April 2005

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Werewolves

I'm a sucker for werewolves. Probably the result of seeing An American Werewolf in London when I was nine, as well as the usual assortment of late-afternoon werewolf movies on TV when I was young. As was the case with almost any of my youthful obsessions, I searched for every book on the subject, and I quickly came to a conclusion: Werewolf literature, as a whole, sucks. Sturgeon's Law underestimates just how bad werewolf stories can be. Frankly, you'd be lucky to find one good lycanthropy story or novel in every three hundred.

What's frustrating, of course, is that this shouldn't be the case. Werewolves, with their horrific transformations and bestial natures, offer all sorts of potential on the silver screen, and you would think the nature of lycanthropes -- man's inner beast emerging through a layer of repression, complete with atavistic sexual and violent urges -- would be just the sort of concept that a good author could have a field day with. Unfortunately, too many authors merely write werewolves as furry serial killers, or are so obsessed with exploring the animalistic natures of the wolves, they simply ignore the human side completely (I ranted about Laurell K. Hamilton last month, but she's got nothing on Alice Borchardt, whose awful werewolf sagas are only in print, one would presume, thanks to the nepotistic influence of her sister, Anne Rice).

That said, werewolves are one of our oldest and most enduring monster myths, and over the years, there have been some worthwhile entries into the canon.

One of the oldest books of werewolf stories remains one of the best. The Book of Were-wolves was written by Sabine Baring-Gould, best known as the man who wrote "Onward Christian Soldiers." The Book of Were-wolves is a reference work, but its retellings of various werewolf tales are surprisingly graphic and nasty, especially for something written over a hundred years before the word "splatterpunk" was conceived. It's not a complete book, by any means, but Baring-Gould has some fascinating looks at French and Scandinavian legends (including articles on the Vikings and examinations of various myths of cannibals and ghouls that were often connected to werewolf legends), and remains one of the best references and collections of tales that I've seen.

The other superior reference on werewolves that I've come across is Brian Frost's The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature. As the name implies, Frost takes an amazingly comprehensive look at werewolf fiction. But this book is more than just a massive bibliography -- Frost delves into the history and mythology of werewolves as well as any author since Baring-Gould, examining stories and tales going back hundreds of years, and also providing a nice bibliography of other werewolf reference works. Although there are certainly other decent reference works and collections of werewolf tales, Frost and Baring-Gould provide the two essential non-fiction works on the subject.

On the fiction side, it's hard to even begin talking about werewolf novels without recognizing that two of the 800-pound gorillas of contemporary horror -- Stephen King and Robert McCammon -- have written werewolf novels. I've had negative things to say about both authors before, but when it comes their werewolf novels, I've got little but praise.

King's Cycle of the Werewolf is really a novella, and it's not a very subtle one. Each month, at the full moon, someone in the small Maine town of Tarker's Mills gets mauled by a horrible creature. The lunar cycle is more than a little out-of-whack, allowing King to have his killings occur on Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July, etc., but this hardly detracts from this fun, if brutal, tale. Our hero is a young boy named Marty who is confined to a wheelchair, and is (as is so often the case in horror tales) the only person in the town who knows the true identity of the monster. The story takes a straightforward approach, presenting the werewolf as the embodiment of repressed rage of the killer. The book is illustrated beautifully (if graphically) by the superb Bernie Wrightson, and if it doesn't offer anything truly innovative to the werewolf canon, it's still a damned fun read, and probably bears at least some responsibility for the resurgence of werewolf movies that started in the late 80s (including, of course, Silver Bullet, an adaption of Cycle of the Werewolf).

If King's book brought about a renewed interest in werewolves as monsters, McCammon's The Wolf's Hour spearheaded the movement to present quirky, humanized werewolves. Wolf's Hour really isn't a horror novel at all, but a spy/war novel which just happens to involve a werewolf. McCammon's novel is split between post-Revolution Russia (when the hero, Michael Gallatin, is turned into a werewolf shortly after his family is slaughtered) and WWII-era Germany (after Gallatin has emigrated to Britain and is working for the British Government as a spy). McCammon splits the themes of the novel along the same lines, devoting the Russian sections to Gallatin's self-discovery as a werewolf (with most of the requisite horror scenes one would expect) and the German sections to the spy story, which reads almost like a James Bond novel. McCammon's take on werewolves -- that they not only could be anyone you know (a long-standing part of the werewolf mythos), but that they could use their powers for purposes other than just ravaging people -- wasn't technically new (dare I utter the words Teen Wolf?), but this was the novel that proved that werewolf novels could expand beyond simple gore-fests.

One of the first books to follow in The Wolf's Hour's footsteps was Peter David's Howling Mad, which established the high-water mark for the humorous potential of werewolves. David's premise was based on a simple question: What happens when a werewolf bites a wolf? David takes that idea and runs with it, inverting the usual cliches (instead of the scene of a man learning to howl at the moon or mark his territory, we get a wolf who discovers vegging out in front of the TV with a six-pack), while still telling a solid story. David's novel, mostly set in New York City, adds a nice urban fantasy touch to the humor/horror mix, and doesn't cop out with an easy ending for the conflicted lupine hero.

Although this column has already run long, it would be an injustice to not mention at least one werewolf short story, Angela Carter's "Company of Wolves." Although most folks are only familiar with the Neil Jordan movie (which is none too shabby), Carter's tale, a freudian take on "Little Red Riding Hood," is alternately astonishingly beautiful and astonishingly brutal, and works as both a werewolf story and a modern-day update of a fairy tale. Recent years have seen a rise in werewolf short story collections, with most (like Pam Keesey's wonderfully-named Women Who Run With the Werewolves), however, failing to break the new ground they strive for. Still, two collections that belong in any lycanthrope fan's library are Bill Pronzini's Werewolf, a 25-year-old collection that covers classic (Saki, Kipling) and more recent (Lieber, Beagle) authors; and the more recent Mammoth Book of Werewolves, edited by Stephen Jones, which features winners from Suzy McKee Charnas, Michael Marshall Smith, and Kim Newman.

The werewolf glut of the 90s (a result of the success that earlier books had found as well as the ubiquity of the White Wolf RPGs) did produce some decent wheat amongst all the chaff, and I'll cover the more recent werewolf literature in a future column. For now, the works here should give anyone interested in lycanthropes a good place to start.