This was a much better book in 1978 than it is today. It
is not the book's fault. When you rub something over and over,
it's bound to lose its luster. The story setup, the characters,
the scenes and background—all have become so used, so familiar,
so a part of our secondary experience via popular entertainment
portals that when we enter this imaginary world, we already have
addresses in this “dismal
autumn light” (Bantam PB, ISBN 055317004x, c.1978, p.7) and faces
for these struggling, weary police officers. For this is the neighborhood
of the Police Procedural; the ticking bomb of puzzling out clues
and solving crimes; populated with the characters and clichés
that make us feel comfortable and curious, yet excited by the disruption
of our logical world and the possibility of experiencing fear, outrage,
horror, revulsion, and disgust without the unwanted needlings of
Of course, knowing that the author went batshit and, by
his own meticulous account, was abducted by aliens 7 years after
this--his first novel's publication--adds some interesting vegetables
to the old boilerplate, doesn't it? I'm sure there's even a graduate
thesis or two out there linking Strieber's earlier prose to his
ET, ah, probings.
Like most horror novels, The Wolfen is fixated
on what is lurking beyond or just behind the safe reality of our
mundane world. It takes place in the uncertain arena of cops and
criminals, violence and incarceration, but our protectors have
become so jaded from the “incredible suffering and degradation” that
mankind foists upon itself until “crooks and victims all merge
together into one miserable, bloody mass of whining, twisted bodies
and fear-glazed eyes” (p.40). Whitley bounces it back and forth
somewhat between the investigators and the Woofers, so suspense
is given up as to what it
is pretty early, leaving the when and how for
the short, sharp stickings while laying the groundwork for a more
sympathetic understanding of “the most horrible
living thing . . . ever seen” (p.230).
And these things are pretty damn scary. They are not werewolves
in the Lon Chaney Jr. sense of the species, but more like some made-up
Crichton-esque secret government experiment that's gone into mad-dog
mutation mode. Their paws are one digit away from opposable thumbs.
The nuances of growls and body language are so complex their
deployments would put Delta Force to shame. There are only 6 of them
in this particular pack hunting New York's inner city, but they take
down weak and defenseless stragglers faster'n trees pulped through
a wood chipper. “A whole subspecies of canine carnivore” (p.95),
they have lived off the herd of mankind for centuries. As humanity
proliferated and civilizations became more sophisticated, these hellish
predators retreated into old crone's bedtime scares.
But they never really disappeared.
The Woofers need to maintain the
status quo. Our cop heroes—one the token female, the other the
crusty-but-benign veteran—need to convince everyone else of their
existence--and the necessity of their elimination.
The brutal irony of man's predatory nature is not lost here.
We bludgeon baby harp seals for money, end a stag's vitality with
a scope shot from 300 yards away, and—worst of all—kill each other
for any reason we can think of. The Wolfen do none of this and act
accordingly to the order of Nature. They take the sick, the fearful,
the useless; the ones in “the condition of prey” (p.90) that submit
to them; whether conscious or not of welcoming death. In this
light, it is not too dim to see the Wolfen as symbolic
of the monsters we've unleashed on ourselves by creating a rich and
capable society unwilling to protect it's most needy and unproductive
By the end of the novel, our heroes have fixed the situation
and the Wolfen are retreating. But the men in the “repair crew
. . . could see nothing in the darkness” (p.275), while our
equivocal adversaries “felt loss but not defeat. What burned in
their hearts was not fear but defiance; hard, determined, unquenchable” (p.274).
Whitley has not written a sequel. He doesn't have to because we
all know now what happens next.
The aliens show up and we're all, ah, probed.