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  • TITLE: The Wolfen
  • AUTHOR: Whitley Strieber


    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 consequences.

    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 members.

    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.



    © copyright 03/09/2009 by Larry Crawford

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