Tag Archives: horror

Classics You’ve Never Read: Where Wolf?

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read

-Mark Twain

I’m hoping you can understand my level of embarrassment. Way back when I had this brilliant idea for a blog series, I thought “and I’ll run through all the classic horror monster tales too”. Sure! Easy! So I started with ones I knew well like Dracula and Frankenstein, and filled in with some I’d read only once or twice (Invisible Man,  then Jekyll and Hyde). I’ll eventually get to the Mummy. And of course, I figured, at some point I’d clean up the set, swing by and just read, you know, that first classic story about… well YOU know, the one they made all the movies after… the book, the story, you know– about the Werewolf?

Right, so not. There, I admit it. Were you fooled too?

werewolf7But this only made me more interested: this week we’ll look at the classic none of us have read, because no dead guy or gal ever got around to writing it. Instead WE will do the job! Because face it, right, we got this one. Everybody knows the story of the werewolf.

What History Gave Us

My first instinct, when I realized there was no THE book of the Werewolf, was that of the history major- “well gosh, I’ve got to read SOMETHING”. I found this dandy volume from 1865 which sums it all up– {Note: the most annoying thing about people who know foreign languages well is that they feel compelled to leave key passages untranslated}. But it’s amazing really, how things tied together across many cultures, a lot of similar features moonwhere1to tales of “werewolves” or even other kinds of shapeshifting such as rakshasas in India (tiger), or swan transformations (as in the fairy tales).

For the werewolf, though, a special set of circumstances and some will sound familiar:

Controlled the Change

Yeah seriously, more often than not the wolf-man can do it when he likes. Sometimes he’s werewolf4forced to stay in animal form for years, but usually he can put it on and off at will. In fact, in some of the Germanic tales it’s literally a wolf-skin and he dons it to go all growlie. That pulls his character pretty far down, when you consider the other factors.

Fierce, and a Bully

The lycanthrope becomes immensely strong and powerful for any kind of fight, and gains animal-like ferocity (ignores pain, rends limb from limb, eats victims). Again from history, one source of werewolf tales could be the Viking berserker, getting into a mystic state Werewolf-attacks-girl200before attacking. It seemed supernatural then (today, we’d know it was just steroids). Yet time and again, the werewolf prefers attacking the helpless, women and children, presumably because they taste better.

Get Out

The wolfman is essentially an outlaw. This rather obvious point was driven home to me with great effect as I studied the issue. Literally, the old Anglo-Saxon term “wolf’s head” was a synonym used on outlaws like Robin Hood (and that was an unfair label, for him). They run in the woods, murder and maim. The villain is not himself when he commits crimes– an excuse? Society’s excuse? Point is, in the ARW, you don’t make a comeback from this– once beyond the pale, you’re going down sooner or later.

Weakened After, Vulnerable  Only Then

Lots of the stories have the returned man lying prostrate, exhausted after a romp. That’s the only way some of them get captured. One minute roaring and fleeing into the forest, the next all hunched on the ground, weeping. This is where it bridges into the Alleged Real World: apparently lots of guys caught doing awful things to women and children, freely admitted to being what everyone thought they might be– werewolves. And confessed (somehow), and went to their deaths a local legend. Go figure.

What Hollywood Did

Faced with a complete lack of an original written tale,  someone’s labor of love to screw up, Hollywood has been forced into a more creative mode than you would normally see. I knew that coming in, with the paltry few instances of wolf-dom I’d seen on the screen. But just as with the books, I had no idea the volume. Here’s just one great site I found with lots of deets on the whole history. I drew on a combination of the old and new, from the seminal Le Loup Garou (1923) through the classic The Wolf Man (1941, Lon Chaney) and thinking about more recent works like the ineffable Ladyhawke (1985), Van Helsing (2004) and the Underworld series (2003+) as well as lesser-known films I happened to have seen such as the Ginger Snap series (2000+). I left out pretty much everything from TV (like, sorry, Scooby-Doo!), and one parenthetical mention of a lycanthropic/history flick with my highest recommendation which doesn’t really fit the mold– but check out The 13th Warrior if you’re into gritty near-history stuff. Or Antonio Banderas.

Some interesting additions to our list:

Sometimes Runs in Packs

werewolf6Werewolves are not solitary, far from the only one in the world. Odd, isn’t it? The term “lone wolf” is just as popular as “wolf pack”. You see the latter especially in the Underworld series of course. But it also makes for a dandy sequel. Glad we finally killed the– hey, nasty cut you got there…

 Oh Yeah, Moon Without a Doubt

The change is not voluntary– usually it’s fiercely resisted– and it’s firmly linked to the

Is there a REASON the moonshiners are always… hairy?

rising/sight of the moon. Of course, it being the movies, we get a lot of play out of the moon peeking from behind a cloud, and only THEN does he change. But you gotta’ think about it a little- isn’t the moon always up somewhere? Is this incredible transmogrification actually blocked by water vapor? And if it’s not full, you know, don’t get me started because we

know the whole thing is still THERE. But evidently it’s moonshine that does the trick. Which I think a lot of us could agree with if we were honest with ourselves…

Equal Opportunity

Wolf-persons can be female, and even teens (though the latter case tends toward the comic). With women, there’s more than a tiny overtone of the relationship between the transformation and sex: guys are coming on to the MC, or threatening her with death for her supposed tempting ways.  Of course, back in male-dominated history there’s a bit of this too: guy gets hairy, tears off his clothes, goes nuts, and afterwards he’s pretty much good for nothing… see what I mean?

Let the Malthus-Darwin Party Commence!

werewolf5For Hollywood, a horror movie is an opportunity to watch only the fittest survive. And that’s usually not very many. Sidekicks, Onlookers, Authority Figures, even Antagonists can all be targets once the MC gets his howl on. This is usually the only feature of a horror movie I can get up for, identifying which of the Seven Vices each minor character represents and musing on the order in which they go down. Usually it’s Lust and Cowardice first… but the plucky pair who show courage, self-sacrifice, all that. They get out. In a werewolf flick, this could be the Hero and the Soul-Mate.

The wrinkle with the werewolf (‘wrinkled werewolf’, say that three times fast) is at least one of the bad guys is after, you know, a raving monster, to get him and save the town and such. Sure, he’s probably also a dope– arrogant, cruel, or maybe worst of all, got eyes with wolfie’s Soul-Mate.

Get In!

silverbulletsCombine the involuntary nature of the change with the presence of a love interest and you reverse polarity on the societal response to the lycanthrope. Becoming a werewolf puts you beyond the law, so the plot usually revolves around trying to avoid the change. I think of the yeoman efforts Quentin Collins underwent in Dark Shadows, that wonderful bizarre TV show and still the only soap opera I ever watched. Sure, he never avoided werewolf8it, he usually killed somebody: but it was always an annoying twit who was chasing him anyway and would have ruined it for everyone if he blabbed. A bit of David Banner (Bill Bixby’s version of The Incredible Hulk); you rooted for Quentin (wow, sideburns were cool back then, and velvet lapels).

So- Where Does That Leave the Tale?

Now, down to work. We’ve got to put together THE werewolf story, and it has to be… well, a classic! I’m going to suggest some elements, and then you come back in the comments with your feedback and requests. I’ll use a male for clarity but clearly this one could go either way.

In THE werewolf tale, the Classic That Was Never Written:

  • He’s a good man under pressure, perhaps a curse, maybe the sins of his father
  • He changes when the moon rises, loses control, threatens the good folks around him werewolf2(including of course his Soul-Mate); the Authority Figure pursues him
  • In wolf form he can’t be hurt by any mundane attack, and he has tremendous strength and vitality
  • When the wolf-form passes, he is weak and vulnerable; his Soul-Mate rescues him
  • He probably dies, by refusing to give in to the animal side, and saves his Soul-Mate by letting the Authority Figure get him

Your turn! What did I miss, what should THE classic tale of the Werewolf have in it? Comment, blast your hides, stop mooning about and let your opinion be known.

werewolf3This could have been a State of the Lands column, because I have seen lycanthropes in the Lands of Hope. A few. Alright, two. As of this column they are both in the future, meaning in WiPs that haven’t yet been completed. But one has been introduced (the very nasty Salivarr, in Fencing Reputation) and the other, who almost fits the classic mold here, will be visible in 2016 when The Eye of Kog reaches publication. But for now, we have a story to outline here! Thanks for helping.

Classics You’ve Never Read: Menace Beyond Measure

Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.

-Mark Twain

Here’s the only way I can even attempt to analyze the single most famous work of horror the world has ever known.

  1. I’m not doing the whole thing
  2. You are

Drac Castle1Yes, dear reader, this time I guarantee it will be the classic you actually did read. At least, the first few pages.

And since I don’t expect you to be telepathic, I’m going to tell you the name. No biting humor, thank you: you’re going to be reading Bram Stoker’s immortal– no, really, he doesn’t die– classic Dracula.

There’s way too much in this one to cover: maybe I’ll do more installments later. But for now, I will focus on just one element of this epic story, namely the incredible variety and degree of menace Stoker creates right at the beginning.

And I can’t convey that to you by myself. You’re going to have to help me.

Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It…

I’m completely serious. I want you to download a FREE copy of Dracula and read the opening. Or use paper- I have an annotated hardcover the size of a phone book. Yes, read it right now. Or at least, before you go much further on this blog.

Free online versions of Dracula:

Gutenberg Project



Oh stop whining– it’s the greatest horror story ever written, the e-book is totally Drac-Harkerfree and it’s a smooth read. On my tablet it’s a few dozen page-flips, the first four chapters. So off with you now, get the book and read through to this point in the journal of Jonathan Harker:

At least God’s mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye all. Mina!

As you read, I want you to pay close attention to the theme of menace. Make a list if you want (I have). And remember, no matter how many movies and other references they made, this is supposed to be a book. Don’t use your pre-knowledge of these names and characters; let Stoker introduce them to you.

No peeking! Just read it, then come back and finish this blog post where we can compare notes. I’ll wait right here.

Ahem, I told you not to peek.

The Use of Threat in Your Story

Have you finished? Honestly, did you go and read some pages? Because I can’t TELL you about this feeling, you have to read it and get the tingle yourself.

Happened! It's in the book.
Happened! It’s in the book.

OK, here’s a compilation of the ways I counted that Bram Stoker builds a sense of threat or menace to his first hero, Jonathan Harker. I categorized them roughly and put the number of instances at the end of each line:

  •  Misses with language- the people around him either don’t speak, or pretend not to understand him (after getting his words perfectly earlier) (4)
  • Blessings and Pressings- people are frantic that Harker go no further, and give him relics or make signs over him when he pushes on- (4)
  • Peer pressure- folks nearby are afraid, wish to hurry etc. (2)
  • Evil place- claims and indications that the region is a nexus for bad mojo- (3)
  • Inner nervousness- Harker’s unease is reflected in his journal, and “if” he doesn’t come back he wishes Mina well- (3)
  • Darkness and Sparseness- his approach to the castle leaves him increasingly isolated and alone; he winds up reversing his diurnal habit, talking all night, sleeping all day-(2)
  • The enemy’s power (passively displayed)- Harker is never assailed or
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don't make a guy choose.
    I know, love and death, but seriously? Don’t make a guy choose.

    seized. But the Count is massively strong, can climb down a sheer wall; Harker’s letter of credit and extra clothes are stolen- (3)

  • Good Old External Threat- surrounded by wolves, foul weather or something anyone would see as dangerous; others die in his hearing or suffer the Count’s wrath for disobedience- (7)
  • Mysterious Deeds and Signs- he is taken on a carriage ride in circles, the Count throws Harker’s shaving mirror out the window, he’s buying a gloomy isolated house next to a lunatic asylum-(4)
  • Signing Your Life Away- having to compose letters with forward dates is a clear sign of the Count’s power and Harker’s timeline of doom-(2)
  • Love and Death- encountering the three ladies he is seduced and nearly killed-(1)
  • Lies Revealed- the Count never tells him things, so when Harker reasons  them out (there are no servants, nearly all doors are locked) it raises the danger he’s in to realize it (and to suspect that the Count knows)- (2)
Drac Castle interior
Moby games screenshot

Dozens of discrete instances of increasing threat, every one of them like another turn of a wrench tightening the sense of menace and helplessness. Harker is the fly and ahead of him, the parlor. There’s no outward violence; Harker takes one swing in anger and it does him no good. The Count has complete mastery of his prisoner from the beginning, but dissembles at first until it is well too late.

And one more thing, a theme that runs underneath all the other twists of menace: Duty. At every step, whenever Harker is presented with a chance to turn back, or ask questions, make demands, he finds it pointless since it is his job to be there. His boss told the Count in his introductory letter that Harker could be trusted: that letter is a death warrant, unintentionally dooming the hero from the start,  because of course no Victorian gentleman would let it be said he did not meet his obligations.

First Impressions

Remember, you don’t know Harker from a hole in the wall, he’s new to your reader’s eye. All indications at first are that he is going to meet the main character in the Count, the hero of the tale perhaps. When does the villain come into your view so early in the story?

I was so stoked that this worked!
{I was so stoked that this worked}

And Stoker isn’t clumsy about this: the early narrative is filled with an ebb and flow of menace to charm. Harker describes the countryside, the colorful people, the marvelous food. You have plenty of time to recover your senses, and like Harker you doubt that it’s fully as dangerous as it turns out to be, until too late. Even after he meets the Count, they speak of mundane things like property rights and legal matters. You feel a glimmer. But slowly, like the dish steeped in paprika Harker ate on the first day, the taste of menace pervades the entire meal, and everything you read in the story too. And it leaves one… well, thirsty.

Survival of the Fittest?

Final point about the end-of-the-beginning. If you didn’t read it yet, shame on you really. But you probably already know something you shouldn’t. When Harker is at the very peak of menace he takes a desperate chance. The Count has left him to the mercies of the three female vampires, and as soon as this last day is over they will come for him. Harker decides to risk all and try to climb down the precipice on which the castle is set– hence his last journal entry. That’s the extremity he’s been driven to and it’s a marvelous moment.

But here’s what hit me. If I’m reading this the first time, if I haven’t seen any of the

Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes...
Sooo many jokes I avoided. Like anything to do with the plot and, um stakes…

umpty-dozen video versions of this story, then there’s something crucial I don’t know. I have no idea whether Harker survives. So we enter the next phase of the tale, from the journals of Lucy and Mina, and the latter increasingly worries that she hasn’t heard from her betrothed. The menace only spreads, like ripples in a pond. My immersion was so complete that I felt sympathy for poor Mina, hoping Jonathan was not hurt, etc. And that, this gift of threat that Stoker so carefully built in the first few chapters, echoes through nearly half the book, until of course Jonathan is located, still alive.

What a magnificent piece of work, to carefully and delicately construct this edifice of menace. And what a fabulous pay-off it gave Stoker throughout the following pages.

Lessons to the End

Read the whole thing, by all means. If you like epistolary tales that build a sense of reality from many points of view, Dracula is your thing. Stoker’s airtight commitment to the bulletin, diary, letter or telegram is a wonderful way to elevate the writing, because of the structure and limitations it imposes. I have used journal entries and letters myself at points in my fantasy tales where

2 of my faves, but gotta' say... too much cape.
2 of my faves, but gotta’ say… too much cape.

things dip toward horror. Reading long-ago words from those now dead automatically imposes a patina of creepy; and of course any distraction from the act of world-building is a good one (sshhh). Folks in the North Mark whisper of a vampire up in the Barony of T’yr: fortunately, undead of the second form are rare in the Lands. Time will tell.

If you want to see

  • a dead ship captain tied to the wheel with a rosary
  • an old salt talking in slang that’s completely impenetrable yet perfectly clear
  • so many nice people dying at once, you’ll think you found a lost volume of Game of Thrones
  • a room that smells so bad the heroes improve the aroma by lighting cigars
  • a story that manages conflict and doubt of success, despite a lack of the usual barriers

Then Dracula should be at the top of your list.

On that last point, I mean the heroes often despair of their chances, but the tension does not arise from the kind of tried-and-true barriers we often are urged to consider. They are not poor, never hungry- one of them is a Lord and can sweep away obstacles with a word to the consulate. They know multiple languages, are well armed and skillful (not just brave and honest). They flash across Europe hiring transport and buying supplies wherever needed. You don’t need to throw those obstacles in their way because their opponent is beyond natural, larger than mortal. Again, there is no fighting until the end: the heroes fall back not from weapons, but from the moment of sunset.

Everyone knows the power of a good beginning: those who follow me have heard Drac-van Helsingmy admiration for efforts like the Immerse or Die challenge. Here we have a foundation built by a master of the craft (or perhaps an author writing his most inspired piece, I have made no study of Stoker overall). The payoff resounds throughout the rest of the epic, bringing rewards time and again in the depth of character and in constant triggers to your interest and sympathy.

Where is that sense of threat in the beginning of your story? How many times do you turn the crank to tighten the menace, and how many different tools are in your toolbox to do it with? I wish your current heroes every success– after they’ve come through the wringer with Jonathan Harker.