Monday, March 15, 2010

Will the Wolf Survive? Will We?

Boo Klub for March 2010

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 Daily News history - FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, as the federal government was unwilling - and, let's face it, unable - to provide financial assistance. Though President Ford never actually said that, the city was slowly complying, becoming a putrefying corpse to those who looked on from the outside and ignored the discoid glamor of Studio 54 and the beautiful people who danced while their Rome smoldered.

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
The Exorcist and The Omen, and the nature-in-revolt vibe of Jaws. Streiber had concocted a predator for high-rise dwellers, whose notion of seaside horror consisted of Rockaway Beach - a lupine assailant that had co-existed with humanity for centuries, perfecting the art of invisibility in broad daylight. They were wolves, yes, but improved by generations of evolution - larger, faster, possessing fully-articulated claws that could even open up a car door...and most dangerous of all, a cunning observational intelligence that rivaled that of a human. Canis Lupis Sapiens. Wolfen.

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 smart?

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 smart as these beasts are, they are still mammals with tails - and faces! - that express their emotion, and save for the modifications courtesy of Mother Nature (in the 50s Wolfen might have been a Pentagon experiment gone horribly wrong), their psychology will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever owned a dog. It heightens tremendously the tension going into the book's final pages, tugging at the allegiances of the reader.

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.


Wings1295 said...

Okay, I had heard of The Wolfen before you started this Boo Klub, but had never read it nor seen the film. I went in with totally fresh eyes.

And I just kinda liked it. I feel like Streiber never really brought any of his minor plots to any fruition, and the whole main story ended so quickly I felt that the lead up was more just page filler or time killer than anything.

That said, I really did enjoy his descriptions of NYC. I never went there, but I do have memories of how it was talked about and described back then, and his book is another that fits that essence of a city dying.

And I did love the inner-workings and thoughts of the Wolfen. He makes them more than just the horror/villians of the book. Instead, they are just another species, doing what they need to do to survive. Are there any true villians here? Maybe the bureaucrats who won't see the truth when it is right before their eyes.

But too much else is just left unfinished. What about the relationship between Wilson and Neff? I found it hard to swallow, but he put time and effort into making us feel it was a viable option and then it kind of goes nowhere. And all the backstory about her husband leads us to what? I don't know.

Not a bad book, but also nothing I would heartily recommend. I do want to see the movie now, just to see how it is interpreted.

Great kick-off for the Boo Klub!

senski said...

The Wilson / Neff relationship is a big problem. I think the rules of Male/Female in the 70s dictated that there had to be some level of attraction, but it's so forced, so clumsy. (That first kiss just should never have happened - at least not then, and not in that manner.)Upon consideration, Streber was probably lucky just to get a strong female protagonist in the book, without having to be "in distress" - Neff more than holds her own against the Wolfen, and even the animals recognize that he is the weaker, slower of the two.

The sub-plots about cop corruption feel like they're there because, again, in the 70s this was just expected. When the camera gets borrowed, and the force puts a tail on the husband, it looks like it's setting up having another pair of cops available for the climax, but then they ignore the SOS thrown out the window, so I don't know what the hell that was all about.

I hadn't read the book since it came out, and I was in high school, and I was surprised how much I had forgotten, due to the fact that much of it was standard issue cop procedural. But I remembered every bit about the pack, and the final chapters really sell the book for me. Streiber built a career for the better part of a decade off of this book's success, until he got a second wind with Communion and its follow-ups.

Thanks for playing, Wings!