S.M. Douglas

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Tag: Best Werewolf Books

First Place in Our Werewolf Book Countdown For This Holiday Season

Here we are! Two weeks ago I started this look at top werewolf books by analyzing my number three choice: The Howling.  Last week The Wolfen clocked in at number two. Today, and just in time for ordering your loved one a X-mas copy, is my top choice: The Hyde Effect.

The Hyde Effect_2000 Cover

First my obligatory commentary on the cover. The cover above is from the 2000 reprint. It’s not bad, but the edition I have from the book’s original publication in 1986 features the following cover:

The Hyde Effect My Versions Cover

Notice the difference. I hope you do, because the original more accurately conveys the shape shifting premise offered by the title. As an aside, sorry for the lousy picture, but for whatever reason I struggled to find online a better image. They say a good cover is worth a thousand words, and the problem I have with the 2000 version is that it looks like a duplicated shot of a wolf. If I am looking for a werewolf book and I see this cover I might just skip on by thinking “Hyde Effect and two wolves on the cover….hmmm….this looks like it could be about maybe a good wolf/bad wolf book, a government experiment featuring two wolves, or something else, but not necessarily a werewolf book.” This is an important lesson for you authors out there, make sure you are actively thinking about your book’s core audience and participating during the process of selecting your cover (if you can, some publishers are a bit more….how shall I say “controlling”).

It’s also a lesson to readers. Don’t be turned off by a bad cover; a good book could be lurking inside. Take the time to research or review the book; it might be worth your hard earned dollars. In this case author Steve Vance produced a winner nearly thirty years ago with The Hyde Effect’s first print run. Careful readers will note that since October I have profiled two werewolf books written in the 1970′s (and now one in the 1980’s, plus an honorable mention for another 1980’s book – Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf) and favorably commented on several 1980’s werewolf films. These are big reasons why I consider the ten year’s running from the mid-1970s’ to mid-1980’s as the “golden age” of high quality werewolf themed entertainment. Now back to my review, and a note on methodology.

You may be wondering what criteria landed The Hyde Effect at number one on this list. After all, both The Howling and The Wolfen sold more books, and each spawned major feature films. The answer is quite simple: by a muzzle The Hyde Effect edged out The Wolfen as the scariest of the three books.  And I mean by a muzzle. The Wolfen came close to taking the top spot. And don’t think that I elevated The Hyde Effect to number one just because it meets some contrived purist’s definition of featuring a supernaturally created shape shifting werewolf. If you believe that then you are ignoring my wholehearted endorsement of The Wolfen, and it’s non-werewolves.

The werewolf in The Hyde Effect and the carnage he wreaks rises several terror notches above this book’s closest competitors. The Wolfen are scary to be sure, but they are basically predators. That means there is a reason for their killing; to eat and survive. Nothing more, nothing less. What’s more they kill only what they need, and just like real predators focus on the weakest and most isolated of their prey species. The only reason they kill otherwise is when certain animals make youthful mistakes, or if there is a risk of discovery. And though the werewolves in The Howling are nasty creatures, even when in werewolf form they are able to control their behavior.None of this is true in regards to the savage killing machine Vance has created.

Vance’s werewolf wipes out entire families in their homes, kills cops, doctors, and so on….it butchers people by the dozens. There is no regard for the person’s standing in life, whether or not there are other people nearby, whether or not the werewolf has just fed, or anything of the sort. You can be killed at any time or any place by this werewolf, as long as he is somewhere nearby and the clock has not run out on his monthly killing spree.

One could say how scary is that? It should be easy to find such a mindless terror. But Vance makes his human host a kind, thoughtful, intelligent man who takes all sorts of precautions in attempting to limit his once per month nocturnal activities. Some months he is even successful in isolating himself to such an extant he cannot make a kill. This further drives home the book’s title: Vance’s central character is a true Jekyll and Hyde. This is doubly true not only in terms of personality and morals but also makes him much harder to track than if he were like Gary Brandner’s Marcia; who in The Howling oozes sexuality and violence in whatever form she is in. In addition, by sticking to the conventional script, in regards to his werewolf only being able to change at midnight on the night of the full moon, Vance further limits his creature’s destructive power to a roughly five to seven hour period each month. This allows Vance to ramp up the book’s tension. Each month the full moon approaches, bringing the reader to a near feverish state of suspense again and again as Vance’s work winds it way through a series of bloody killings to reach it’s final act. And what a final act it is….

Without giving away too much of the plot a good chunk of the book’s second half takes place in a single physical location where the werewolf has an opportunity to feast upon over a hundred trapped people. The idea might sound weak but trust me, Vance makes it work. These people include the book’s heroes, who have been developed enough that by this point in the text you care about what happens to them. On top of that there is a side story running throughout the book about a mentally handicapped teenage boy of prodigious size, physical strength, and the motivation to use his power. He, and his sister who takes care of him, end up trapped with everyone else – where he confronts the werewolf as part of an epic battle running the entire night between werewolf on one side and over a hundred people on the other. Such is the savagery of the beast that it is hardly a fair fight; for the people.

If for no other reason than the book’s second part I cannot for the life of me understand why it has never been made into a movie. And this is not to ignore the book’s first half. As a stand alone read it does a great job of establishing the nature of the beast, the obstacles our heroes must tear down in their quest to reveal the truth of the murderous terror stalking the night, and in setting up the climactic confrontation that follows. If you like werewolves, or if you like feeling scared, you will not be able to put this book down. Does it have its faults? Sure. But in terms of pure entertainment I cannot recommend The Hyde Effect enough.

I first read all three of my recommendations, and Stephen King’s fourth place near miss, as a tween – or YA reader in today’s vernacular. They scared the crap out of me. I think I turned out reasonably well adjusted. Nevertheless, note to parents; none of these book’s were written for those under the age of 17. They all qualify as “R” rated. In particular The Howling contains a disturbing rape scene and graphic sexuality. Though each book is somewhat dated, and though the Internet makes available for viewing sexual practices and levels of violence I couldn’t even dream up back in my youth; this is not Twilight.  These are violent, scary works whose monsters still managed to put a fright in me when I reread each book as an adult. You are forewarned.

Now go forth and shop (or load up your browser, click on a few buttons, and call it shopping). Merry Christmas!




Second in Our Werewolf Book Countdown For This Holiday Season

Last week, and in honor of the gift giving season, The Howling began my countdown of the top three werewolf books. Coming in at number three The Howling also has the distinction of being perhaps the finest werewolf movie made in the past thirty plus years – though the movie and book are almost nothing alike. This week, and as promised, I reveal number two on my list of all-time werewolf books: The Wolfen.

Wolfen Book Cover

As with my discussion of The Howling I will begin with my choice of cover for the image accompanying this little review. This is a task far more complex than it may seem given there are at least a half dozen different book covers for the various editions. Don’t believe me? Google it. Then try to pick your favorite cover. Good luck by the way, I think most of them kinda suck. So I took the easy road and went with the cover on my edition of the book. I picked up this edition in a used book store in my hometown back in the mid 1980’s. As you can see here this edition came out not only well after the book’s original publication date of 1978, but also was knee deep in promoting the movie that subsequently came out in 1981 (and that like The Howling often finds itself in top ten werewolf movie lists).  Now, considering I can already hear many readers gnashing their fangs at my inclusion of this book at number two on this list, on to the big fat elephant in the room…..

The wolfen are not werewolves.

I don’t care. Buy the book.

If you are into werewolves as vehicles for scaring your pants off then you will almost assuredly find these creatures quite terrifying. We can debate this point until the next time the moon is full – and if you must know, and I hope you must, that is on January 4, 2015. So if you want to argue the merits of including in this list a creature that has nothing to do with shape-shifting then be my guest. I look forward to your emails, comments, tweets, or whatever. And for those would be debaters out there please read the book first.

Penned by the enigmatic and eccentric talent Whitley Strieber…. Don’t just trust me on those descriptors; look it up. Strieber has created an entire conceptual framework for understanding our place in the universe, and he is not afraid of sharing those ideas.  Okay, now back to the book, and an important question I am confident is driving you mad by this point. If it’s not a werewolf book then what the heck is The Wolfen about?

The wolfen are a race/species of highly intelligent and evolved predators that at some point thousands of years ago broke free of the canine evolutionary tree to create their own branch. And yes Virginia, if you were wondering they are not just any kind of predator; they prey on humans. Up until one rainy late 1970’s day in New York City the only non-Native American humans aware of that get slaughtered by the wolfen before they could do anything about their new found knowledge. Oh what fun!

In choosing to craft his creatures as a scientific and thus logically explainable part of nature’s evolutionary process Strieber accomplishes two things of particular note. First, he turns the werewolf genre on its head. Second, he ramps up the stakes for future horror writers seeking to create enough plausibility for their creations to not only suspend reader disbelief, but do so in such a way that leaves readers all too often waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. This is of course what every horror writer wishes for, but there are a number of ways of getting to that point. I happen to think Strieber did a good job with the tools he chose for entertaining his readers.

It is in bringing together Strieber’s subversion of the werewolf genre, and his chosen method of suspending disbelief in his readers, that we get to the real genius of this short (250 plus page), fast paced book. Traditionally the werewolf is a human who is cursed, bitten, or what have you; and becomes a monster that eats people. Part of what makes the werewolf such a formidable and terrifying adversary is the stealth factor (after all how do you know who a werewolf is until they change). Another part is the concept of taking the human mind and letting it direct a powerful body in all the myriad ways a higher intelligence can wield truly awe inspiring physical capabilities. As much as that last sentence explains the werewolf it also explains the wolfen.

As for the whole cursed, bitten concept – i.e. the supernatural aspect of a werewolf – there is nothing wrong with this per se. After all my number three book on this list essentially has an occult explanation for its werewolf genesis. As does a novella that barely missed this list (Stephen King’s Cycle of The Werewolf – to be honest another must read, but because of its brevity not up to the depth of an entertainment experience provided by my top three). Here Strieber eschews such an approach by taking a fascinating walk through the wolfen’s evolution. This walk is memorialized by Strieber through a series of scenes involving scientists and researchers at the Museum of Natural History, via exploring library archives, and through the wolfen’s point of view descriptions of their remembered history. These scenes provide not only a plausible explanation for where the wolfen come from, and a visceral thrill for any researcher and lover of books, but also leverage the legend of the werewolf as humanity’s way for trying to understand attacks that in fact had been all along made by the wolfen. It is for these reasons, and not that the wolfen are wolf-like creatures, putting this book on my list. One could argue otherwise but I believe The Wolfen fits in with the werewolf genre, and not part of a more generic scientifically created creature feature listing that would include works by Dean Koontz (Watchers) or Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) – as an aside do note that both are superb books far superior to their movie versions.

Going beyond all of the above what else is it about The Wolfen that ranks it among the best werewolf books? That’s easy. The book is freaking scary. If you have ever wondered how awful it would be to be hunted by a pack of relentless, motivated, lethal creatures then this book is for you. If you have ever wondered what it would mean to have no hope of reasoning your way out of or otherwise escaping a confrontation with creatures anxious to rip your body to pieces and consume every part of it then this book is for you. Regardless of the book’s other strengths it does a superb job of conveying the horror of being trapped in a big city, surrounded by people, yet having no one to turn to; and thus on your own facing the most implacable and ruthless foe you could imagine.

The book’s protagonists, two cops stumbling upon the wolfen’s existence, are marked and hunted from almost the first moment they begin to understand what they are facing. Strieber repeatedly ramps up the tension as his wolfen circle ever closer to their most important kill.  I read this book as a teenager and had nightmares for days afterward. Even as an adult re-reading it I still got jumpy. If this book doesn’t get your heart pumping I don’t know what will.








Three Must Read Werewolf Books for Your Holiday Shopping Season

In October I commented on two of the best werewolf transformation scenes of all time and then broke down one of the all time great werewolf movies – The Howling. To complete my series of werewolf themed posts I would like to change media formats; from movies to books.

More to the point, and in light of this being the silly season, if you have loved one’s who enjoy a good scare then I have three must read werewolf books any one of which would make a wonderful gift. In addition, and this being the season of lists, I have ranked them in my order of preference from third to first, with this post focusing on the third of my recommendations (and follow up posts tackling my top two choices):

3.) The Howling – by Gary Brandner


First off, for those of you clicking on the link provided above note that I have chosen to include the original book cover in this post (from its publication in 1977). This decision was made for a number of reasons. Most notably it is because the werewolf pictured on the cover of the 2011 edition looks nothing like the very wolfish four-legged werewolf described in the book. In that regard I think Brandner’s publisher did his work a disservice. On the other hand I am also a traditionalist, and enjoyed the simplicity of the original cover.

With that out of the way the book’s plot is fairly conventional in terms of many of its larger points – the werewolves can only transform at night, there is a clear progression of victims, etc…But beyond that the book does a number of things well, all of which elevate it to being quite a nice read.

Two of the most important decisions made by Brandner were discussed in my previous post regarding the 1981 movie “The Howling” which otherwise has little similarity to this book. That being the sheer malevolence of the werewolves, and their communal nature. Not to gloss over these decisions as they were truly innovative for their time – but again read the other post….Go ahead, I will wait….In the meantime I will discuss several other things Brandner did that were worthy of praise.

For one he crafted a tightly written work (at 200 plus pages) that absolutely nails the right mood and tone for a werewolf novel. The town of Drago, the home of the werewolves, is about as creepy as it gets. It is a genuinely scary place that exudes evil. That is to Brandner’s credit as a writer. Striking the proper atmospherics is one of the trickier aspects of writing, and Brandner nails it. Drago is the kind of place that if you stumbled across it you would promptly roll up the windows, lock the doors, and speed on through even as you tried to shrug off the inexplicable chill running up your spine.

In addition, in a book that features an almost pornographic sex scene and features a horrible act of violence against a woman Brandner manages to create a female protagonist named “Karyn Beatty” who is brave, sympathetic, and admirable enough that one almost forgets about the otherwise more sordid aspects of his work. Had her character been written the same way for the movie that she was for the book she might have gone down as another of that era’s great fictional female champions every bit as strong as her onscreen peers Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator). This is because Brandner’s Karyn suffers through a series of tragic circumstances including: a rape and miscarriage; a less than supportive slut of a husband who ends up abandoning her during her time of greatest emotional need; the loss of her dog (who can’t sympathize with that); and one closed door after another everywhere she turns for help.  Yet through sheer force of will she overcomes. This strength of the book is perhaps the greatest failing of the movie version – as the film’s character Karen White (played by Dee Wallace-Stone) somehow comes across as more of a damsel in distress than a heroine.

Finally, I have to single out for special attention the book’s introduction. It is a tidy little vignette taking place hundreds of years ago in an Eastern European town named Dradja, and it is fantastic. I would rather have you read it then describe it. As much as this introduction pulls the reader in however, it leads into perhaps the book’s greatest fault. And as a side note on the book’s faults say what you want about Brandner’s decision to create werewolves that look like wolves – I prefer by far the film’s two-legged version of a werewolf – but for some reason the almost literal man into wolf somehow works here. Now back to the good stuff….

The introductory chapter setting the book’s back story was so well written, so horrifically compelling, and unfortunately brief that it left this reader wanting more. It is almost like he created an outline in that first chapter that easily could have been blown out into several large chunks inserted throughout the story; pacing the present with the past and in effect telling the twin stories of these evil towns (Dradja of the opening vignette and Drago of the novel’s main body) side by side. Yes this would have blown out the length of the book into something more Stephen Kingishly long, but in this case that wouldn’t have been a bad thing. As it was the horror in Dradja that Brandner dangles before the reader is so compelling that the rest of the book’ first act almost pales in comparison. And this is in spite of the horrific rape that otherwise dominates the first part of this work. In fact the book doesn’t really pick up again until we enter Drago, where Brandner regains his stride and carries the reader through a fast paced second and third acts.

For sure I would have loved to see Brandner follow-up and expand that opening scene into a full-blown novel or even a novella, but the book is still an enjoyable read (regrettably he passed away late last year at the age of 83). That is why I have the book “The Howling” at number three on my gift giving list for the werewolf fan. Please come back next week for my second selection.

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