Monday, September 20, 2010

Werewolves Prefer Motorbikes to Cycles, Their Fur Gets Caught in the Pedals

One would think that a graphic novel (of sorts) featuring Stephen King and old-school comic book style drawings would be a homerun for a guy like me. I mean, I’m a comic book nerd of yore. I can name all the Robins who have worked with Batman. I knew what adamantium was before a Broadway singer/dancer played the Cannuckle Head from Weapon X and Alpha Flight.

As for King? I read Night Shift and Frestarter in seventh grade and haven’t looked back. I have devoured nearly everything he’s written since, and have loved almost all of it. The man can flat out suck you into his world(s) with great writing, he just so happens to write horror (which is more than okay with me, I mean look at the name of this Blog, right?).

So, combining graphic art with Stephen King storytelling should leave me gushing, right?

Boy howdy, do I wish. I’ll start with what didn’t work for me so I can end on the more positive of what does work. First, the point of view is just so distant. At no point does the reader get involved with this story. The narrator is so ethereal and stand offish it’s like watching some kind of bizarre newscast of werewolf attacks, but that doesn’t even capture it. There isn’t any emotion.

That lack of emotion continues through most of the story until we get to July and finally meet our protagonist. Marty Coslaw is the only featured player in the months that mark the chapters of this story who lives. He scares the beast, the werewolf, off with his own personal fireworks show. In the process he claims one of the creature’s green eyes.

Now, the focus of the story: the werewolf. His attacks are ferocious enough. He strikes with all the grisly intensity one expects of the bestial alter ego werewolves are to embody. The pictures are spot on too. I mean, the drawings look like the classic werewolf: wolf face and head, fur covered body, long claws. The green eyes are a nice specific touch.

But the wolf is random. He attacks out of nowhere. There is no connection to the victims. The reader doesn’t even know the victims until they are introduced in the same chapter in which they meet their bloody demise. Unfortunately the victims are cardboard cutouts because of this.

The reader has no one to root for, no one to care about until July, or halfway through the book. One hopes that we will then stay focused on Marty, but the story meanders to Constable Neary in August, a surprising turn in September when farm pigs satisfy the werewolf’s thirst for blood, and then back to Marty at Halloween in October. The wolf kills out of town in November, again taking us away from Marty, and finally we get our resolution in a December filled with silver and broken glass.

Werewolf stories generally study the duality of man: the civilized gentleman versus the creature hiding just beneath the surface who is insatiable, passionate and dangerous. Granted, all werewolf stories don’t have to do this, but this werewolf is just so sedate. In his personal life he is the last person you’d expect to be a bloodthirsty creature (that is a nice touch), but he is nearly emotionless about his transformations. He is evil in his rationalization, but his thought process and feelings are so subtle and understated it really takes a great bit of the emotion (the passion) out of the tale.

Now, what worked? I loved the chapters ticking off the months of a single calendar year. King apologizes in my copy saying he knows the full moon doesn’t coincide with all the holidays and special days in his story, but he just couldn’t resist using the familiar holidays to mark time. I don’t blame him one bit for using the holidays and putting full moon werewolf activity on the holidays. The thought of lunar accuracy never occurred to me. Don’t care about that if the story is working.

I also liked the grisly details of the kills. Without emotional connection to any of the characters, ironically, the only emotional response I could get from this book was the kills themselves. Constable Neary gets it in an especially bad way: “It swipes at him with one clawed hand – yes, he can see it is a hand, however hideously misshapen, a hand, the boy was right – and lays his throat wide open. Blood jets over the truck’s windshield and dashboard; it drips into the bottle of Busch that has been sitting tilted against Constable Neary’s crotch” (81). Blood in your beer. Bummer.

Again, if anybody should be howling to the moon about the levels of awesome this story provides, it should be me. Alas, it was too distant and too emotionally stunted for me to get fully invested. Ironically, I wonder if it was the mixing of the media that did this? Did the pictures dotting the story distract me or not allow my mind’s eye to develop the visuals I needed to see?

I thought about this after I read it and my eye wandered over to my bookshelf to spy the seven volumes of Stephen King’s Gunslinger saga, his magnum opus. The painting and drawings that are interspersed throughout those tales don’t take away from the story. That story, all seven volumes of it, is just flat out awesome. Pictures or no pictures it works.

No, the werewolf doesn’t howl in this one for me. It is a rare miss from the King.


  1. David - I agree about the distance and that the victims were cardboard cutouts. Like you, I have to say this isn't one of King's best works in my estimation. I've gotten so invested in characters and situations, even places, in his other works, but this book left me feeling meh.

    Now, humor, or a weak attempt at it: One could argue Constable Neary got what he deserved for drinking Busch beer. Yuck!

  2. This doesn't seem to be a very popular story for hard-core or even mediocre core readers of horror. king dropped the ball on this one. I began to wonder after Nikki pointed out that the story sounded like something from the past (50's, 60's) but a couple things updated it. Perhaps this was one of his earlier stories that he just updated to get a quick story out and to help promote Berni Wrightson's artwork. I'm still chewing at the bit from the publisher placing the drawings as spoilers. We know what's going to happen before we read it. Why couldn't they put it one page later?
    Yes, I'm a big fan of Stephen King. And I think he should put a longer apology in this one. I'll leave the list to you on the apologies.
    As they say, you can't agree with everything. A few bad or off stories is alright when you look at his writing record. But it teaches us writers what not to do.

  3. David, really great analysis! I, too, wanted to like this one and did, but only in a "that's nice" kind of way. I think I had the same issues with the detachment that you had. It felt dated to me and I had no emotional attachment to any of the characters. I did like some of the details (i.e. the description of the diner), but none of the characters. Also, it felt predictable to me and the fact that the wolf was actually the reverend was terribly trite.

  4. Great points, Dave. About the predictability charge - I didn't pick up on that at all, but the end was spoiled for me because I saw the end of a movie I'm sure was based on this story many many years ago. I remembered it was a preacher from that, so I was on to King from the start. Considering this story was written quite some time ago, I wondered if the very pat end, the easy win with no real build-up was a symptom of his early career (before he'd matured), and if the preacher as werewolf would have been kind of new back then.

    Like you, I wasn't emotionally invested in this story, and I certainly don't think it was his strongest to date. However, I didn't hate it. It was an easy read and kept me going to the end.

  5. Sorry about that! That last comment was me. :]

  6. Dave, you bastard. You actually screwed with my mind with this post. I approached this reading lightly, having read it many years before, and came out of a second reading mildly pleased, as well as surprised to find myself liking it about as much as I did as a high school kid. I'm a big King fan, too. Your post has convinced me that this longtime fandom lead me to soft thinking.

    As I read this post, I realized that I agreed with your complaints. Weird, that... because it was a mildly satisfactory experience, like hearing a Lionel Richie song while pumping gas. But you're absolutely right. This isn't up to King's normal level. I especially enjoyed your point that the episodic set-up leaves us with no connection or protagonist until Marty is introduced. I guess that's a warning to us about buying into gimmicks. They can be cool -- and this one is -- but they can trick us into doing stuff we really shouldn't, too. This bookk would have been stronger if King had bent his approach and introduced Marty earlier.

    What a weird experience it was to read this blog and have my opinion on a book sway this much. Great post!

  7. Yes, the characters in this novel were a bit two-dimensional. I honestly think King was relying more on mood to pull the reader in and drag them along than the characters themselves. This obviously doesn't work for everyone. It probably would have been better if Marty was introduced earlier. The one character I did feel was rounded by the end was the Reverend/werewolf. True, his thoughts could be construed as evil, but how I saw it was that he was trying to make justifications of his actions to mask the truth. You know how we lie to ourselves once in a while to make something we did seem not so bad? That's what Reverend Lowe was doing, in my eyes, and he was using his religion, something he was familiar with, to do it.


  8. I think I'm programmed to read through anything King writes with a smile and be satisfied with the ending because he's a brilliant writer. And until I read your post, I was happy with Cycle of the Werewolf. But you make great points here. The POV is distant, the only hint of emotion is Stella's longing for love, and it's not his most riveting story. King does manage to create a good mood with his story telling here, but you're right, it wasn't his best.