The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber
William Morrow, 1978
...the werewolves, tormented for generations by humanity's vigilance and fear, had found a way to hide from men. Their cover was now perfect. They lived among us, fed off our living flesh, but were unknown to all except those who didn't live to tell the tale. They were a race of living ghosts, unseen but very much a part of the world. They understood human society well enough to take only the abandoned, the weak, the isolated. And toward the end of the nineteenth century the human population all over the world had started to explode, poverty and filth had spread. Huge masses of people were ignored and abandoned by the societies in which they lived. And they were fodder for these werewolves, who range through the shadows devouring the beggars, the wanderers, those without name or home.
New York City during the 1970s was America's Hell on Earth, festering with crime, soaked in urine, great festering swaths of the city rife with vermin of both rodent and human variety. When the city declared bankruptcy in 1975, there followed the most famous headline in
This is the NYC that provides the backdrop for Whitley Streiber's best-selling debut novel The Wolfen. It was acquired by William Morrow during the Horror craze of the late 70s, a beneficiary in equal parts of the supernatural Horror of
But what puts Streiber's novel a cut above most "animals attack" projects is that he gives the Wolfen pack an identity, a personality, and most important of all, an ethos. A race of hybrid wolves that has managed to survive the centuries without detection does so only with a refined familial structure, one based upon the pecking order within normal wolfpacks, and buttressed with an intelligence that gives them a respect for humanity and their potential for harm. Streiber envisions a race that lives within the mountains...until a forward-thinking alpha male decides that the city has a higher concentration of potential victims, living in the margins of society. Thus they survive undetected - until a pair of young, rambunctious males kill two NYPD cops monitoring a Brooklyn junkyard. It becomes clear to the authorities that one of the victims had his hand bitten clean off before he was able to reach for his weapon. What kind of animal is that preemptive, that obviously
This draws the attention of NYPD detectives George Wilson and Becky Neff; Wilson is an over-50 veteran of the force described as resembling a "busted refrigerator," whereas Neff is that rarity for 1978 - a policewoman, one successful enough to fend off autograph requests at crime scenes. Theirs is a contentious relationship, but professionally successful; they (and Streiber) struggle with a romantic attraction that may or may not be there, and his inability to settle on a proper tone for their dynamic is one of the book's shortcomings, though not a lethal one. (You can sense Streiber growing as a writer during the course of the novel - their dialogue starts out stilted, bordering on trite, until at the halfway point someone reminds the author that, you know, Brooklyn cops should probably swear every now and then. This improvement also helps the pacing, which is herky-jerky until Humans and Wolfen begin mixing it up.) The pair eventually learn more about these predators, but the information flows two ways - the Wolfen are also learning more about the detectives, recognizing them as a threat to the pack's welfare.
There's a great deal of hugger mugger about graft and corruption in the NYPD, but all this serves as a distraction, often unwelcome. Neff's husband is mostly an offstage player - we need to be told in exposition that their marriage is not what it should be - and the revelation that he's on the take is brought in ham-fistedly, only to engage the reader in hoping for a closer Wilson / Neff connection. Streiber has an eye for the city (he had been a resident by that point for almost two decades), and reading a sequence set at the then-forlorn Bethesda Fountain in Central Park evokes momentary gratitude that the location has since been made respectable. Streiber keeps his nemesis in the shadows with only an occasionally-glimpsed flash of gray or a furtive canine shape. The Wolfen reads like it achingly wants to be a screenplay (you'll easily see the inspiration for projects like C.H.U.D. and Mimic), and Streiber is indicating to the director how to pull off the title characters.
And they are characters, not merely senseless killers, for Streiber saves one of his greatest successes for late in the book - a chapter dedicated to the inner workings of the pack, at almost precisely the point that the reader should be demanding their extermination. It is surprisingly sympathetic, for as
I should also mention an effort by Streiber to employ "Big Think," as a character conjectures that certain humans may have served as enablers for Wolfen in centuries past, especially in times of famine and plague when food was scarce and cannibalism was the alternative to starvation. It's an interesting postulation, but when Streiber goes on to guess that these may have been the precursors to contemporary images of vampires, he clearly overreaches. Perhaps he so wanted to play within the vampire mythos that he couldn't wait for his follow-up novel - The Hunger - to explore the topic. (Interestingly, he does this by having a character consult a copy of Discours de la lycanthropie, ou De la transmutation des hommes en loups, a 1597 treatise that was just re-issued last year in France, so if you're in a Gallic frame of mind, and your French skills are fresher than Yours Truly's, knock yourself out.)
Much has been made in recent years of the concept of Invasive Species - Asian Carp that threaten to escape into the Great Lakes, Zebra mussels that have destroyed many an aquatic ecosystem, poisonous Cane toads that were meant for pest control but have since become what they were introduced to destroy. Man has also become an invasive species, and while humorous videotapes of whitetail deer in 7-11s may make the nightly news, they illustrate the point that our over-development is introducing humanity into places we really shouldn't be, and when we exit, Nature is all but ready to step back in (remember the coyotes that took up residency in foreclosed Southwestern mansions?). In 1978, Whitley Streiber was already sounding the call in The Wolfen to co-existence, and a need for us to accept that the food chain has links that can be followed in two directions.