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.