friends; in a town with a serial killer called “The Howler” on the loose. For solace he retreats to his bedroom, filled with stuffed animals, and posters of beasts covering the walls: panthers, horses…these are his true friends: they listen.

I really enjoyed The Pet, despite the lame title. Grant captures what it’s like to be seventeen better than many other horror books with adolescent protagonists. He gets that you’re not just angry at that age, and not just confused: you’re still partly a child, but at the same time embarrassed by that part of you, and ashamed to have it on show to the world.

As the pressures mount on Don and he mutely cries for help, response comes in the unlikeliest of forms. The poster of a black stallion becomes slowly obscured until eventually the horse is no longer in the picture: it’s out in the world. When Don is attacked by The Howler, the horse comes to his rescue, mangling the murderer’s body and leaving Don an unlikely local hero for saving the town (the small matter of his own apparent act of murder is discreetly swept under the carpet).

The stallion then hunts down and deals with anyone who’s a threat to Don: local bully Tar (there are some great – and from this side of the Atlantic, very odd – American names in this book); a science teacher; and another teacher who’s having an affair with Don’s mum. Don is both thrilled and horrified as he realises this is the price of getting what you think you want. There’s a nice privilege check from his would-be girlfriend Tracey. Her Dad is Spanish, she’s had racist taunts, and reminds Don that he isn’t the only one with problems.

But let’s just step back a minute: kid gets superhuman guardian who will do anything to protect the kid? Where have I heard that before?

“[It] would never stop, it would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him or get drunk and hit him or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there and it would die to protect him.”

That’s not from The Pet: that’s Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Same theme, but with more tech. And more gore: Grant – recognised as a master of “quiet” horror – always cuts away before the gore. I came to The Pet after reading some enjoyably trashy Shaun Hutson, and we all know that Hutson never cuts away from the gore. It’s his stock-in-trade. But what Hutson rarely does is create characters you actually care about: his are mostly bastards.

The Pet is (aside from a short story in Prime Evil) the only Charles L. Grant I’ve read, but on this basis there’s much to recommend him, especially for fans of Stephen King.

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