The Shamanic Nature of King’s “Cycle of the Werewolf”

As I read this story, I recalled seeing the film adaptation, Silver Bullet, as a teenager. The knowledge that this novella had become a film allowed me to look at the nontraditional narrative style and appreciate it. King wrote Cycle of the Werewolf for visual adaptation. He also wrote it, either intentionally or unintentionally, as a way to heal young men.

In the story, a small town in Maine is haunted by a werewolf. Once a month, during the full moon, the werewolf attacks, taking out first a railway flagman, then a spinster, then a drifter, then a boy flying his kite at sunset…. The werewolf is a force against the individual, and thus a force against society at its most basic level.

The town responds by canceling the Fourth of July fireworks display and this serves as the backdrop for the inciting incident. A young man in a wheelchair, Marty Coslaw, encounters the beast and manages to wound it with firecrackers. The werewolf loses an eye and so is later identified as a local minister.

The story concludes with the death of the werewolf in the traditional style: two silver bullets. (Though one should have done the trick.)

The story has two flaws: Marty’s mother and his sister. Both characters are completely unsympathetic. Marty is paralyzed for life and his mother responds to this fact cruelly. She is devoid of compassion toward her son, thinking that her “tough love” stance is somehow helping him when, in truth, she is just being the typical bad mother: Bad parents don’t listen to their children.

As for Marty’s sister, Kate, in the movie she’s redeemed; the two make amends. In the novel, she remains a petty, whining, contemptible girl who sadistically takes delight in the boy’s disappointment. She hisses in his ear, constantly reminding him of his handicap, wholly unappreciative of her completely functional legs, her “normal” life. She is obsessed with her little brother, with his handicap, and she is nauseatingly jealous of any small amount of attention he receives.

But that’s fine. Let these two be unsympathetic. This isn’t a story about Kate or Marty’s mother, it’s not about girls or women. This is a coming of age story about a young man in a wheelchair. This is a story of shamanic initiation.

In a society in which young men have no rites of passage, Marty’s Uncle Al serves as the initiator into the mysteries of manhood. Even as a pack of vigilantes can’t bring down the werewolf, two men are capable of destroying the beast. It’s an important step toward healing Marty before he enters puberty and his hormones come into conflict with his paralysis.

Due to the boy’s injuries, Marty’s father is obviously spared the duty of talking to his son about “The Birds and the Bees.” But Marty’s uncle, who lives life on the edge, who experiences a different lifestyle, who is remote and seldom seen in town, returns just in time to give his nephew the means of protecting the family: nervous father, unsympathetic mother, aged grandfather, and unforgivably cruel sister alike.

This is a tale of the men’s mysteries, as Robert Bly might observe, a tale of integration, of healing, of a young man’s learning his responsibility to himself, his family, and his community. The lesson can not come from the mother–it would never come from the sister–and the PE teacher-dad is professionally hung-up on his son’s seeming imperfection. Uncle Al is the shaman, the walker between worlds, the older man who sees past Marty’s age and disability to the sincerity and intensity of the man emerging within. It is Uncle Al who initiates Marty into the world of men, not by helping him kill the beast, but by believing in the boy, by risking Marty’s mother’s impotent wrath, and by giving Marty every tool he needs to identify and slay the beast on his own.

Wolfsbane

Aconite – Wolfsbane – A Poisonous Herb Associated with Lycanthropy

Let’s look now at the shamanic themes in the story:

Marty is the prime candidate for a shaman. He longs to see things in the sky, the “pretty flowers” the fireworks make. We can compare these flower to the flowers the Reverend Lowe picked from the graveyard which, arguably, initiated his transformation. Marty longs for flowers in the sky, the domain of the gods; Lowe foolishly steals wolfsbane from the consecrated earth of the dead.

Marty is wheelchair-bound and so possesses a unique perspective on life. It is this perspective which everyone else has a hard time understanding. His father is made nervous by Marty’s disability. Marty’s mother is harsh, thinking that it’s her duty to be brusque in order to toughen him up. Marty’s sister thinks that somehow it’s unfair for Marty to “always get what [he] wants” when that’s not true at all. Only Uncle Al sees the young man beyond the disability–Uncle Al possesses a form of Second Sight (or, more appropriately, a True Sight) that the others in Marty’s life lack.

Al had been a soldier in Vietnam, but the soldier has evolved, become the private man, reintegrated himself into “normal” society. He has no interest in marriage, having avoided “lengthy entanglements” with a number of beautiful women. He drives an expensive sports car, a sign of material success but also of incredible speed. He has seen the world’s worst aspects and brought himself back from the abyss. He is reluctant to believe Marty, but accepts the boy’s reasoning and emotional plea as legitimate. It is Al who gives Marty the tools the boy uses against the werewolf.

Marty does what no other in the village could do. He does it because he possesses unique knowledge of an otherwise unseen occult world. He experiences a six-month journey from knowledge to action. He manages to destroy the beast on his own, with Uncle Al’s material and emotional support.

This is a tale of the men’s mysteries. These mysteries have been lost and now a movement is underway to restore them in the west.

Who says horror can’t be deep?

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