Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Makes a Good Werewolf Story?

Location and Legend!

I’m writing an erotic horror novella dealing with werewolves. It came to my mind as I wrote a werewolf story that this subject never seems to run out of steam. It’s like zombies and vampires, except that both of them are undead. A werewolf is technically man and beast.

This concept compels me even more.

The animal side of man has the needs to eat, sleep, drink, seek protection from the elements and mate. In his human state and being reasonable and with conscience, he gets a job to pay for the things he needs, finds someone to marry, decides how many children to create, what to eat for supper.

The werewolf, however, has these needs and has no conscience about gaining them by killing, stealing and raping.

Like the “is Bigfoot man or ape?” dilemma, we have to wonder; is a werewolf more wolf or more man? It walks on two feet but it looks like a wolf. Hmm… Which takes precedence for him?

They are most often portrayed as more wolf than man. There is a man host and it walks on two legs, but all else man-like qualities are overridden by the wolf. What if a werewolf were portrayed as having a conscience? Showing intelligence? Or able to hold out on instant gratification?

A good and inventive werewolf story should give us an element we haven’t seen yet.

For my novel, I used the angle of Scottish Pagans settling a mountaintop in West Virginia in the early 1800s, choosing the location because the rock within the mountain; limestone, quartz, and granite; all ideal for enhancing their magic. But, what happened if someone got bit by a wolf in the woods seeped with centuries of spellbinding amplified by the rock?

Sound familiar? Yes! I use a lot of my ghost hunting theories in my writing. I’ve often associated good geology with haunted locations, as in my haunted formula I invented the summer if 2009.

Now, my story has a new element—magic and there becomes an issue of magical woods becoming corrupted by this beast that’s killing within, shedding blood on the stones and forever changing the rock’s magic steeped by the clans.

I’ve established a location; the magical thicket and a legend about how the wolf came to be. If I do a good job tying those two important features together with atmosphere and gore, I've achieved the right balance.

Location and legend appear to be the two elements most critical to a good wolf story. A werewolf is an amazingly hard to believe creature, but if you were to drop him in the city where a wild animal wouldn’t normally be, you’ve now asked the audience to suspend their belief system two times over. (Remember when they did a movie putting “Predator” in the city—godawful! Or when they brought the dinosaurs from to our shores in the second “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” installment?) I’m not cool with city werewolves, though I’m sure it could be done in an interesting urban way, it just doesn’t scare me to think of a wolf running around with pushers and pimps, robbers and prostitutes. There’s no contrast between evil and evil-er.

I admittedly liked certain werewolf movies purely for location, such as “The Howling” with the camp in the California mountains that leant itself to the concept of a commune of wolf-people. The wolf itself looked rather comical and tazmanian-devilish, but the location was prime! I also enjoyed “The Howling V” but that was because it took place in a castle. Not a bad location to lock up a wolf and let him feast in the corridors and hidden rooms. Ultimately, the woods are the wolf’s domain. Part of what scares us the most about werewolf stories is that people feel vulnerable in the woods to predators, but to have one that can run on two feet and is powerful—that’s really frightening. You’re in his territory, no help available, and he’s giving chase.

The legend of the werewolf is critical too. “Blood and Chocolate” did a neat job of giving us some background on a culture of people/wolves. Too many werewolf stories and movies have a simple bite turning into a full-moon maniac scenario. It has no cultural or mythological basis to seep it in generations of fear and cult-like fervor. We really want to believe this is possible and we really need the cult and the legend to mystify it for us.

It’s the loss of humanity in a werewolf who still looks rather human and sometimes by daylight is still human, that truly fascinates us. The werewolf is the conscienceless Michael Meyers but with teeth instead of a knife and actually more feasible than a dude who can’t be killed but is mortal…(never understood that one)

When going to movie form, I admit that I prefer my werewolf to mechanically transform. If you have to show full-frontal morphing, please do it like “An American Werewolf in London.” It should look organic and technically difficult. If a moviemaker wants to CGI the transformation, they’ve lost me. It’s too smooth and slick and too cartoonish. I want to hear agony and crunching and cracking sounds. To grow a snout—it can’t be easy.

I believe it comes down to the cult and legend of the werewolf and the location in which he is let loose to prowl that ultimately make the werewolf story.

Oh, and another thing, forget the full moon bullshit. I don’t want my werewolf coming out once every month!


  1. What Makes a Good Werewolf Story? Torment, I think.

  2. for me (which you kind of covered) it's...the power of nature over civilization

  3. Sharon, seriously, I love werewolves & I'll take them over hand over claw over vampires any day. When 1st you spilled to your readership that you were in the midst of writing your very own West Virginia situated novel, I was glued in anticipation, especially since I well gno that there's really magic in them thar hills, and so, too, do you.

    I think that horror novelist Craig Spector's Animals, which I've never seen yet but have the paperback of, succeeded in the cursed werewolf type. An American Werewolf in Paris, as well it deserves to be, goes down in horror movie history as having the worst CGI werewolves, ever. Crackle of bone & pop of sinew is what you want in the articulated prosthetics in its predecessor, An American Werewolf in London. I'll always remember, even as watching THAT SCENE as coming from a technician's pov, I still squirmed with discomfort, just watching it.

    So, what does an engaging lycanthropic yarn make? The fact that they're a separate born race, as in your citation of Blood & Chocolate's werewolves; they can transform themselves wherever & whenever they like. And naughty, naughty for your preferring that type, Sharon … lol … Peace.

  4. The best werewolf stories I have seen were the first two Ginger Snaps movies and Robert R. McCammon's "The Wolf's Hour", and part of why I liked them was because they went far beyond the typical "beast within" metaphor of the civilized human, split between the "proper" values of his culture and the "natural" values of his wild, animal roots. In general, I find this metaphor to be boring because it is untrue. Civilization is savage, and is "natural", as natural to humans as building dams is to beavers. This monster seems, more than any other, to represent the notions and fears of the Enlightenment: man as the perfectly rational being, where all natural affections toward family, tribe, and friends are seen as the result of Aristotelian child-training (and thus all lost when the change comes), divided between his "lower" animal instincts and his "higher" reason and cultural values.

    I think part of the reason why most werewolf fiction falls so flat is because we don't really believe in the Enlightenment view anymore, with its simplistic split between "civilized" (which is to say white, European/American, and Christian)and "savage". This worldview implied a difference between humans and other animals, something that made us inherently better. Before the Enlightenment, it was that the Judeo-Christian god had made us in his own image, while animals were just there for our benefit. In both cases, humanity's status AS animal was denied, natural instincts seen as something that needed to be sublimated and denied...essentially the same values, just with a different rationale.

    But our understanding of ourselves has changed. Humans aren't rational, and animals aren't necessarily any more irrational than we are. The boardrooms and back alleys of the urban environment are far more savage than the forest, and we have shown each other, and every other creature in nature, who the more dangerous animal is. Find me a wolf who abuses its own cubs or enslaves its cousins with a different color coat. Show me another animal that has serial killers. We are the ones to be afraid of, not these gorgeous beasts.

    And wolves aren't just snarling killing machines, either. An honest werewolf story should include affection (wolves are affectionate), pack behaviors (almost every presentation, with a few important exceptions, show them as solitary beings), using strategy in groups (wolves are fierce, not stupid), and hunting for food, not fun.

  5. Another thing...why are all these humans, who real wolves seldom if ever attack, left alive and uneaten? The primary killing method of lupines is to hamstring then rip out the throat. The pack then eats the kill. These are not hit and run animals, they don't just go around biting people and running off as a prank or something...they attack and bite for a reason. If they aren't defending themselves or their pack, they do their best to avoid humans completely.

    As an author, I have had exactly one idea for a werewolf story. My idea was to base it on the Vargr cult of the early Saxons/indo-Europeans, and to avoid the whole man vs. beast metaphor completely. Instead of showing some stereotypical human, so apparently afraid of his own instincts and his own status as an animal, I would show it as admission into a sacred priesthood, a blessing, not a curse. The "monsters" would be the encroaching Romans, constantly forcing my ancestors further west, burning their sacred sites, and slaughtering the members of the Vargr cult. However, that story is not the one I am working on right now, and frankly, I may never write it. Therapy is not art, and however much fun I would have "avenging" my ancestors, the ancient Saxons, Nords, Celts, and Picts, it probably wouldn't end up very good art.

    But then again, the main theme of my fiction is that we are all monsters, that there is no way to avoid it, and that worldview influences my attitude towards horror fiction. I hate the modern velvet-and-angst vampires, I hate the romantic and rustic werewolves, and I despise monsters who are defeated by platitudes (the power of the human spirit, the power of love, the power of friendship, etc, etc, etc.). I'm a weird horror writer for a reason...I feel like most horror, and especially horror that uses the standard monsters (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, and zombies) have ceased to truly threaten anyone. Instead they are comforting, reassuring the average person of the status quo and the values of their culture. The teenagers who disobey their parents, party, and have sex get slaughtered, while the virginal, good girl/boy (it's almost always a girl) defeats the monster...somehow. Sorry, but that bores me.

    This is why I believe the classic monster tropes are being deconstructed, again and again. I can enjoy, say, the Sookie Stackhouse novels as fantasy adventure/romance, but they are NOT horror, they do not threaten, undermine, or upend the status quo in any truly frightening fashion.

    So to actually answer the question: to me, a good werewolf horror story would require going beyond the Jekyll/Hyde metaphor. A good werewolf adventure story, however, just needs to be a good adventure story, which to my mind is far easier.