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Why Werewolves?

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An Answer to the Age-old Question

My novel, Autumn Moon, is about a pack of werewolves that control a small town in Montana. Things have run smoothly for over a century, until an idealistic (and troubled) young minister comes to town and upsets the status quo.

“Why werewolves?”

That’s the question I get a lot. Certainly, the plot of my novel could have worked without them, although I don’t think it would have been nearly as much fun. The “elders,” as they’re called, could have been a group of town residents who were descended from a rich family that previously owned the town and lorded over it with an iron fist. Or they could have been gang members. Or Klansmen. Or any number of other things that would have worked as a catalyst for the story.

But the truth is, I’ve always loved werewolves.

I like vampires. A lot. But our culture is not starved for more vampire stories. Zombies and ghosts? I’m fairly indifferent to them unless they’re handled really well or the writer (or filmmaker) is adding a twist to the mythos. What about werewolves, though? Walk into any bookstore and take a look in their horror section. I bet you see plenty of vampire books and zombie books, but you’ll have to look pretty hard to find one or two werewolf books.

My admiration of the werewolf goes back to childhood. The old black and white movies with Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolfman: half man, half beast, 100% tortured soul. Remember in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” during the climactic battle when Dracula and the Wolfman square off? Dracula actually runs from the Wolfman! That’s how badass the werewolf is! Even Drac can’t fight him.

Okay, I know the movie is a comedy and not meant to be taken as a serious treatment of the subject, but still… As a kid watching that, I remember how cool it was that the Wolfman was so intent on getting Dracula, that even when Drac turned into a bat and tried to fly away, the Wolfman leapt over the castle balustrade, snatched him in midflight, and the two of them plunged into the dark ocean below (presumably to their deaths, but we really knew better, didn’t we?).

I collected comic books and Werewolf by Night from Marvel Comics (loved that Mike Ploog art!) was a favorite. Jack Russell, cursed to become a werewolf three nights a month, in search of a cure for his mystical condition. The stories became stale pretty quickly, although the series had Jack eventually gaining control over his wolf side (in a team-up with Iron Man!) and able to transform into a werewolf, but still retain his human intellect. Unfortunately, the series ended shortly thereafter, so my dream of Jack fighting alongside (and perhaps being asked to join) the Avengers were dashed.

The early 1980’s brought two movies that cemented my love of the werewolf: “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” “The Howling” because it did away with the whole “cursed to turn into a wolf under a full moon” that Hollywood had dwelled on for so many years, and went back to the idea that werewolves were shapeshifters and able to transform into a wolf at will. And although “An American Werewolf…” kept the full moon myth, it still had a man turning into a wolf — a really, really big one —on camera, without the stop-action-apply-hair-to-actor’s-face that moviegoers had been subjected to for so many years.

Both movies are flawed, of course, but they redefined the werewolf for a whole generation of people like myself, sick of umpteenth Dracula remakes. People who wished for something new, something that incorporated the legends of our favorite monster and didn’t just regurgitate what had gone before. Something that made the werewolf scary. Because really, how scary is a guy covered in fur, running around in a white, button-down shirt and khakis (Lon Chaney, Jr.)? No, these werewolves had fangs and claws and would rip your face off if given a chance. I waited for the plethora of werewolf movies that would come out.

Well, there were some pretty bad sequels to “The Howling,” and a bad sequel to “An American Werewolf in London.” There have been a few moderately decent werewolf movies over the years, but nothing that’s advanced the genre in any way.

What about books? I discovered Robert McCammon’s The Wolf's Hour in the 80’s, the story of Michael Gallatin, a Russian-born World War II spy for the English. Michael is also a werewolf, able to shapeshift at will into a full grown wolf.

Man, I devoured this novel. Then I went back and read it again. It was beautiful. It had everything I loved about the werewolf legend, like the ability to transform at will, and didn’t bother with the nonsensical stuff like silver bullets and the full moon curse. I wanted a series with this guy! Or a movie adaptation! Neither happened, although McCammon did write a sequel (of sorts) many years later.

In the meantime, I searched bookstores for books on werewolves, and searched video stores for werewolf movies. Occasionally, I found something that was entertaining, enjoyable even, but mostly I didn’t find anything except the next vampire story. And then zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

So why werewolves? Because there’s something attractive about having the ability to let your animal side out. Because there’s something scary, too, about the idea that the person sitting next to you at the campfire is a monster. And because, quite honestly, the werewolf doesn’t get enough love from us storytellers. Autumn Moon is my love letter to the werewolf.