Monday, June 20, 2016

Growing up werewolf


By Stephen Graham Jones

Publisher: William Morrow

Pub. date: May 10, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is always a treat to discover a novel that places new twists on old ideas. The werewolf novel has been around a long time and there really didn't seem to be much more one can say about the man-turns-wolf scenario. Yet Stephen Graham Jones doesn't just add a new twist but turns the entire concept on its head. In Mongrels we have a family of werewolves living as nomads in the south. The life of the modern day werewolf is grim, dreary and dangerous. Aunt Libby, Uncle Darren and their young nephew live like nomads in the American South, moving from place to place, working dreary low paying jobs and always vigilant of the many dangers werewolves face . The nephew, who is our young narrator throughout the book, has yet to turn. He gets his education on the perils of being lycanthrope from his grandfather, his aunt and his uncle and he is not always sure how much of it is real or exaggerated. Mongrels is primarily a coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in the most displaced and precarious life-style imaginable.

The author just doesn't change a few bits of werewolf lore. He rips them up and creates his own legends and culture. He has an original take on the sub-genre . He gives us an unique and fully realized culture of creatures with perils and rituals of their own. He manages to keep the horror of the monster yet endows them with more than a little pathos and empathy. While Mongrels may be classified as a horror tale, it is primarily a poignant story about the struggle to survive and growing up outside the norm.

Telling the story through the eyes of the young boy who have yet to turn wolf, and may not, is brilliant. Much of the behaviors and perils of lycanthropy is told to us by the aunt and uncle rather than experienced. We feel the awe and fear from the still innocent boy. I don't think we ever actually learn his name but that adds to the realization that he is part of an unique group yet feels not totally accepted either. The author seems to have a real ability to write about outsiders.

Stephen Graham Jones has an amazing skill with words. He can take a scene that is fraught with tension and, with a swift turn of phrase, find the dark humor in it. He may be writing about werewolves but there is a strong sense of Southern Realism that often speaks of humans whose lives are just as nomadic and bordering on disaster as the trio in this book. The horror in Jones' brilliant book is not just supernatural but tinted with a shrewd sense of social and cultural observation. These may be monsters but they are not far off from real life for some.

Mongrels is in turn horrific, brutal, funny and endearing all at once. It is a bluntly realistic portrayal of a supernatural family. And that is why it is so moving. We do not think of werewolves as three dimensional. In most books they are people who turn into monsters. It a Jekyll and Hyde quality that separate human from monster. We do not get that luxury here. In Mongrels, our protagonists cannot separate from the reality of what they are. We feel both privileged and horrified to see through the eyes of a child how they live and who they are. This may be a horror novel but it has a literary power that should be experienced by any reader of quality fiction.

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