Six for the Wolfman!

The arrival in bookstores of Anne Rice’s latest novel The Wolf Gift has got precisely nobody talking about werewolves, and it’s not the first time this water-cooler chit-chat has failed to happen: the hyper pop-craze for vampires was supposed to morph naturally into a similar craze for werewolves, after all, a process helped out by the fact that in the Twilight movies, the only character more emo-friendly than the five-foot-tall vampire was the five-foot-tall werewolf. Hundreds of sexually thwarted suburban housewives may tipsily align themselves with ‘Team Jacob’ during their weekly brunches, but those teams have steadfastly refused to go national, and now the whole craze has simply moved on – to zombies, of all un-things. The werewolf character in both the UK and the American versions of the TV show Being Human is an ineffectual pile of neuroses; the vampires in the Underworld movies slap the werewolves around like they were Girl Scouts at a biker convention; one of the young stars of the TV series adaptation of the Teen Wolf movies had to take legal action to stop people from calling him gay; the single worst movie Anthony Hopkins has ever been in (and one of the worst movies ever made) was a remake of The Wolf Man so awful it was practically surreal – and the original was more notable for Lon Chaney’s pronounced sweating than anything supernatural (or rather anything more supernatural). It seems like werewolves are fated never to have their day in the sun.

The key to that success, the silver bullet, is some kind of pop culture phenomenon – a hit series of books, for instance, like Rice’s own “Vampire Chronicles” that kicked off the whole modern idea of vampires as cool, sexy, gay protagonists in their own stories. And lord knows, there have been many, many attempts by writers through the years to create that pop culture phenomenon, never with a single lick of success. A big part of the problem was the fact that most of these authors had lit-rary aspirations, which first off required that they not believe in the very creatures they were professing to write about. Take Leslie H. Whitten’s 1967 novel Moon of the Wolf, as one sorry example. The aforementioned aspirations are announced with a epigraph from Beaudelaire (translated by the author, no less), and the story – set in the small town of Stanley in rural Mississippi – makes its own lack of faith perfectly clear:

“There are a few other things. Weesee, when she used that word, loup-garou, was right, at least in a sense. The word means werewolf.”

Whitake protested with a gasp of astonishment.

“They don’t exist,” he said sharply, jolted by a memory of old movies.

The doctor replied quickly:

“No, of course not. Not that way, not like some monster, a vampire or such.”

“What’s the matter with him?”

The doctor spoke softly, unwilling to stop until he had talked out the whole scope of the problem.

“It is a type of encephalitis. Uncommon, but there, as solidly classified in medical literature as measles. Late effects of acute infectious encephalitis, lycanthropy, to be exact. Once it was called a form of monomania. Morbus lupinus is another name.”

In any self-respecting vampire novel, the minute some stuff-shirt scientist starts talking about encephalitis, that’s exactly when an honest-to-gosh vampire would lunge into view right behind the poindexter and suck on him like a Crazy-Straw; there’s actually a scene in Rice’s novel The Vampire Lestat where the eponymous rock-star (Sting-inspired) vampire scoffs at the very idea that one day science might try to reduce him to a virus. But in 1967, werewolves didn’t exist – of course not – and the poor sots suspected of doing the ripping and tearing weren’t much more than rabid dogs.

A decade later, in 1978, Whitley Streiber’s novel Wolfen took another tack: what if there were a species of actual animal in the world, a sentient race of wolf-like beings who lived in the derelict spaces inside mankind’s big cities and preyed on the weak and feeble homeless outcasts who wandered mankind’s concrete canyons? Wolfen is a much better-written book than Moon of the Wolf (despite the few rather desperate attempts made in Whitten’s own lifetime to liken him to Faulkner), and it shares some of the same lit-rary aspirations (its epigraph is from Shakespeare), and it was made into a surprisingly watchable movie starring a visibly stewed Albert Finney, but honestly, who wants to read about werewolves as just another species for Animal Planet to tag and catalogue:

Both the detectives stared at him in amazement. Their lives and habits of thought emphasized the danger of the quest, not its beauty. Ferguson’s words made them realize that there was beauty there too. The presence of the werewolf, once proven, would completely change the life of man. Of course there would be panic and terror – but there would also be the new challenge. Man the hunted – and his hunter, so skilled, so perfectly equipped that he seemed almost supernatural. Man had always confronted nature by beating it own. This was going to require something new – the werewolf would have to be accepted. He wasn’t likely to submit to a beating.

At least Strieber had the courage to set his story in Manhattan and populate it with cops; far more common is the gambit of having werewolf stories take place where real wolves might be found – far from cities and civilization. Vampires get to look elegant in all the world’s capitals, and zombies show up all over the damn place, but time and again, werewolves get shunted up into the boonies where, presumably, they get to mix and mingle with other second-rate monsters, maybe go on hay-rack rides with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Such is the case in Edward Levy’s 1981 novel The Beast Within, set, naturally, in the Ozarks and featuring that worst of all possible werewolf cop-outs, the metaphor. The book’s title alone should have been a dead give-away that the author was going to go all Freudian on us, and sure enough:

The smile disappeared from Eddie’s face when he saw Michael’s eyes again. They seemed drastically different, wide with the unfeeling savagery of a jungle animal. As he watched, the face before him grew taut and hard, exposing slightly parted teeth, dripping with saliva. Now it was his turn to take a step backward as an unreasoning fear gripped him.

With a low, guttural howl, the beast sprang …

Except it isn’t a beast in that scene, it’s just some beastly guy – once again, it’s the author of a werewolf novel balking at the idea of actually believing in werewolves. Can you even remember the last time you read a vampire novel in which, at the end, it turns out the main-character vampire is actually just some normal schmoe with delusions? Me neither.

Fortunately, the late 20th Century’s growing addiction to special effects (in its movies, and hence, in its books) slowly weeded out these craven little manuscripts about the beast within us all in favor of shirt-ripping, face-stretching, hair-sprouting supernatural transformations. J. C. Conaway’s 1982 novel Quarrel with the Moon, for example, still clings to the backwoods setting (this one takes place in the Appalachians of West Virginia where, cannily, a werewolf would be difficult to spot amongst the general population), importing the requisite element of big-city skepticism in the persons of New York hotshot Josh Holman and his girlfriend, hee, Cresta Farraday. Josh, it turns out, has a rueful homecoming in more ways than one:

“Changing?”

“Changin’ into his beast form. Half-man, half-wolf. It was a terrible sight. My blood runs cold just to tell of it. He started to come up on the porch, but I was prepared for him. I had a shotgun, an’ I shot him an’ I killed him. I carried his body to the Lookout an’ dropped it off the bridge. It fell into the stream an’ was carried down the river.”

“Oh my God!” exclaimed Josh. “Then the skull, the bones were …”

“Kalem Balock.”

“My father.”

“Even in death, Kalem reaches out to curse us all.”

“You believe Kalem Balock was a … a werewolf?”

Avarilla nodded.

“How could such a thing happen? How did he get that way?”

“I don’t know, Joshua. I can’t even imagine.”

That’s another little tic (sorry, couldn’t resist) tending to obsess werewolf novels: etiology. Writers waste lots of perfectly good dismembering time trying to put the ‘where’ in werewolves, as if in a crazed quest for legitimacy (one werewolf novel, also in the go-getting 1980s, revealed that all werewolves descended from Pontius Pilate, cursed to beasthood; another derived everything from some Crucifixion-watching Roman centurion – and so on). One such ancient curse is in full swing in Jack Woods’ 1988 novel Wolffile, set, sigh, on a remote island off the coast of northern Maine, but no ancient curse is going to stop our author from more of that windy philosophizin’ that’s the bite of death for werewolf novels:

Perhaps this was the ultimate twist in the wolf’s curse – the only misery worthy of his corrupted natureĀ  was the one thing he could not wish for, the curse itself. He was immune to all else, to all external and internal punishment; only the curse could bring him the horror and torture he longed for and so richly deserved. And so, with this evil irony, the curse of the werewolf even perpetuates itself in the pitiful efforts of the poor, infected wretches to atone for their sins. The only way to excoriate themselves is to commit further atrocities, thus sinking deeper into their own degradation.

“Poor infected wretches” – I’m hooked, how about you? This is the crux of the loup-garou problem, in a nutshell: what the academic wonks call ‘agency.’ Unlike vampires, werewolves are helpless, clueless, brainless victims of something that happens to them every full moon. They can only be heroes through abstinence and forbearance – reading these books is like watching an endless stream of Ronald Reagan movies. Even when these lycanthropes terrify the locals – as they do Sherrif Arlin Hurley and his coroner buddy in Ray Garton’s 2008 novel Ravenous (set, say it with me now, in the small California town of Big Rock) – they still manage to be pathetic figures, caught mid-species and blobby when they fetch up on the coroner’s table:

“God, Arlin, look at her! She’s half .. something else. Her knees, Arlin – they bend the – are you looking at them? They bend the wrong fucking way! And those aren’t human feet – those are the feet of an animal! A dog, or a, a wolf, or something. And her teeth – look at her teeth, for God’s sake! I don’t like cutting something open unless I know what it is, so that’s why I called you up here, Sheriff, because I want to know what the hell this is!”

Hurley looked across the table at George. The man’s face was pale and intense. Unspilled tears glistened in his eyes and his lips trembled ever so slightly.

“This thing isn’t human,” George whispered. “It’s not … right. What does it look like to you, Sheriff? Huh? Because it looks a hell of a lot to me like this woman was in the process of …” He merely breathed the rest of his words: “… of becoming something else when she died.”

… werewolves.

Yes indeed, werewolves – ravenous, mindless, disorganized, easily-defeated werewolves! It’s enough to give just about any reader distemper.

So let’s give Anne Rice credit where it’s due: she doesn’t waste much time with all this ‘poor, pitiful, infected creatures’ nonsense in The Wolf Gift, and she certainly doesn’t chalk the whole thing up to unresolved Oedipal issues. No, the only problem her book has is that it’s boring; it reads like somebody doing a wan parody of Anne Rice. The hope that it might do for werewolves what Interview with the Vampire and especially The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned did for vampires is dashed after only about 100 pages, and the rest of the novel feels as routine as a vet visit. The werewolf – an active part of human psychological mythology for a hell of a lot longer than the vampire (or of course the zombie) – must still wait for his epic, the book that finally gets everybody talking.

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