Most people, if they read, get off on books that incarnate into movies, video games, Fruit Roll-Ups, and toothpaste. Of course, the little demon of intellectual affirmative action sits on my shoulder and says “Don’t over-generalize; they’re not all as bad as you’re implying!” Sure, I want to let my South Park conservativism kick into gear by shoving his pitchfork up his ass. However, I really can’t help the camera from dramatically zooming up to my eyes as I whisper, “Such is true. Touche, my dear man.” After all, the bad-assity of Indiana Jones will never be tainted by all the cereal toys they’ve made of him. But in spite of this, I’m still pretty pissed off at humanity’s tendency to read cheap things and then cheapen them further. And to me, “At least they’re reading” has lost its power as an excuse.
Don’t worry; I have indeed chilled out and have gotten off my literary high horse. However, I’m not going any lower than the pony I’m on now. While I’ll always be an Indy fan, I’m also a fan of D.H. Lawrence and Jorge Luis Borges. And although those two gentlemen cannot steal Sankara Stones and liberate all the children of an entire third world country, they also have produced great writing that is booby-trapped against being incarnated into Saturday morning cartoons or granola bars. This is commendable, although I can’t help but ask, “Why can’t there be some kind of balance between Indiana Jones and John mother-fucking Milton? Between Teen Wolf and… you know… something that’s kind of not stupid?”
Well, you’re in luck if you’re reading this, because I’m going to introduce you to some werewolf / monster stories that have not only achieved this balance, but have done so while avoiding anything remotely Twilight-esque in nature. This means that the protagonists won’t sparkle inexplicably, faint or fall down when aroused, or generally act like Hot Topic employees.
The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon
When I was a college sophomore, I thought that this book was the most amazing thing that had ever been written, period. Since then, I’ve seen that it’s partially clichéd, and there are some parts (only a few) where I can’t help but roll my eyes. But in spite of that, I still love this book. Chronicling the adventures of lycanthropic spy Michael Gallatin, McCammon accomplishes the tricky task of detailing werewolf pack life while not sounding like a Werewolf: The Apocalypse instructional! McCammon has a poetic mind, and Gallatin’s fight against the Nazis (sometimes subtle and sometimes brutal) is entrancing.
Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
Unfortunately, the werewolf here is a ferocious, murderous antagonist. Fortunately, King’s writing power and Bernie Wrightson’s illustrations are so powerful that you (or at least I) can’t help but fall in love with the terror implicit in these beasts. When writing about anything potentially frightening in nature and the supernatural, many other writers tend to de-terrorize terror until I feel like I’m watching a dainty fireworks display from a safe distance. King doesn’t stand for that shit. He grabs you by the hair and shoves you right into the rank, snarling ferality of monsterdom.
This is a short novel, and if I had a Starbucks latte in my hand, I would raise my pinky and say that it’s probably short enough to be a novella. Anyway, finishing it won’t be a monumental undertaking, and it’ll be worth the effort. Its only drawback is the fact that the werewolf gets it via silver bullet at the end. And if you think that’s a spoiler, get ready for this: today’s episode of Sesame Street will feature a polychromatic analysis of the number 17, starring Elmo.
The Wolves of Paris by Daniel P. Mannix
This isn’t a werewolf story in the literal sense, but it is in every other way, since Mannix is arguably better than Jack London at getting inside the skin of a beast. “The Wolves of Paris” details the outlaw adventures of the wolfdog Courtaud, who leads a wolf pack in a battle of survival against nature, the elements, and superstitious humankind in fifteenth century France. Honestly, I could praise Mannix’s writing till kingdom come, and I could violate copyright laws by quoting some of the work from his savage pen. Instead, you should track it down and read it for yourself.
The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Many werewolf tales do well at describing the outward change from man to wolf and back again. Endore doesn’t do this; in fact, I spent some time wondering if protagonist Bertrand is an actual werewolf or perhaps only a mental / clinical lycanthrope. Strangely enough, this is the novel’s subtle strong point, and there’s a lot of leverage behind it. Endore thus makes physical lycanthropy play a far subordinate role to the mental, psychological, and soulish lycanthropy that Bertrand undergoes as he grows into a fine literary monster.
The overall plot of “The Werewolf of Paris” is probably the weakest of all the books reviewed here. Moreover, Bertrand can be shallow and his professed guardian can be weak and self-righteous. However, the novel’s terrifying strong points are its incisive descriptions into how the changeable body and its insistent animalism can alter the supposedly unchangeable soul.
The Old Testament Book of Job is arguably the oldest thematic werewolf story in existence. While not a literal werewolf story, the meat of it is what all good werewolf stories have chewed on ever since: What happens when a man is ‘cursed’ to become something he’s not? Why do such things happen, and who is the real monster?
To make a short story shorter, Job is a Godly patriarch of old, upright and generous in all of his ways. He is watched over and protected by God until Satan struts up to the heavenly host looking for a fight, and God presents him with a playful, existential challenge. Satan asserts that Job is basically a selfish mercenary, that he is only faithful to God because of the favors he has been given, and that he will curse God if these favors are taken away. In response to this, God delivers Job into Satan’s hand with the sole injunction that Job must not be killed. What follows is a Satanic holocaust against a Godly man who is reduced to a diseased, spiritual wreck. Job is counseled by his friends, but even they don’t understand what’s truly going on as they blame Job himself for all his suffering. And while Job never curses God, his pride is rebuked by God toward the end of the story when God speaks from the vicious spiral of a whirlwind to Job and his counselors. And instead of answering Job’s perennial question of why bad things happen to good people, God instead asks an extended rhetorical question in the form of a ferocious, beastly poem. I don’t want to spill all the story’s secrets, but I will say that God’s response to Job’s counselors is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever read.
Buy, read, and savor this story. It makes sense, terror intact, even outside of its Old Testament context. I can almost guarantee that when you’re done with it, the ‘curse’ of periodically becoming a four-footed carnivore will seem pretty mild compared to what is grappled with here.