12 October 2010

"Cycle of the Werewolf" by Stephen King

Cycle of the Werewolf-1985
The 1985 Signet edition. Source
You can't think of modern horror without thinking of Stephen King, so his presence on this blog was inevitable.

I've read some Stephen King: It, The Shining, Desperation, Rose Madder, The Eyes of the Dragon, to name a few. Most of these stories I read while I was in middle school and high school; I departed from King after that and went into a different direction with my reading altogether, sampling numerous authors and genres at random.

This is the first work I've read of King's since high school (I did purchase Under the Dome based on reviews, but haven't touched it yet. Have you read it? What did you think of it?), though I think this might have been a work more suitable for my tastes in middle school. But it's a fun read and worthy of exploration!

The concept for Cycle of the Werewolf is neat--a short, slim, illustrated novel detailing a single year in the life of Tarker Mills, the year this New England village was visited by the werewolf. For each month there is a vignette structured around a member of the town and their encounters with the monster. Many of these episodes are also tied to the holidays and seasons of that month as well (what horror author can resist messing with Valentine's Day?).

The first few stories, like the werewolf attacks themselves, are at random.  A cohesive tale really doesn't start to come together until the month of May, and the story's key characters don't appear until July.  Readers may dislike the delay in revealing the core of the story, but I thought this was a good choice for King to make. The violence is quick and intense, the victims and their deaths varied, so equally the stories are just as scattered about. I think this mimics the wolf's killing patterns--a werewolf is a hungry hunter; there is no premeditation. You kill the prey you find, period. So it would make sense that the stories would also not have an identifiable "motive" or modus operandi. We are in the same shoes as the townspeople, and we are experiencing the murders the way they would. We are supposed to feel the chaos and confusion for a little bit.

We meet the main protagonist, Marty, in July, because they cancelled the fireworks due to the murders. Marty is David to the Werewolf's Goliath. He is a young boy, wheelchair bound, misunderstood, and teased, especially by his sister, who is back and forth with him: "See? You don't always get what you want" (65) or "You always get everything you want, " (97) ..."just because you're a cripple" (65).  But Marty is a kid with great aim (firecrackers and guns, oh my!) and is the only one who can piece together what's happening, and who the werewolf is.

Without the presence of Marty and his discovery in October, the reader can still ascertain the monster's identity from the month of May. The truth often comes in dreams, and Reverend Lowe has a doozy. With this scene, I don't think King is pushing for any element of surprise or suspense. The werewolf's identity isn't a shocker (and the type of person King chooses to be the Great Beast is a bit predictable) but that's not the point. The emphasis is on Marty's process--his personal awakening is tied to his experiences and discoveries with the monster. In essence, the werewolf "creates" Marty--he is the key to his self-actualization.

This was a quick, breezy read. As far as werewolves go, this was pretty standard fare, with one exception: the werewolf in this story is able to recognize what it is. You don't have this a lot in werewolf stories or movies, at least none that I've encountered.
Werewolf-1722
German Woodcut of a man changing into a werewolf, dated 1722.  Source

Usually the victim (cursed or bitten) is aware that he is losing control of himself, but takes a bit longer to put two and two together that he is in fact the wolf. Even when he comes to the realization that he is a monster, he also realizes that he kills at random and cannot control himself. Usually the wolf man will tell the woman he loves, or his family, this information: "Stay away from me, I don't know what I will do, I only know that I am a monster" etc, etc. The major point is that these observations are made only when the monster is human.

A lot of werewolf films put in a "five second moment of truth" in which the wolf (the animal, not the man), who is cornered at this point by those who would shoot him, recognizes what he is. This tends to happen with the help of a loved one, who is about to be torn to shreds by the monster: You know it's me, you know you love me, I know it's you in there and not some monster, etc. The heroine pleads, the wolf makes eye contact with his lover, or whimpers, or some form of acknowledgement occurs in--you guessed it--five seconds. The connection is made, then the wolf succumbs to its inherent nature to kill...but during the human connection it experiences, the creature is made vulnerable. After the five seconds of 'emotion' the sixth second is the wolf returned, and the guns have gone off by that point.

This story stays away from that. The werewolf does not pause to reflect that it is about to kill a child in a wheelchair. Even more surprising--the werewolf has deliberately sought Marty out to kill him. We are back to premeditation again, a most human concept indeed!  Marty has solved the mystery of who the werewolf is, and begins to send him taunting letters, such as "I Know Who You Are" and "Why Don't You Kill Yourself?" (110-111) but Marty does this anonymously, waiting for any (or no reaction) to confirm that he has properly identified the man behind the monster.

A final letter is sent out, and Marty signs his full name to it, revealing his identity. As Marty expected, the wolf man comes to call, and since Marty waited for him with a .45 Magnum and silver bullets, you know how this story will end.

What's interesting is that with this werewolf, the human and animal sides never completely subverted each other. For almost the entire story, the wolf man was a man, or a wolf, but never both at the same time....until the final scene. It was a fusion of identities, a new type of consciousness that would allow an animal to have a preconceived motive to kill. This is what made the book particularly interesting for me.

Work Cited

King, Stephen. Cycle of the Werewolf. New York: Signet, 1985. Print.

4 comments:

  1. Kristina, I loved your description of that split-second of uncertainty the monsters seem to face at the climactic moments. I have certainly seen plenty, even in my limited exposure to monsters. I suppose it is a fantasy dear to the human heart that humanity cannot be extinguished completely, no matter what virus, curse, possession or mutation is at work.

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  2. I think it's extra creepy that Marty's in a wheelchair. Nice touch there, Stephen!

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  3. KATHLEEN--Thank you for your comment. You wrote:
    "I suppose it is a fantasy dear to the human heart that humanity cannot be extinguished completely, no matter what virus, curse, possession or mutation is at work." Great observation. I know in genre fiction there is the repeated notion of the author's contract with the reader...and I think you've mentioned something that speculative fiction fans have come to expect from their authors. Good call!

    ANITA--I thought it was an interesting way to go. As far as I can recall, in all of my reading I have never encountered a wheelchair-bound hero...let alone a wheelchair-bound werewolf killer. Pretty cool!

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  4. The reason I like the wheelchair is that it makes Marty THAT MUCH MORE vulnerable...it's why I like to put kids in tough situations in my own writing...they're already at a disadvantage because they're kids, and then I throw other stuff at them, too. It's cool.

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