Adaptations With Added Dread: David Small’s “The Werewolf at Dusk and Other Stories”

"The Werewolf at Dusk"

Somehow it’s been 15 years since the publication of David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches. To call it a debut would be inaccurate; at that point, Small had already amassed a storied career as an illustrator of books for younger readers, including multiple collaborations with his wife, the writer Sarah Stewart. Stitches, the harrowing story of Small’s experience with cancer treatment and unexpected surgery during his teenage years, was a haunting work, one that immersed the reader in its creator’s body and mind during a turbulent period.

Small followed that with Home After Dark, another coming-of-age story — this one fiction — about a troubled teen finding his place in the world in 1950s California. Now Small is back with The Werewolf at Dusk and Other Stories. This book contains three stories drenched in mood, dread, and horror — horror both at oneself and directed towards a hostile world.

Two of the three stories here are adaptations of works by other writers. The title story was written by Lincoln Michel and was first published in 2017; the book concludes with “The Tiger in Vogue,” which adapts the Jean Ferry story “The Society Tiger.” (Readers curious about Ferry’s prose, take note: the collection The Conductor and Other Tales is highly recommended.) The middle story, “A Walk in the Old City,” was inspired by one of Small’s own dreams.

There’s a fine line between illustrated prose and graphic storytelling, and it’s illuminating to see how Small uses a host of subtle but cumulative techniques to put this book firmly in the latter camp. To begin, there’s the way that he handles his source material. Michel’s story is a monologue recounted by an elderly werewolf, who finds that aging’s indignities are only magnified when you turn into a wolf by night. Small retains the sense of this as a monologue — there’s one memorable image of the narrator gazing into a mirror, and several images come from his point of view. But he also makes use of wordless sequences, as when the narrator thinks back to his own first transformation.

Here, too, Small’s use of color stands out. Much of the first story — hell, much of the book — is told in a blue-hued ink. In the title story, though, a certain amount of red enters the page as well: sometimes representing the protagonist, sometimes representing lycanthropy, and almost always representing blood, whether or not it’s been spilled or is about to be.

“A Walk in the Old City,” story number two, sits at the point where memories and nightmares converge. The protagonist here is an aging therapist lost on a walk through the city. Smalls has a terrific grasp of forms both human and architectural, and he evokes the easy realism of an older man walking through a lived-in city — apparently somewhere in Europe — just before he pulls the proverbial rug out from under the reader. Suddenly, the landscape has turned irrational — like the stuff of stress dreams, not reality. Suddenly, huge spiders loom everywhere, and (with apologies to Fishbone) the reality of his surroundings seems far less intact.

That contrast between the everyday and the nightmarish comes into full fruition in “The Tiger in Vogue.” Small’s introduction provides a sense of what drew him to these stories and what his process was like in adapting them; in the case of Ferry’s story, Small was more explicit about its role as an allegory for the rise of fascism in Germany. “[I]t strikes me as the prescient vision of someone who lived through the early days of that period of change and mutability, just before the carnage that swept over Europe,” he writes.

If “The Werewolf at Dusk” showed Small’s attention to color and “A Walk in the Old City” showcased his attention to settings, “The Tiger in Vogue” acts as a kind of synthesis of both approaches, using a fuller color palette and a broader cast of characters. Though the dream logic of its predecessor is still present, here Small is reckoning with even grander themes, as an unsettling theater performance slowly becomes emblematic of an even nastier cultural shift taking place.

On its own, The Werewolf at Dusk and Other Stories is a haunting glimpse into three uncanny worlds. The precise way that Small uses words and pictures in tandem is well worth revisiting, and it’s fascinating to compare this to, say, Emily Carroll’s Gothic tales to see how each artist uses nominally similar techniques to evoke dread in different ways. For readers curious about the process of adapting work from one medium into another, there’s also plenty to savor. But in the end, what endures the most are Small’s faces, haunted by what they’ve already done and what they might yet do — and all of the witnessing they have in store.


The Werewolf at Dusk and Other Stories
by David Small
Liveright; 192 p.


Note: this review originally appeared at the newsletter Postcards From Komiksoj.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.