Werewolves are enjoying a resurgence in horror fiction these days. If it produces more novels like “Autumn Moon” by Slade Grayson, I’m all for it.
More on Grayson’s novel in a second. But let’s talk about werewolves.
They never went away entirely. (Remember the 1994 film “Wolf,” starring Jack Nicholson? Perhaps you’ve tried hard to forget it.) But it’s been a while since vast packs of furry-faced anthromorphs roamed the pop culture landscape.
I’ve got a theory for why that is.
This is hardly a unique idea, but I believe certain horror tropes persist because they address some deep-seated fear in our collective psyche. Zombies and vampires tap into a universal fear of death. Lovecraft’s monsters – and their descendants, such as the creatures from the “Alien” series – touch on a more existential terror of an unknowable universe that isn’t particularly concerned with our well-being.
So what are werewolves? The malevolent face of nature.
The fear of some toothy predator crouching beyond our circle of campfire light is encoded in our DNA, or course. And it wasn’t so long ago that wolves were a very real danger for anyone who strayed beyond the perimeter of whatever human settlement he or she inhabited. I previously explored that idea here.
But werewolf stories – which have existed for millennia — take it to another level. They suggest that getting together with your fellow human beings and establishing perimeters to keep out the forest predators is no guarantee of safety. Because a human being can turn into one of those forest predators. And that human being might even be you.
In recent decades, however, nature is more likely to be the good guy or the victim in fiction – particularly horror fiction. These days, monsters rise from radioactive industrial waste and laboratory experiments gone wrong.
And wolves? They’re an endangered species. Ultimately, we’ve proven far more of a threat to them than they have to us. In light of that, casting them as the bad guys could come across as borderline mean.
Grayson overcomes this problem by addressing it head-on. In his novel, werewolves are an endangered species. They exist in the woods, on the edge of human settlement, and they’re even more wary of us than we are of them.
And Grayson invites readers to regard the werewolves much as they might regard real wolves. Sure, they’re dangerous. But they’re also majestic, exotic and beautiful. Even kind of cool to have around. Unless and until one of them is closing in on you with bared fangs, at which point extinction doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
In Autumn Moon, clergyman Drake Burroughs (cool name) is assigned to the small Montana town of Tanneheuk. There, he discovers, werewolves and humans exist in uneasy proximity. The werewolves, having been hunted to near global extinction, wish to conceal their existence from the larger world.
They offer their protection to the humans in the town, to whom they refer as “cattle.” As payment, they want an annual sacrifice of one youth from the community for an inevitably deadly hunt. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way. A lot of that is revealed in the first chapter.)
It’s an arrangement that’s persisted for a long time. Everybody lives with it, if not exactly happily. Will something stir things up with cataclysmic consequences? Wouldn’t be much a story otherwise, would it?
If I have a criticism with the book, it’s that the Tanneheuk residents’ universal acquiescence to this arrangement without seeking outside help never strikes me as entirely plausible.
Grayson mentions several times that the townspeople believe they owe the peace and prosperity of their lives to the presence of the werewolves, and so are willing to tolerate the annual sacrifice. But it’s unclear how the werewolves, who live in a settlement in the woods, contribute to the place’s economic viability. And without the werewolves’ protection, would there really be enough crime in a small Montana town that the people are willing to tolerate an annual human sacrifice rather than, say, ponying up for a couple of extra police officers?
But that’s a minor quibble. The whole point of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” of course, is that there’s no rational reason for the human sacrifice other than the blind observance of tradition.
And I find with most horror fiction, there’s a moment where the writer, in effect, says: “Here’s the set-up. Are you along for the ride or not?” In the case of “Autumn Moon,” it’s a ride well worth taking.
Where Grayson really excels is in creating compelling, morally ambiguous characters. Sure, everyone who’s ever taken a creative writing course knows you’re not supposed to make your characters all good or all bad. For too many genre fiction writers, that means grafting a few ostensibly humanizing defects on a generic, square-jawed hero, or making a villain just shy of elementally evil, and letting that serve as “character development.”
But Grayson’s characters are genuinely well-rounded. Burroughs alternates between heroic crusader and sanctimonious asshole. Grayson throws a family of criminals into the mix, who keep fluctuating from scary to weirdly lovable and back again. You even find yourself kind of liking the werewolves, until they turn around and eviscerate somebody.
Grayson also has a sharp wit, and a knack for throwing in some genuinely funny moments without deflating either the drama or the scariness.
At first, it may seem like the story is just kind of meandering around, and you could find yourself wondering what the point is. But hang on. Grayson is building to something, and it’s well worth the payoff.
So I guess it’ll be kinda nice having werewolves once again occupy a prominent place in popular culture. Even if that circle of firelight feels a bit less safe.