A. Quinton — Jul. 18th 2010
The Werewolf’s Guide to Life belongs right next to the Bible in every werewolf’s (or werewolf’s spouse’s) nightstand. Its subtitle “A Manual for the Newly Bitten” accurately represents what lies between its covers: not a tepid modernization of werewolf myths peppered with pseudo-scientific explanations, but rather a no-nonsense (yet oddly humorous) instructional guide for newly-initiated werewolves.
At 236 illustrated pages, it’s clear that authors Ritch Duncan and Bob Powers were thinking hard about the daily challenges of being a werewolf long before the publishing world hitched its wagon to the recent monster fad. The book begins with a stark command instructing those who have just been bitten to skip ahead to the chapters that are most immediately relevant to their situation: namely, those that identify the signs of an impending transformation and how to avoid killing others (or being killed yourself) during your first Moon.
Most of the book adheres to this thoughtful textbook-like structure. It’s organized into three parts comprised of chapters that build on previously-discussed topics, but the text and sidebars encourage a lot of skipping ahead to areas where a topic of particular interest (or immediate relevance) is covered in greater detail. If you’re reading about the supplies you’ll need to have available in your enclosure during a Moon, you’ll learn you’d better have “lots of raw, red meat” available to slake your wolf-self’s hunger. But wait, the conscientious werewolf-to-be might wonder, how much meat is enough? You can take the potentially fatal guesswork out of the equation by skipping ahead to Chapter 11 (“Diet and Livestock”), which contains an elaborate table describing a point system for finding the right balance of live meat, dead meat and vegetable-based filler to keep you satisfied during your bestial evenings.
A satisfying range of topics are covered. The expected subjects are handled deftly: the basics of lycanthropy infection / transmission, the biological mechanics of the transformation, how to avoid detection or capture. These things are discussed with just the right blend of scientific rigor and everyday practicality, and with plenty of nods to beloved werewolf tropes. Where things get really interesting, though, are the chapters that cover what I’d describe as “fringe” topics. For example, the convention that werewolves suffer from debilitating nightmares is obscure at best, but Guide to Life expands on the subject to such an extent that it devotes 13 pages to the matter, none of it fluff. There are also chapters on reconciling your lycanthropy and your spirituality, how to deal with “fur chasers” (humans who want you to infect them with lycanthropy) and more. The creativity and thoughtfulness invested in exploring these offbeat subjects is one of the book’s strongest points, and it’s these chapters that I find myself re-reading.
There are a few weak points, too, although they all center around one problem: to enjoy this book, the reader must first be willing to accept that werewolves exist, and the tone of the writing sometimes undermines the book’s authority. The prose maintains a pleasant balance between strident sincerity and straight-faced humour, but there are occasional passages where the writing gets a bit too causal, the humour a bit too corny. A line like “You’re basically just a really strong, hungry dog” is a perfect example of the hip-10th-grade-biology-teacher tone that creeps into the writing every now and then. Also distracting are the “testimonials” that open each chapter: they sound more like scenery-chewing voiceovers than genuine interview transcripts, and while they were probably written to provide a (mostly) human touch to the book’s verisimilitude, the contrivance has the opposite effect. To be clear, none of these were even close to deal-breakers for me, but it’s ironic that the book could have been made even funnier by taking itself just a little bit more seriously.
Speaking of things that are serious and funny at the same time, Emily Flake contributed dozens of illustrations to Guide to Life and they work perfectly. Her style here is somewhere between airline flight safety card and syndicated daily comic strip, which compliments the instructional nature of the illustrations with just the right kind of goofiness. The effect is particularly striking when the images are grotesque and discomfiting, like those found in the chapter about werewolf nightmares, or the step-by-step diagram that shows the result of leaving your wedding ring on during a transformation. Rather than being the icing on the cake, Flake’s illustrations are the bag of dog food on the donkey’s back. Read the book and it’ll make sense.
Ritch Duncan and Bob Powers have written a werewolf book that is better than the one I wanted to write, but its excellence is such that I can’t be jealous. They’ve paid tribute to the existing werewolf mythos without being tedious and exercised considerable creativity and thoughtfulness in the articulation of their own concepts. Their own contributions to werewolf lore are so meticulously detailed and lovingly crafted that werewolf fans will probably be quoting The Werewolf’s Guide to Life as lycanthropic canon fifty years from now.
Buy, borrow or skip?
Buy. There aren’t many must-have werewolf books, but this is one of them.