Reflections on Horror Literature: The Wolfman

The Wolfman, by Jonathan Maberry, is not your typical horror novel. It’s actually a novelization of the 2010 remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man. Having seen neither film (yes, yes, I know), I was interested in taking this novelization on its own merits. However, the cinematic source material is fairly obvious in the novel’s focus on describing things very visually, as well as having occasionally-awkward scene and chapter breaks, which I believe is the result of needing to shift a point of view or do a dissolve between locations. Still, even with this small amount of clunkiness, the novel does work on its own as a decent example of the werewolf genre in horror fiction.

Werewolves have never been as iconic as vampires, perhaps because their “curse” seems fairly easy to circumvent—lock yourself in an impenetrable cell once a month and you should be able to avoid eating the villagers. However, the titular wolfman here—Lawrence Talbot, a prodigal son returning to his family’s English estate from a tenure as a traveling actor—is prevented from exercising this option. Unbeknownst to him until late in the story, Talbot’s own father is the werewolf who bestows the curse upon his son, after killing Talbot’s mother and brother while in his furry form. It is Sir John Talbot’s belief that the beast within is a benefit, not a curse, a kind of letting loose one’s id, in a way. Talbot the Elder thwarts Lawrence’s attempts to lock himself up, cure himself, or even kill himself to end the rampages he commits while wolfed out, which I suppose is the only way to make a werewolf story really compelling.

The werewolf-as-sexual-metaphor is fairly common, but The Wolfman really seems bent on hitting this point home, equating Lawrence’s lycanthropy with his burgeoning desire for his dead brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe. Even while still human, Lawrence’s senses are heightened due to the curse, and he begins to experience his desire for Gwen in terms of hunger and animalistic need:

He saw her pupils dilate, the blush on her cheeks fade; he could hear each of her breaths as if her mouth were an inch from his ear. He could hear and separate the rustle of every bit of cloth that covered her body. It came at him in a rush, maddening, overwhelming […] Her eyes met his and the moment slammed to a stop, frozen in an impossibility of sensory inrush. He looked into her eyes and for a moment he felt as if he was falling forward and she toward him. Colliding with her, engulfing her, devouring her… (333-334)

This desire, described as hunger and a prevailing set of “appetites” (334) is a motif Maberry returns to again and again, and Lawrence is shown to be as equally repulsed by his murderous hungers (and his more overt sexual hungers) as John is fulfilled by them. The conflict, then, is not only between man-versus-himself but arguably man-versus-man or man-versus-nature, if we take John as fully animal.

And yet there are more psychological symbols at work here, too. The moon, which causes the change to wolf, is constantly referred to as feminine, specifically as “the Goddess of the Hunt” (15 and throughout), and that it is this Goddess who manifests the lupine desires:

[S]he comes again, bright, shining and newly hungry, to hunt among [the stars].

Eternally hungry.

Eternally hunting. (15)

In mythology, the goddess of hunting was alternately Diana or Artemis (Roman and Greek respectively), and this equating of the moon and therefore feminine desire thus eliciting lust, passion, and bestial nature in men continues the theme of sexuality. In the psychology of Carl Jung, the inner desires of men are described as the “anima,” or the inner feminine-oriented or desiring self, whereas the inner desires of women are described as the “animus,” or the inner masculine-oriented or desiring self. Linguistically, the terms originate from the classical Latin term for “soul” (OED), but the word’s root came to also generate the word “animal” (OED). That the soul, desire, and animals are conflated here is more evidence for the werewolf-as-expression-of-sexuality concept, and I contend that Maberry runs with this metaphor further in his prose than was likely explicit in either film. In the text, we get much of Lawrence’s feelings of guilt and shame over his desire for Gwen, which would be difficult to specifically translate to a purely visual medium. I believe this is a careful choice on the novelist’s part, and it helps entrench the notion of human feelings as being monstrous as the novel’s ultimate theme.

Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: TOR, 2010.

anima, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

animal, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

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4 Comments

Filed under blog, horror, pop culture

4 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: The Wolfman

  1. Wow! Your senses are beautifully keen! I love it when horror is broken down to the psychological, sexual precursors. You do it very well. Bravo!

  2. Toward the end of the novel, where Sir John hints at wanting Gwen for himself, that part kind of grossed me out. Everyone kept hinting at Gwen reminding the Talbots of the late Mrs. Talbot, Lawrence’s mother, but I just didn’t get enough descriptive evidence to warrant the comparison. Plus the mother-obsession thing is just weird.

  3. I just want to say you basically beat me to this on the final paper lol. Now I’ll have to pick a few different stories to make my points >.<
    But very well done. The sexual undertones in werewolf lore are often overlooked in favor of the more obvious rage/hunger themes.

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