Clervaux, Luxembourg. This secluded, picturesque town in the middle of Europe is home to more cats than people. For years, tourists have flocked to this place – also known as “cat haven” – to meet the cats and buy cat-related souvenirs.
When Aidan, Jess and their five-year-old daughter, Eleonore, move from America to Clervaux, it seems as if they’ve arrived in paradise. It soon becomes clear, though, that the inhabitants’ adoration of their cats is unhealthy. According to a local legend, each time a cat dies, nine human lives are taken as a punishment. To tourists, these tales are supernatural folklore, created to frighten children on cold winter nights. But for the inhabitants of Clervaux, the danger is darkly, horrifyingly real.
Initially, Aidan and Jess regard this as local superstition, but when Jess runs over a cat after a night on the town, people start dying, one by one, and each time it happens, a clowder of cats can be seen roaming the premises.
Are they falling victim to the collective paranoia infecting the entire town? Or is something unspeakably evil waiting for them?
Aidan and Jess’ move to Europe may just have been the worst decision they ever made.
Purchase links for Clowders-
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Vanessa Morgan is known as the “female version of Stephen King.” Three of her works (The Strangers Outside, Next to Her, A Good Man) have become movies. When she’s not working on her latest book, you can find her watching horror movies, digging through flea markets, or photographing felines for her blog Traveling Cats (http://travelling-cats.blogspot.com).
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Vanessa is sharing two excerpts of Clowders!
“Who is she?” Eleonore asked when Jess drove her to school Friday morning.
“Who’s who?” Jess countered, not sure what her daughter was talking about.
“The girl. The one who’s always watching us.”
“No one’s watching us,” Jess said.
“Yes, there is. All the girls in my baking class say the same.”
Normally, Jess wouldn’t have put much thought into such a remark – children can say weird things sometimes. But now it seemed Eleonore might be right. Jess felt like there was indeed someone watching them, no matter what they were doing.
She felt it everywhere she went. When she took Eleonore to baking class, when she was lying in bed at night, even in the shops. But not all the time.
Some of the time.
More often than not, everything seemed normal, and then all of a sudden, she felt as if someone was checking up on her. Sometimes it was only briefly, like a minute or so, but at other times, she could feel it for several hours.
Sometimes she could feel it on the streets.
But mostly at home.
And never outside Clervaux.
You’re imagining things, she told herself.
In fact, every day since she’d arrived in Europe, it had gotten worse. More and more, she’d get that tingly feeling, and know that someone behind her was watching her. She’d try to ignore it, tried to resist the urge to look over her shoulder, but eventually the hair on the back of her neck would stand up, and the tingling would turn into a chill, and finally, she’d turn around.
And nobody would be there.
Nobody, except for the cats. The sight of cats waddling along the pavement had never seemed eerie to her, but the fact that they were always there, no matter where she was – on the sidewalk, at the main square, in a café, in the forest – made her skin crawl.
Whenever she was running errands in Clervaux, she kept looking into store windows, but it wasn’t the merchandise she was looking at; it was the reflection in the glass.
The reflection of something sinister watching her.
Sometimes she could have sworn she saw something. The reflection of a small, squatting figure. But then she glanced over her shoulder and all she could see once more were the cats of Clervaux staring back at her.
She decided to not let her imagination get to her, to resist the urge to glance over her shoulder every few seconds.
And then her daughter muttered the words, “Who is she? The girl. The one who’s always watching us,” and the paranoia tightened its grip on her once more.
They held the memorial service in the crematorium on the outskirts of Luxembourg City. Camille stared at the coffin sitting in the middle of the commemoration room and at the framed picture of the 17-year-old boy that stood beside it. Perfect arrangements of flowers filled tier after tier behind the altar, much more than she would have thought the place could hold.
As she waited for the service to begin, Camille looked around her, scanning the location for familiar faces. Because she had met Jörgen at summer camp almost three years ago, most of the people here were from his hometown, Echternach, and thus unknown to her. For these people, neighbors were just as important as family. The psychological wounds inflicted on this community by the boy’s passing would take longer to heal than anyone yet realized. It wasn’t just the loss of someone they saw and spoke to every day that was hard to bear, but the injustice that a boy so young had been taken away from them without an apparent reason.
The music swelled. The murmurs and whisperings stopped. Camille prepared herself to bite back the tears that would well up in the next half hour.
When her mother, who sat on her left side, saw how emotional Camille was, she clasped her hand. She didn’t pull it back, but glanced up at her, giving her a faint smile. She was glad her parents had agreed to accompany her for support, even though they hadn’t known Jörgen well.
A spiritual leader delivered a message about how important the young boy had been in this community and how much he would be missed and remembered.
“Louder! I don’t hear you!” a woman in her late eighties on the front row shouted. Everyone looked at her with embarrassment.
Then Jörgen’s two brothers talked for no more than ten minutes each, set to a slideshow that commemorated the loved one. In between each speech, they played songs that had been pertinent to Jörgen’s life.
After the spiritual leader had finished the final message of goodbye, Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky began to play softly, and everyone stood up. It was one of the songs from the soundtrack of Jörgen’s favorite movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. “When I die, and they lay me to rest, gonna go to a place that’s the best,” Greenbaum sang, while the attendants stepped forward one by one, filing past Jörgen’s coffin and briefly touching it to bring their last respects.
Camille finally let go of the tears that she had been blocking up until now.
At the post memorial luncheon, everyone from Echternach reminisced about the deceased. Those that came from Clervaux, however, talked about something entirely different: they gossiped to each other that she was back.
But no one ever dared to speak her name out loud.
“I’m wondering who’s responsible for his death,” Camille heard her father say to her mother.
Two kids from Camille’s hometown – a boy and a girl – were staring at her. They whispered something to each other as if they were divulging a dark secret about her.
Stop it! she thought. You’re paranoid!
She decided to ban the anxious thoughts from her head, but the truth was she had indeed something to hide.
Jörgen’s death hadn’t been an unlucky coincidence.
She knew more victims would follow and that she would be one of them – the curse of having been at the wrong place at the wrong time. She still hoped for penance one way or another, yet she had taken her father’s gun out of the bedside table for protection, just to be sure. Deep down, though, she realized she was never going to live to see the summer.
All of her work of the past two years had been for nothing. She had saved up money through a myriad of student jobs with the intention to rent a cheap Airbnb in Paris the day she turned 18, before finding a job and getting a flat of her own. Jörgen had promised to visit her once in a while because she had told him that once she left, she’d never put another foot in her hometown. She couldn’t go on living in fear because that was what Clervaux was all about. Everyone there felt it.
But those plans had turned to dust, and the danger she had wanted to flee had now overtaken her.
Worst of all, she couldn’t tell anyone about what had happened to Jörgen, because if she gave into this awful fear, she would put her entire town into turmoil.
Now she finally understood why her father had always cautioned her to never mention to anyone what was going on in Clervaux. “Either you shut up, or you laugh about it and make it seem so grotesque no one even dares to believe,” he had instructed her. “It’s easy to trick people into thinking what you want them to.”
Camille had done exactly the opposite.
It all started when Jörgen had asked her why she wanted to flee Luxembourg at any cost. “Isn’t our friendship important enough for you to stay?” he had said. He hadn’t been able to accept the fact she’d be leaving for good, which she had regarded as a compliment because her initial feelings of friendship for him had melted into a crush over the years. How could she not have fallen in love with this boy? Jörgen was the sweetest person she’d ever met, and he had a way of pushing her out of her comfort zone all the while accepting her entirely the way she was. However, she’d never had the courage to tell him out of fear of hurting their friendship, and she suspected he was just as shy as she was. Maybe his strong reaction to her upcoming departure proved he loved her too. In any case, because they shared such a strong bond, she didn’t feel like she could lie to him. “Can you keep a secret?” she had asked him after a while.
So she had told him.
Of course, he hadn’t believed her. Oh, yes, he had heard the story before, but to him, it was nothing more than local superstition. It was weird how Jörgen’s hometown was so similar in location and appearance to Clervaux, yet shared such different beliefs and experiences.
In Jörgen’s attempt to prove to Camille there was no reason to leave the country, he had carried out the worst crime anyone could ever commit in Clervaux. “It’s for your good,” Jörgen had said. “You’ll see. Nothing will happen.”
When he had left the house half an hour later, Camille knew with absolute certainty she would never have another chance to kiss the boy she loved.
On his way to the bus stop, Jörgen had been hit by a drunk driver. The crash killed him instantly.
The news had left Camille blinded by shock for several minutes as if she had received a death sentence that would be carried out within the weeks to come. Then she had felt such an intense fear; it had squeezed her heart together until she’d collapsed.
Had the accident been a coincidence?
Later, on the radio, the driver had explained he’d had to swerve to avoid hitting a clowder of cats.
Could that have been a coincidence as well?
And now, as the post memorial luncheon was over and she followed her parents to the car that would take them back to Clervaux, Camille wondered how many people there suspected that she was the one who had created the circumstances under which Jörgen had died.
After having traversed the forest by car for almost an hour, Camille looked out over the small town nestled in the narrow valley in front of her. The weather was sunny for May – 26 degrees. Spring was slowly giving way to summer, and the heavy scent of pine lingered in the breeze.
She squinted at a dozen cats just shy of an azure blue signpost with white arrows that sent hikers down the prettiest trails. There were many more cats than before in the forest around Clervaux, and she made a good guess at what that meant.
“Dad?” Camille asked. “Can you drop me off at the camping site?”
“Sure,” he said. “What are you doing this afternoon?”
“Just gonna hang around the swimming pool with Stephanie and Zoé, to study,” she lied.
Why would she study if her life would be ending soon anyway? She felt electricity shiver all over her body by the thought. She just wanted to be with her friends and soak life in for as long as she could, and spending a day poolside with beers wasn’t a bad way to do that.
A rabbit scuttled across the street. As it reached the edge of the forest, it cowered with fear, its nut brown eyes searching for an escape. As Camille followed the animal’s gaze, she saw it, squatting in the forest as if she waited for Camille to come back home. When their eyes crossed, the corners of its mouth curled.
Camille pulled at her mother’s arm, but before she had a chance to turn, they had already passed the bend, and the area where it sat was no longer into view.
Maybe she hadn’t seen anyone.
Maybe it had been an optical illusion.
The car turned around another corner, and there it was again.
Camille’s eyes filled with fear, and in its reflection, something grotesque smiled back at her.
“She’s here,” Camille said. “She’s coming for me.”
“Who’s here, honey?” her mom asked, oblivious to what her daughter was saying.
Without hesitating, Camille pulled the gun out of her handbag, put it to her mouth, and pulled the trigger.