Werewolves in Literature: 5 Titles that Embrace the Transformation
Werewolves have become the neglected children in our supernatural-fascinated culture. We are overwhelmed with stories of vampires and zombies and their many metaphors of life. Vampires reveal our inner lusts and longing for eternal youth, while zombies show our fear of life after death. But what of werewolves? Werewolves, or lycanthropes, are our primal instincts we push down in polite society. They are also our desires of transformation. Werewolf stories are nothing new. They are present as skin-walkers in Native American folklore and as far back as Norse mythology. As vampires, zombies, and other popular supernatural creatures are ever present in modern literature, werewolves are often ignored. If they are present, they are either villainous or over-sexualized. There are many series that incorporate werewolves, but they lack strong, stand alone titles like Dracula and Interview with the Vampire serve for vampires. The following is a list of the great but few werewolf titles that introduce well-rounded and symbolic werewolf characters not to be found in the romance or children’s section.
5. Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse, 1927)
“There was once a man, Harry, called the steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.”
Harry Haller is a middle-aged man living in a middle class world. He frequently contemplates suicide because he feels like a “wolf of the Steppes” or a Steppenwolf, half-man, half-wolf. Harry discovers the Magic Theater which advertises “for madmen only”. Initially he cannot enter the theater, but he is given a booklet to read called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf”, which describes exactly how Harry has been feeling. He meets the seductive Hermine who introduces him to a hedonistic lifestyle. Harry struggles with his bourgeois upbringing to accept his inner “wolf” and embrace the passionate side of life.
While Steppenwolf is arguably a werewolf novel, it presents the symbolic ideals of transformation that the mythological werewolf embodies and is the inspiration for many literary werewolves. The story is also allegorical of a time history when people were moving away from the rustic and primitive lifestyle to the more modern and modest comforts. Harry is a character conflicted by emotions and lusts in life that are not deemed proper by polite society. While Harry never literally transforms into a werewolf, he figuratively releases his inner “beast”, his base desires, in order to enjoy life and move away from his suicidal tendencies. Harry describes his situation poetically as such: “I had the taste of blood and chocolate in my mouth, the one as hateful as the other.”
4. Blood and Chocolate (Annette Curtis Klause, 1997)
“He was raw and sharp and rich and throbbing with life. He was sweet blood after a long hunt. How could she have mistaken [other] kisses for this? They had been delicious and smooth like the brief comfort of chocolate, but they had never been enough.”
Vivian Gandillon is a sixteen year old werewolf who lives with her mother, Esmé, in Maryland. A year before, Vivian lost her father in a fire started by humans who suspected the pact of murdering locals. She and the surviving pact fled their home in order to start a new life, though they are now leaderless. Vivian has struggled the last year to cope with her father’s death and to forgive humankind. She starts back to school, determined to fit in and find a place in the outside world. She meets Aiden, a human boy, and begins to fall in love with him and debates whether or not to share her secret side with him. Once again, a murder in the town threatens to expose her family. Vivian must decide between the two worlds of human or wolf, or learn to find a way to live with her unique duality.
So, somewhat untrue to the introduction, this book does slightly fall into the romance/children category. It is technically young adult literature, but it was written before a time when young adult literature had its own special category, and it is definitely not a novel for children. It stands above other supernatural romance because it explores deep issues of coming-of-age and learning to make adult decisions and accept the consequences. It also alludes to the previous mentioned novel, Steppenwolf, in title and concepts. Klause slightly alters one of Hesse’s lines for Vivian to use: “I had the taste of blood and chocolate in my mouth, one as hated as the other.” While Vivian is literally a wolf and human in form, she has some of the same duality issues Harry Haller struggled with: She is trying to find out where to belong in society and which instincts to give into in a given situation. Yes, the novel does have romance and teen angst, but so do real life teenagers. Klause’s novel uses the werewolf as an analogy of a girl struggling with the transformation into a woman.
3. The Last Werewolf (Glen Duncan, 2011)
“Werewolves are not a subject for academe…but you know what the professors would be saying if they were. ‘Monsters die out when the collective imagination no longer needs them. Species death like this is nothing more than a shift in the aggregate psychic agenda. In ages past the beast in man was hidden in the dark, disavowed. The transparency of modern history makes that impossible: We’ve seen ourselves in the concentration camps, the gulags, the jungles, the killing fields, we’ve read ourselves in the annals of True Crime. Technology turned up the lights and now there’s no getting away from the fact: The beast is redundant. It’s been us all along.”
Jake Marlowe discovers he is the last remaining werewolf. Even though he has lived a long life, over two hundred years, drinking, sex, and his monthly human meal no longer satisfy him the same. Jake even begins to contemplate ending his long life. This story is Jake’s journal of what might be his last days. He recalls his first kill–his own family–and how he has adapted to the changing world and culture. Jake discovers that two groups are hunting him down, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, and vampires. Both groups have different agenda, and Jake must decide whether his lonely life is still worth living.
Duncan’s werewolf tale is by far the most adult and most modernized on this list. Jake’s monthly bouts of violence and lustful acts are graphically spelled out. It is not for the faint of heart, but is perhaps a more realistic portrayal of what the were-life would be like. Jake’s story is unromanticized and unapologetic. Even with Jake’s description of his enjoyment of his kills, he is still a likeable character. His conflicted nature of were/human lends to the metaphor of giving into our innate desires versus fitting into society. Jake manages to find a balance and revel in it. The Last Werewolf is not a stand alone novel, but it can be read as one. There are now two sequels available.
2. The Wolf’s Hour (Robert McCammon, 1982)
“He spoke English, thought in Russian, and contemplated in a language more ancient than either of those human tongues.”
During World War II, Russian born Michael Gallatin is called upon to come out of retirement and serve as a spy for the Allied Intelligence. He is the best at what he does because, unbeknownst to most of the Allies, he is a werewolf. Michael is reluctant to accept the job as first because of a tragic event that led to his retirement several years before. He is convinced by an old friend when he learns the job may lead to an opportunity for revenge. Michael is parachuted into occupied France to search for information on a Nazi plan known as the Iron Fist. Michael must use his wolf’s abilities and senses to help him infiltrate the Third Reich and track down those who caused him great pain in the past.
The Wolf’s Hour tells a unique werewolf story. It is a James Bond-esque spy novel as well as a tale of horror and survival. Like Jake Marlowe, Michael has had years to embrace and except his otherness, and he is never ashamed of his wolf side. His situation is also unique as he lived the first part of his life as a wolf within a pack, hidden from the world. McCammon’s werewolf is not limited to full moons and night, so Michael can change at will and control his urges. Michael was a good man before he was turned and he therefore exudes those same qualities in wolf form. Michael has found the balance of his two natures, and he is not one or the other, but truly a wolf-man.
1. The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter, 1979)
The Bloody Chamber is actually a collection of short stories inspired or refashioned from known fairy tales. Not all are werewolf stories, but the last three tales are various takes on “Little Red Riding Hood” with the wolves involved being werewolves. Here is outline of each of the three stories:
In “The Werewolf”, the people of an unnamed country “have cold weather; they have cold hearts.” They are superstitious and continuously on witch hunts. On the way to her grandmother’s house, a girl meets a wolf in the forest. She cuts off its paw with a knife and carries on her way. She discovers her grandmother feverishly ill and realizes the paw she cut from the wolf has transformed into a human hand, one the girl recognizes as her grandmother’s. The girl calls for the neighbors, and the grandmother is stoned as a witch. The girl inherits her grandmother’s home and fortune.
There are several small stories about a town plagued with werewolves within the the next story, “The Company of Wolves”. A witch turns her ex-lover’s wedding party into wolves. One woman has her lost husband return as a werewolf only to attack her, her new husband, and her children. The key story is of another young girl in the forest. She is described as: “She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not know to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.” The girl meets a hunter who is more than he appears, and he challenges her to a race to her grandmother’s house; if he wins, she owes him a kiss.
In the last story, “Wolf-Alice”, Alice has been raised by wolves and has the mannerisms of one. She is taken in by nuns who can do little to control her, so she is sent to live with a werewolf called the Duke. The Duke terrorizes the townspeople, but leaves Alice alone as she appears so wolf-like.
Carter’s stories have many deep meanings about life and transformation. The girl in “The Werewolf” betrays her grandmother because she chooses to accept the superstitions of the townsfolk rather than embrace her grandmother’s unique type of womanhood. The many stories in “The Company of Wolves” reflect our fear of the unknown and prejudices against those who are different. This story also strongly reflects the “Little Red Riding Hood” theme that girls should be aware that there are big, bad men in the world who would steal their innocence away. “Wolf-Alice” only knows her wolf side and does not realize her behaviors are anything but ordinary until they are pointed out. Carter’s stories are exploring transformation, especially in women, from child to adulthood. We must learn to make our own choices and decide whether to take the safe worn path or the mysterious one that may have a few big, bad wolves along the way. And meeting those big, bad wolves may not be such a bad thing.
Still looking for more literature on the furry supernatural? Here are a few other titles to sate your inner wolf.
The Howling by Gary Brandner
Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber
Wolf Hunt by Jeff Stand
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
“The Wife’s Story” by Ursula K Le. Guin
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Great list! I love supernatural novels/TV shows/films but I’ve definitely grown tired of the vampire takeover. Can’t wait to read some of these!
I love seeing weres show up in film and tv as well, but there is still the same problem there with a lack of good werewolf centered movies in which they are not entirely villainous. That may be my next article to write!
the alpha king is one to read.
Thanks for the suggestion. Haven’t read that one.
This is such a great list. I already downloaded a couple of them based on your suggestion!
I love werewolves, but I could not find too many good werewolf-books this year, so this list is VERY helpful! I already have The Bloody Chamber waiting to be read on my Kindle, so maybe tonight…
I am not a huge fan of Werewolves.. there has to be something about them that totally grabs me. I don’t even know why I’m not the biggest fan. But, I read Raised by Wolves and it was great.
I still need to read The Wolf’s Hour.
Oh and the Nightshade series could probably make it to your list as well!
Haven’t heard of Nightshade; thanks for the suggestion. I know there are lots of great series out there with werewolves, but I wanted to focus on why there are so few stand alone novels that focus on weres. The Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton (they early novels) is a great series with weres, too.
Yay Blood and Chocolate, it’s the only one on the list I’ve read.
I really want to read The Bloody Chamber 🙂 I heard great things about it. Nice list!
The great thing about The Last Werewolf is that it highlights one aspect of supernatural longevity/immortality that isn’t examined too often in modern or popular fiction. Regardless of how the supernatural being spends its time, it would have to get immensely boring, mundane, and lonely at some point.
I agree, although I strongly disliked The Last Werewolf. I know that many people will like and dislike it for the same reason that it presents such a raw representation of what that life would be like.
You undoubtedly bring up a fascinating point — where is all the werewolf literature? In many stories and tales, werewolves tend to play supporting roles as enemy characters or simply nuisances, never really taking full grasp of the literary spotlight. Altogether, this is an unusual occurrence as so much potential lies in the werewolf/human transformation paradigm — potential for duality, metaphor, highly thematic parallels, and even political statements. I was rather shocked that out of the high titles you outline, only one was published in the twenty-first century, clearly indicating that society could use one or two more stories on these mysterious lycanthropes.
I was also intrigued by your idea that werewolves should not be seen as unceasing villains or sexual fiends, but rather should be considered from a more humanized perspective. One of my favorite characters in children’s literature has actually always been Professor Lupin from the ever-famed Harry Potter series, who very clearly portrays a werewolf that is neither evil nor sexual, but simply burdened with a transformation complex — a trait not too far from typical for a large number of people.
The idea of transformation also draws a parallel to change. Since most people are afraid of change, the idea of a human transforming into a monster is a solid basis for terror. But as you say, “we must learn to make our own choices and decide whether to take the safe worn path or the mysterious one that may have a few big, bad wolves along the way. And meeting those big, bad wolves may not be such a bad thing.” After all, how could we keep life exciting and worthwhile if we were always taking the safe worn path?
As a side note, I am also quite the Doctor Who fanatic and couldn’t help but think of “Tooth and Claw” when I read this — who knew that werewolves were alien species that would eventually contribute to the foundation of Torchwood? 😉
Love that episode of Who! One of my favorites. I like the whole wink, wink that the royal family may be werewolves as well.
I really like Professor Lupin as well, and the empathy he brought to the werewolf character. There are lots of great weres in series nowadays, but still a lack of individual novels.
That is an intriguing thought, more so when paired with recent commentary on the Twilight series such as Natalie Wilson’s “Civilized Vampires versus Savage Werewolves” which argues that even the ostensibly positive view of monsters that makes them love interests reinforces degrading racial stereotypes by making all of the Native American characters beastly, poor, and out of control. If nothing else, the idea makes for hot classroom debate with the current generation of “Team Jacob/Edward” veterans.
It is refreshing to see the rarity of transformation into an animal firmly cast as a positive which can be embraced and used intelligently.
Most of these books I’ve listed show a parallel between transitioning (transforming) social classes or child to adult. There are also underlying tones of the beast representing those who are misunderstood by others in society and cast out or recriminated.
This was a fantastic read. Having more knowledge of zombies and vampires, which admittingly isn’t a whole lot, it’s nice to see that there is literature that has werewolves featured as the main protagonist and not as ravenous monsters. I’m definitely going to have to find some of these books and give them a read.
Liz, thank you for a fantastic list of titles, some of which I’m ashamed to say I’ve not of heard of until reading your article. I would agree that the number of lycanthrope-based novels does feel slight when compared to those devoted to vampires. I’ve read King’s Cycle of the Werewolf (a pretty minor effort in his canon) and Wolfen, which I liked very much (I wonder if Streiber’s later preoccupation with alien visitations hurt his reputation in general).
I was glad to see Angela Carter on your list. Some of her stories are spellbinding!
Thanks again! I’ll be sure to check these titles out.
Glad you liked it! I’ve always preferred weres to vampires, and it was really difficult to find enough good novels to make this list that were not series based.
I’ve read The Alpha’s Daughter, Bitter Blood, and Werewolf Academy. Recommend all three.
Thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t read any of those, but I will put them on my list.
Awesome list, i actually have a few of these in my tbr pile *facepalm*
The Bloody Chamber! That’s my favorite werewolf book ever. And I was actually really surprised when I read Blood & Chocolate because the love triangle ends in a way I was totally NOT expecting.
I have not read any of the literature one this list, but I’ve definitely heard of them! Speaking of Werewolves, I actually thought Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia had werewolves in it before I read the book, maybe the word “creatures” threw me off a bit? Anyway, just a little story I had with werewolves books.
I want to read The Wolfs Hour, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I have to admit that I didn’t really like Blood and Chocolate. Sorry.
Fascinating article. I loved your insight into what they represent. I really like this idea about accepting the transformation, perhaps this is why they are a source of fright for us. I’ll be definitely checking some of these out!
I liked Steppenwolf! I am going to check out the rest of those books too! I love werewolves so much! Also, another great YA series that has werewolves in it is The Grey Wolves Series by Quinn Loftis. These are amazing!
I haven’t heard of it. Thanks for the suggestions.
Thanks for the werewolf recs!
You completely missed 13 to Life by Shannon Delany. I picked it up on a whim and loved it.
I love werewolves! My favourite so far is Moon Spell by Samantha Young.
Sorry, but these can not stand up to the Werewolf the Apocalypse series, that has so much history and back story, as well as the means to how a Werewolf functions and gives so much depth and detail to werewolves that no other can compare. Read it.
I liked the portrayal of the werewolf in Harry Potter, though it is a bit of a different idea because most of the “monsters” in that book are humanized and Remus Lupin serves as a bit of an exception to what werewolves are like, though some say he helped lift the stigma on werewolves in “wizard society”.
You have me intrigued in your comment above about the lack of “good” werewolves depicted in film. I look forward to your interpretation of that.
Yes, I think I might work on that for the future. There are so few werewolf films in which they are not completely villainous.
Great list! I’m not really a werewolf fan. More of a Frankenstein fan 🙂
You should make a list of great Frankenstein literature and those based on it. I would love to read that list.
If you enjoyed The Wolf’s Hour then also remember to check out THE HUNTER FROM THE WOODS which is a fine collection of stories with the same lead character. Entertaining read(s).
Darn! Should have mentioned that in the article, but I was so focused on the key books. Yes, that is a great collection. Thanks for mentioning it.
I’m always on the look out for more books with supernatural creatures that aren’t vampires or angels, so this article was a good one to favorite.
Lots of new werewolf books for me to check out!!! gotta love werewolves!! 😀
I’m thrilled to see Blood & Chocolate on this list!! That one was my first favorite.
THE AMAZING WOLF BOY by the talented Roxanne Smolen. A great YA book, but wonderful for adults, too.
Personally I think Graeme Reynolds High Moor and sequel should be in the list! Blood, guts, sex, fur, intrigue! it has it all!
Love the article, I read teh short story “The Werewolf” in my Creative writing class last semester and it was great. My last name is Wolfe and so they have always been my favorite animal, and werewolves are my favorite creatures of the night. Its good to see someone who also wants to see more werewolves in their media and literature.
It’s very refreshing to see a list like this about werewolves! I’ve lost interest in vampires and zombies, but werewolves continue to intrigue me. I’m more familiar with them in film than literature, however (Steppenwolf is the only book on your list that I had known about previously). I’m a big fan of The Wolfman, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London. Also, while not technically werewolves, I find Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and Marvel’s Incredible Hulk interesting for similar reasons.
Really solid list. For Werewolf media outside of literature I would suggest:
American Werewolf in London
Teen Wolf Film and Show (guilty pleasure)
The Howling (1981 not the remake)
The Wolfman (Anthony Hopkins is sooo good!)
Also all the werewolf Episodes of Supernatural are AMAZING especially the first “The Heart”
Love the Supernatural werewolf episodes. Other good werewolf films: Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps.
Great list! I feel like there’s hardly any recognition of “classic werewolf lore,” but you mention some great titles here!! Some of them I have read, others I have not, but will read next! I also like the idea of supernatural creatures being reflections of everyday human experience. It’s not a new idea, but I don’t think many people appreciate a story as more than a story in that sense.
Steppenwolf is hands down one of the best books I’ve ever read. Hermann Hesse is a fantastic writer– it was one of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read.
But that quote, about blood and chocolate, is at the beginning of “Blood and Chocolate,” introducing the entire novel. The writer of “Blood and Chocolate” (also a fantastic book, in a different way) must’ve been inspired by Hesse’s writing too.
To add to this list, one should also consider werewolf tales from the Middle Ages. Primarily Bisclavret by Marie de France, Melion, Arthur and Gorlagon, and Guillame de la Palerne or William of Palern.
I have never heard of any of these so this was a great read!
Nice article. Never realised ‘steppenwolf’ was derived from the ‘steppes.’ (although ‘were’ actually means ‘man’ in Old English so ‘were/human’ would translate as ‘man/human.’ But that’s me being pedantic!)