At their core, werewolves are about a loss of control. They’re the person who finds themselves in a fight for no good reason; who screams and apologizes long after that would mean anything. At their core, the werewolf is the abusive spouse; the guy who takes a swing at you in the bar; the hooligan whose night won’t be complete until something gets broken. This is where the repressed is (literally) made tangible, often horrifically so. Alternately? If you’re thinking werewolves are cuddly? Run.
It’s telling that, in three recent literary takes on the werewolf, the fictional rules for lycanthropy involves a great deal of control. Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon, Brian McGreevy’s 2012 Hemlock Grove, and Toby Barlow’s 2008 Sharp Teeth all feature characters who transform into canines — or, in Percy’s case, a kind of hybrid hairy biped — but retain a general sense of control. Of these, Percy’s is the most realistic: he takes an almost science-fictional approach. There are times when, reading Red Moon, that one feels that Percy has pulled a page from the long-running X-Men “a world that hates and fears them” scenario, with lycanthropy as a kind of superpower, explained via nicely-deployed pseudoscience. Admittedly, he’s working in a decidedly pulp tradition here, one in which that metaphorically weighty maneuver is a valid part of the toolbox. Barlow opts for a more traditional approach, fantastical but low on mythology, while McGreevy’s is rooted in mythology but seems bound by several unconventional rules — and a particularly violent method of transforming from human to wolf.
Barlow’s novel follows rival groups of lycanthropes in Southern California — some referred to as dogs, others as wolves. There are elements of crime fiction here, albeit one in which the dueling factions have the ability to transform into four-legged, teethy forms — useful for both factional combat and for hiding out as strays in suburban subdivisions. Peter Rumancek, the closest thing McGreevy’s novel has to a traditional hero, undergoes a visceral transformation numerous times in Hemlock Grove, but retains his intelligence, and has a number of rules to prevent his more animal instincts from ever threatening to kick in.
Benjamin Percy’s alternate history supposes that lycans (his preferred terminology) have been with us for centuries. There’s a nation, located near Russia, that many call home — the Lycan Republic — whose fraught history evokes Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Roxane Gay has written extensively about the allegorical dimensions of Percy’s novel.) That sense of an all-encompassing national stand-in has a long and storied pulp history: though here, it teeters under the amount of metaphorical weight that Percy places atop it. On the other hand, given that his subject here is irrational violence, citing places with histories where violence and trauma are a presence doesn’t seem too far out of line. Admittedly, this might be his point — that these acts of savagery, whether by terrorists seeking societal disruption or the insane simply looking for someone to bite, are basically indistinguishable from their analogues in our own world. That we, for all intents and purposes, are the werewolves.
From this same pulp tradition, other metaphors can and do arise. For Barlow, the notions of lycanthropes as pack animals arises, allowing him to both subvert noir tropes and satirize self-help movements. (One lycanthrope leader recruits a new gang by becoming a sort of guru.) And while McGreevy’s novel boasts updates of a number of Gothic tropes — mad scientists, secret societies, ressurected bodies, and a family with a fondness for fresh blood — the primal loss of control at the center of the werewolf myth is at the center of his narrative. His killer, it transpires, is a wolf gone mad, all self-control gone — and, without giving too much of the denoument away, its motivations stem from an upheavel of the repressed — dark moods and desires that, when left unchecked, result in a body count.
It’s McGreevy whose work taps into the most unsettling aspects of the werewolf mythos: the loss of control, and the horror (both bodily and moral) that can result. Barlow has a different agenda in mind, riffing on crime-fiction tropes and questions of loyalty; and Percy has essentially injected a globetrotting thriller with a heady dose of pulp metaphor. Which isn’t to say that his narrative lacks the potential to prompt a knowing shudder or two: scenes of one character, infected by a lycan, finds their own emotions and body rendered unfamiliar.
Werewolf stories aren’t necessarily neat: the archetypal “decent person is infected; must struggle with the beast within; ends in tears” narrative brings with it a host of dread, but it also isn’t hard to see where it’s headed. So it isn’t hard to see why Barlow, McGreevy, and Percy have all deviated from it — in making their lycanthropes far more in control, they’ve allowed for more room to breathe within these familiar plots, at the cost of some gut-level horror. In the cases of these three novels, that trade-off is a worthwhile one.