Sunday, August 16, 2015

Blast from the Past Book Review: THE WOLFEN (1978)

Back when I was living in McDonough and working for The Griffin Daily News, I checked out from the library an ancient copy of Whitley Strieber's 1978 debut horror novel The Wolfen, which in 1981 was adapted into a questionable horror film featuring Edward James Olmos. This was either before The World According To Quinn or when the blog was in its infancy, so there was no review then.

Well that's about to change...

The left is the cover of the first edition, which I got from the library.
The cover of the Kindle book I now own is on the right.

The Plot

Two police officers are ambushed and killed by unknown attackers in a New York City junkyard in the late 1970s. Ambushed, killed, and at least partially eaten. The cranky old-school detective George Wilson and his female partner Becky Neff investigate and soon discover that the killings weren't the work of attack dogs, but something far worse. In New York, human beings are not at the top of the food chain, and the creatures that are don't take very kindly to the threat of their existence being exposed...

The Good

*The protagonists figure out very early on what they're dealing with and that they're being hunted. Yes, the antagonists of the story (I hesitate to call them "villains" because they're predatory animals acting according to their nature--they're not human beings who have chosen to do evil) are intelligent enough to recognize witnesses and try to eliminate them. And Neff and Wilson are smart enough to take precautions, so we get this gigantic cat-and-mouse game involving the titular monsters and two human detectives across late 1970s New York.

*There's a strong 1970s vibe to the book, which makes sense given when it was written. Neff is one of the few female police officers dealing with something as important and public as homicide and she has to deal with a skeptical partner and a generally skeptical police force. New York City is depicted as being a cesspool of decaying neighborhoods and crime, which it became in the 1970s. One character is a police officer on the take from a gambling syndicate, which was also an issue in the 1970s.

*Strieber's antagonists are one of the more creative horror monsters I've ever seen. They're not werewolves, although they're the origin of the werewolf legend. They're not a pack of conventional wolves that have adapted to city life the way coyotes have. They're an entirely new set of beings, and if they were real, they'd be incredibly, incredibly dangerous.

*And one character's visit to the library reveals a new horror--not only do werewolves have a factual basis, but so do vampires. A 100% human basis (unlike the werewolves), but an extremely creative and creepy one. This might come off to you like monster overload, but I promise you, it's not. It's really quite clever. The library visit also touches on how these creatures might adapt to various historical periods and how different human cultures would adapt to them. Strieber even touches on Native American culture (and possible awareness of the creatures), something that I suspect inspired the Native American cultural stuff that made it into the film version.

*The scenes from the monster's points-of-view are really well-done. No goofy infrared monster-vision here. It's poetic and fascinating.

*The book moves along pretty quickly. Like I said my in my review of The Flock that I wrote last Christmas-ish, it didn't take too many elliptical sessions to finish this. It's never boring.

*The book is legitimately creepy in many places. I'm fairly inured to movie/book scares, so if I thought this, you, dear reader, will probably be quite scared. The ending in particular gave me the chills.

The Bad

*There's a fair bit of telling and not showing in the book. Sometimes telling is necessary (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out in the podcast Writing Excuses with an Inigo Montoya quote from The Princess Bride, showing can take too long and sometimes a writer needs to sum up), but there could have been more showing. The places where telling could be replaced with superior showing seem most prominent in the beginning, but there are instances toward the end as well. To be fair, this is Strieber's first published novel, so I can be more forgiving.

*I would have liked more scenery description. In Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, we get a portrait of New York City at roughly the same time (or perhaps a little bit later) and the descriptions are much, much more vivid.

*A love triangle starts to come on partway through the book, and so somebody has to die. Strieber reveals some less-savory aspects of the man's character during the last third of the book to make his doom more palatable, stuff that I didn't think was adequately foreshadowed. He does have a pretty impressive death though.

The Verdict

A great debut novel of a writing who did a lot of good work in the horror field before focusing on a new interest in UFOs. Hopefully someday he'll come back. A sequel to The Wolfen describing what happens in the aftermath of the (literally) world-changing ending would be really interesting.

After all, I've heard the competition between humans and the cave bears for habitat in the face of the oncoming Ice Age described as mankind's first war, so some late 1970s/early 1980s equivalent involving the titular monsters would be a fun book to read.

9.0 out of 10.

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