A Mixed Bag in Maberry’s “The Wolfman”

Normally we’re accustomed to thinking of movies being made after novels, and suffering the demands of the uninitiated fanatic that the shift in format not impact the content of the film. We expect the reader to leave the theater in a huff (or at least in a tizzy, if the huff’s in the shop that week,) bemoaning the loss of nuance, the avoided subplot, the eschewed bit character who didn’t even so much as merit a cameo.  What, then, is to be the reaction to a book based on a movie?

To make a good movie, a writer must know the pattern of the Hero’s Journey. The path of the hero works well for novels, too, but for movies there really is no other story to tell. One way to produce horror using the Hero’s Journey is to subvert the trope, ruin the climax, deny the hero his triumph and bring him home upon his shield. This is how Maberry’s novel ends, for it is how the movie ends. The horror is tragic, or the tragedy is horrific–take your pick.

Yet even from the start we find hints of the Hero’s Journey. Lawrence Talbot, a young actor, receives a summons to return home–his brother is missing. As an actor, he spends his life pretending to be someone he is not, living lives not his own, running from the trauma of his childhood. He is not unlike a young Luke Skywalker who, as a farm boy, dreams of fighting the Empire.

When Lawrence receives a message from his brother’s fiance, we find a parallel to Princess Leia’s appeal to Obi Wan Kenobi. Shortly after this, Lawrence is even given a sword-cane by a Frenchman on a train. The cane serves as the external super-objective for the story, the token of truth: It is a cane, a tool for helping men to walk, and a sword, a weapon or means of death. It has a silver handle, silver being the metal of the moon, in the shape of a wolf’s head. The cane hides the sword, the tool hides the weapon. The cane transforms–the man transforms.

Who is this Frenchman? How could he own a cane made by an apprentice of Pierre Germain when Germain’s son died in the mid-18th century? I suspect he is meant to be Cagliostro or any number of other Continental mystics who managed to make themselves immortal through dabbling in alchemy. He parallels Obi Wan Kenobi, the wizard, in handing Luke the lightsaber.

Throughout the novel, Maberry draws on the image of the lunar goddess, the goddess of the hunt–Artemis, Dianna, Hecate–to explain the supernatural origin of the werewolf. Yet this isn’t in keeping with the film, where the werewolf is purely masculine, requiring the feminine pole of reality to lovingly end its tortured existence. While the moon plays a significant role in the film, it is not clear that this is the deified moon. It is a liberty taken that I don’t mind, but whose presence in the film may be debated.

The feminine aspect of the divine in the film takes the guise of Gwen and the Gypsy Witch Maleva, characters who also appear in the book. But because the novel is 342 pages long, the archetypal nature of each woman–love and wisdom, respectively–risks being diluted in the Freudian stew created by Lawrence, Sir John, and the imago each man has formed–son and father, respectively–of mother and wife. The image of the goddess of the moon serves to bring the feminine into the novel and it is touched on as needed; it serves to alleviate some of Sir John’s guilt by suggesting that all men are but pawns in a game being played by immortal beings.

Maberry waxes a tad Lovecraftian in his description of the monsters. Whether the protagonist is Lawrence or Inspector Aberline, there’s an element of an “It was too horrific for words”-sentiment that creeps into the prose. It gives the story a bit of a campy feeling, but that’s fine because werewolves are a bit campy. (If werewolves weren’t a tad campy, “Fruit Brute” would have been a tad more successful, don’t you think? Or did that stuff just taste like synthetic barf? It was the latter–I remember now. God help me, I remember now.)

Maberry captured something of the post-Romantic writing of the Victorians, and with it came a hint of stuffiness, a whisper of purple to stain the prose. It spilled over, tainted my own writing, colored my words even now…. It’s the sort of thing that helps set atmosphere but also makes you want to skip a paragraph or two because you’re afraid he’s going to pull a G.R.R. Martin at mealtime. Fortunately, while Maberry does drag a little in places, he doesn’t get bogged down. There are no “trenchers of piping hot lamb-and-barley stew in dark beer gravy,” metaphorical or otherwise.

That being said, while the uncut edition of the film is 2 hours long, the novel is longer. Yet the basic story runs throughout and the embellishments are precisely that–embellishments. Ancillary characters are given names, minor dialog additions creep in, humorous quips emerge to subdue the mounting tension or provide a form of comic relief during particularly bloody scenes (as with Strunk and Lafferty’s escape from the medical arena.) Nothing significant is added to the story as it is presented in the movie.

Oddly, when looking for finer class distinctions, the movie made the task of figuring out who-goes-where-on-the-totem-pole a lot easier than the novel. Of course, the movie relied on dress, and on other visual cues (who sits where in the bar scenes) to convey socio-economic information.

The saying goes that if you liked the film, you’ll love the book. I don’t know if that maxim always holds true in every case. Yet I would say of this novel that, if you enjoyed the movie, and if you’ve got a weekend to kill, you’ll probably like the book as well.

One thought on “A Mixed Bag in Maberry’s “The Wolfman”

  1. Maberry’s prose was at times appropriate for the subject matter and tone, but occasionally imprecise and purple, as you say. Not to mention his love of filtering language that dilutes some otherwise powerful images.

    I too, was intrigued by the Frenchman, but frustrated by the loose thread of his plotline. It was almost like they were setting up for a sequel that never really happened. I like your hypothesis well enough, but any answers to his mystery have to be drawn off the page.

    Liked by 2 people

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