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Curse of the Full Moon

Edited by James Lowder
Ulysses Press, 2010

Etiology is the bane of lycanthropy. The problem isn’t lupine but literary: there is no ur-text. All the other monsters that delight the modern psyche have their respective bibles – vampires (Dracula), Frankenstein’s Monster (Frankenstein), mummies (The Egyptian Book of the Dead, God help us all), giant killer sharks (Jaws), zombies (Max Brooks’ epic World War Z – retroactively!), right-wing religious weirdos (The, um, Bible), Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (work with me a little here) – but the literature of the werewolf exists on much the same dividing line as the beast itself, half-normal and half-frightful.

As much as any other factor, this lack of a received apparatus accounts for the muddled mindframe regarding wolf-men. With the possible exception of Madonna, no other supernatural creature confuses us so. Is the werewolf a hero? A villain? A helpless victim? It would help if we knew just what it meant to be a werewolf, but thanks to the murky, multi-cultural mythology of the beast, we don’t. Does the full moon transform a total innocent into a ravening beast, or does the transformation only bring out the beast inside an already-evil person? And once the transformation is complete, what do we have? Sometimes simply a wolf, with no human consciousness. Sometimes a great BIG wolf, with the mind of a merciless killing machine. Sometimes a biped man-wolf combo with more or less human thoughts and reactions (plus lots of ripped clothing). Confusion in form is a natural outgrowth of confusion in function; are these demons walking the earth? Penitent souls experiencing punishment? For five thousand years at least, a wide variety of human cultures have dreamt up men who transform into beasts, but they haven’t bothered to consult on the why and wherefore.

The function would be cleared up if we had a basic, founding text to which to refer, and certainly the shrill voices of several billion tweens the world over would nominate Twilight: Eclipse as that text. It’s the third volume in Stephanie Meyer’s gazillion-selling series of Young Adult novels featuring every sexy, moping misfit in the entire Pacific Northwest except Kurt Cobain. There are vampires, naturally (perhaps you’ve heard of that detail), but there are also werewolves – mainly one particular werewolf, played in the movies by a very young, handsome actor with abs that could shell walnuts. That character, Jacob Black, fairly epitomizes our dilemma: he gets his lycanthropy by accident, through his Native American heritage; he can transform at will (even in daylight!), and he transforms into a slightly bigger-than-average wolf with entirely human thoughts and recollections. When in his wolf-form, he doesn’t kill indiscriminately, and despite every conceivable reason to do so, he never poses the slightest threat to the books’ insipid heroine.

But alas, Eclipse isn’t quite equipped to lead the pack as far as were-Bible goes. It’s not just that it’s poorly written; it’s that the book’s very nature sidelines our signature beast in favor of a bunch of emo vampires. At the very least, werewolves should get to star in their own ur-text.

And if the kaleidoscopic nature of the beast has always been its particular challenge, it’s entirely likely that anthologies featuring dozens of different werewolf versions form a basic text of their own. It’s an attractive notion: the pack is made of many individuals, many individuals form the pack. And if this is the case, Curse of the Full Moon, the fantastic new werewolf anthology from Ulysses Press, stands a good chance of becoming definitive after all. Editor James Lowder has chosen nineteen stories that wonderfully capture the wide variety of ways wolf-beings are portrayed in fantasy literature (would that it were eighteen stories, but in furtherance of the lamentable current editorial practice, Lowder includes a story by himself).

There are titanic names in this collection, although some of them disappoint. Ursula Le Guin is here with “The Wife’s Story,” a three-page snippet puckishly imagining the wife every werewolf leaves back in the den; Michael Moorcock is here with “Wolf,” and eight-page early work displaying not one single hint of the author’s true breadth of talent but touching, however obliquely, on the theme; Neil Gaiman is here with “Bay Wolf,” a juvenile outing laden with wearisomely narcissistic wordplay; Harlan Ellison is here with “Footsteps,” which follows the adventures of the Parisian werewolf Claire and along the way does some musing of a type designed to further muddy the waters of lycanthropic origin:

It was not necessary to have a full moon. It never had been. That was where the legends were wrong. But the legend was correct about silver bullets. Silver of any kind. And therein lay the reason a vampire cast no reflection. (Except that was merely another legend. There were no vampires. Only children of the night who had been badly observed.) Because Jesus had been betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, the metal had been put to an evil purpose and was therefore, thereafter, invested with the power to turn away evil. So it was not the mirror that cast no reflection of the children of the night, it was the silver backing.

In addition to highlighting some of Ellison’s more persistent shortcomings as a writer (lack of coherence, conception, or noticeable talent being foremost among them), this passage only further underscores the mixed-breed inferiority complex of werewolf-lit: what other horror tradition feels the need to so childishly deny the very existence of the others? Did anybody ever hear Frankenstein’s monster stage-whisper “Psst – the mummy? Just some anonymous extra in lots and lots of bandages – I’M the real mummy!”

The problem isn’t really that there are many origin-tropes for werewolves (Ellison’s invocation of Christian Scripture is far from unique; dozens of writers have extrapolated the exact same reason for the whole vulnerable-to-silver business), it’s that those different origins give rise to extremely different types of stories. If the lycanthrope is a poor helpless victim over whom a transforming curse comes every full moon, the animating spirit of the story will deal with the whims of fortune. But if the change is voluntarily embraced, everything changes: then we’re dealing with the perils of unchecked lust. In the first type, the hero is inevitably seeking salvation; in the second, redemption is the prize – whether he wants it or not.

Sensing this ravine, many writers have chosen not to enter it at all; they instead attempt to give us the werewolf without any kind of curse – zoology comes to the rescue of lycanthropy for these writers, and werewolves become just an outré part of the natural order. This is how it is in Gene Wolfe’s gritty, violent post-apocalyptic tale “The Hero as Werewolf,” and it’s also the case in Peter S. Beagle’s 1969 comic classic “Lila the Werewolf,” in which the sexy eponymous monster’s hapless boyfriend is predictably depressed when he learns her secret:

I hate confrontations. If I break up with her now, she’ll think I’m doing it because she’s a werewolf. It’s awkward, it feels nasty and middle-class. I should have broken up with her the first time I met her mother, or the second time she served eggplant. Her mother, boy, there’s the real werewolf, there’s somebody I’d wear wolfsbane against, that woman. Damn, I wish I hadn’t found out. I don’t think I’ve ever found out anything about people that I was the better for knowing.”

(He’s not quite done with his self-recriminations, either: “Lila’s shrink says she has a rejection thing, very deep-seated, take us years to break through all that scar tissue. Now if I start walking around wearing amulets and mumbling in Latin every time she looks at me, who knows how far it’ll set her back? Listen, I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, but I don’t want to mess around with anyone’s analysis. That’s the sin against God.”)

But Lila just is, just a hot, slinky werewolf seeing a shrink and dealing with work and parents – there’s no melodrama about how she got that way. The same thing holds true for Boyce, the deadly, laconic werewolf in George R.R. Martin’s great 1982 story “In the Lost Lands” (such a treat to find it reprinted here). This is Martin in full epic fantasy mode – a style that would go on to win him legions of fans in his sprawling “Song of Fire and Ice” series of novels, but already fully effective in this story about a high-born lady who wants the power to change into a wolf. She sends her request to the sorceress Gray Alys, who in turn sends the quintessential lycanthropy warning label: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The lady is persistent, however, and Gray Alys conscripts Boyce as a guide into the Lost Lands, where she intends to trap and skin a werewolf to fulfill the lady’s request. Boyce thinks she doesn’t know he himself is a werewolf, luring her to her death – but Gray Alys knows, and after she traps him, he shifts to the kind of seduction-line we more often see in vampires:

“Other women have loved me, have found me handsome. Rich, beautiful ladies, the finest in the land. All of them have wanted me, even when they knew.”

“But you have never returned that love, Boyce,” she said.

“No,” he admitted. “I have loved them after a fashion. I have never betrayed their trust, if that is what you think. I find my prey here, in the lost lands, not from among those who care for me.” Boyce felt the weight of Gray Alys’ eyes, and continued, “How could I love them more than I did?” he said passionately. “They could know only half of me, only the half that lived in the town and loved wine and song and perfumed sheets. The rest of me lived out here, in the lost lands, and knew things that they could never know, poor soft things. I told them so, those who pressed me hard. To join with me wholly they must run and hunt beside me. Like you. Let me go, Gray Alys. Soar for me, watch me run. Hunt with me.”

We aren’t given Boyce’s origin, but we see clearly what kind of werewolf he is: a free animal spirit, entirely in possession of his supernatural gifts, happy (at least temporarily, in this story) in his own skin. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum are the monsters in Joe Lansdale’s masterpiece “The Gentleman’s Hotel,” the pinnacle of what Curse of the Full Moon has to offer. It’s set in the Wild West, and it features a town laid under darkness, visited by Jebediah Mercer, a preacher whose luckless mission in life is to confront such darkness, to comfort the ghosts of all those innocent townspeople killed by the small group of “hairy ones” who’ve infested the place. The story is old-fashioned horror-genre done to perfection, and it inadvertently highlights our question of werewolf origins. When a chatty ghost gives Mercer a brief history of the town’s affliction, we get a miniature tour of all our various choices:

Me and some of the boys got liquored up and rode out to the graveyard for some fun. I didn’t have no respect, ‘cause I was full of rotgut to the gills. We rode out there with bad intentions. Graveyard there is what used to be for all them folks settled here, but there was graves older than that on top of the hill, lost in amongst the trees. And it was said Conquistadors come through here, gave trouble to the Indians. Story went that they come through this part of East Texas, up the Sabine River, searching for gold. Course, wasn’t none. But they searched anyway. These woods, deep as they are now, were deeper then, and there was things in there from times before we know’d about time. Conquistadors began to die out, and the six that was left, they camped here abouts, and in the night, a hairy one came. Maybe he was an Indian. Who knows? The Indians tell the story. But he was hairy and he came into the center of them and killed the lot of them, tore them up. Their bones were left to rot on the hill. But Indians said them Conquistadors, every full moon, gathered flesh and hair on their bones, and come into camp searching for food and fun killin’. It was said this thing that killed them had passed along apiece of himself to them, making them like him. Wolves that walked like men.

Hairy ones, Indians, Conquistadors (???), evil forests, curses older than time – or just bite-borne infection of some kind? Lansdale’s characters don’t much care – they just want protection from the end result.

Maybe in the end that’s the lesson to take away from this stubborn mixed-breed status of the werewolf myth: maybe what gives it such raw adaptability and primal punch is that it refuses to trade in pedigrees – like the dogs that have surrounded mankind for 15,000 years, it’s just there, all the time, in myriad forms, some threatening, some companionable, some aloof, some up close and personal. If this is the case, Ulysses Press is to be commended for giving us an anthology that ranges the whole gamut of what a werewolf can be. It’s certainly a good place to start.

Khalid Ponte grew up in Singapore, where he consumed as much American pop culture as he could (and perhaps more than was good for him). He currently works as a network systems analyst in Costa Mesa, California.