Classic Horror Novel Review: Wolfen by Whitley Streiber
The first time that I ever heard of this book was when I was nine years old. I was at a boy scout camp and one of the other children took great pleasure in telling me about this book and how it was about werewolves ripping children apart at a scout camp. I was scared to the point that in the middle of the night, I packed my gear and walked ten miles home through country lanes.
It wasn’t until I found the courage to actually read the book, two years later, that I found out that the kid had been full of it and the book had nothing to do with children or boy scout camps at all. In many respects, the book was even scarier than that. Reading it as an eleven year old, it terrified me into having many sleepless nights.
In many respects, this book (and the bullshit story that I was told as a nine year old) sparked a lifelong interest in werewolves that turned into the novel that I am a few short chapters away from completing (And yes, the scene with the boy scout camp and the werewolf is in there ).
So, when I came across an old, tattered copy of the book in a second hand shop, almost thirty years later, I figured it was as good a time as any to revisit the story that had scared me so much as a child.
Now, some of you reading this might remember the movie adaption with Albert Finney, from 1981. Forget all about it. Its one of those classic examples of a movie missing the entire point of its source material. The movie lifts a couple of scenes and some of the core concept from the book, but glosses over or ignores what makes this novel as good as it is. I’ll get to that in a second.
The central characters in the novel are two police officers, George Wilson and Becky Neff who share a complex love / hate relationship as partners in the NYPD. When the partially devoured corpses of two police officers are discovered in a scrap yard, the two detectives find themselves hunted by a foe that is stronger, faster and smarter than they are.
That is the plot in a nutshell. Nothing too complex at first glance, I will admit. There are quite a few things that make this book really stand out from the crowd though.
Firstly, the gradual build up of tension in this book is rivetting. Once the two protagonists realise that they are being hunted, and more importantly, what they are being hunted by, the book really takes off. They escape their fates by the narrowest margins and you can feel the abject terror that threatens to take control of their actions. Nowhere is safe and as the novel progresses, their chances of survival look bleaker and bleaker.
Secondly, the portrayal of the monsterous Wolfen is handled exceptionally well. These are not your average antagonists. Rather than being supernatural in origin, they are a branch of the canine family tree that broke away millenia ago. Their paws are more like hands, allowing them to, for example, climb the sides of buildings and open doors. Their senses are so accute that they can track a vehicle by the scent of its tires across New York City. They are fast, savage and are highly intelligent. The sort of intelligence that allows them to understand cause and effect. The sort of intelligence that allow them to form strategies and lay complex, subtle traps for the humans that know their secret.
Streiber portrays his creatures as almost sympathetic characters. A significant amount of time is spent in the packs point of view, showing their reasoning, the social dynamic within the pack, even to the extent of showing their love for one another and their fear of discovery. At times, you almost sympathise with them. You feel their loss, their excitement at the hunt and their fear of what will become of their race should mankind gain definitive proof of their existence.
When the attacks occur, they are brutal, uncomfortable reads. Streiber certainly is not scared of dishing out the gore. The devastation that the creatures cause to their prey stays with you, and plays on the human protagonist’s mind. Wilson especially finds himself musing on what it would feel like to be torn apart and eaten by the creatures.
As with any 1970’s novel, it has dated a little, although not as much as I would have expected. The most noticable thing is the misogynistic attitudes of Wilson and the other male police officers to Becky Neff, Wilson’s partner. It’s nothing like as bad as something like Robert Heinlen’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”, however, and didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story, although it might offend someone more sensitive to that kind of thing.
If you are a fan of horror stories, and werewolves in particular, you owe it to yourself to hunt this book down. Forget about the naff movie adaption, as it has very little in common with what is without a doubt one of the best werewolf novels ever written.