Review: Werewolves, Wolves and the Gothic

Werewolves, Wolves and the Gothic, edited by Robert McKay and John Miller (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017. 272 pages).

The eleven essays in McKay and Miller’s Werewolves, Wolves and the Gothic focus on a creature that has already been analysed critically in a number of texts in terms of the social anxieties it represents—i.e. class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. According to the introduction, Werewolves is meant to offer a new perspective through the lens of the “ecoGothic,” where werewolves and wolves are both regarded as “perpetrators” and “subjects” of violence as a consequence of past extinction and current rewilding efforts (5). As a centralizing idea, it’s a lot to bite off, even for a “my-what-big-teeth-you-have” sort of monster, resulting in a collection that contains some profound insights and originality, but also instances where more chewing is needed for digestion.

Certain essays stand out in terms of clarity and perception. Priest begins the collection with “Like Father Like Son: Wolf-Men, Paternity and the Male Gothic,” which explores how twentieth and early twenty-first century depictions of the male werewolf work against historical depictions, particularly medieval and Victorian texts that adhere to the “wicked woman” trope, where a woman is either responsible for the man’s unfortunate transformation or is herself an evil werewolf. For Priest, the cinematic male werewolf has become a figure of the “grotesque, disfigured and impotent masculine” (21). In her analysis of An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Wolf Man (1941), Priest points out that both lead females, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), are not responsible for David (David Naughton) or Larry’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) transformation; in fact, both women attempt to save the ill-fated men from their curse through loyalty and love. In contrast, Larry and David illustrate a new “fascination with the disabled and broken male body” (28). The vulnerability of these male werewolves, as well as the theme of contagion through biting that Priest links to paternity, are similarly illustrated in a study of Being Human (2011-2014). For further contemporary cinematic analysis, Batia Boe Stolar looks beyond female sexuality and monstrosity in the Ginger Snaps Trilogy to examine sisterly relations, mainly through the character of the younger sister, Bridgette (Emily Perkins).

Jazmina Cininas’ “Wicked Wolf-Women and Shaggy Suffragettes: Lycanthropic Femmes Fatales in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras” delves into an area of female monstrosity studies where there is much overlap and repetition; however, Cininas’ inclusion of Baring Gould’s examples of “real” female werewolves in The Book of Werewolves (1865) and beastly images of anti-suffragette postcards add new and noteworthy dimensions to her analysis of Sir Gilbert Cambell’s The White Wolf of Kostopchin (1889), Clemence Housman’s “The Were-Wolf,” and Clemence’s brother, Laurence Houseman’s illustrations for “The WereWolf” (1890).

Kaja Franck’s “‘Something that is either wolf or vampire’: Interrogating the Lupine Nature of Bram Stoker’s Dracula” provides perhaps the clearest example of the collection’s notion of the ecoGothic. By contrasting nineteenth-century travel narratives set in Romania and Transylvania with Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Franck convincingly fixes Dracula’s lupine characteristics to the wolf, and thus to civilization’s fear of nature. In Franck’s argument, Dracula’s death ultimately reaffirms an anthropocentric worldview with British civilization conquering the “wolf as Gothic creature” (135).

In another stand-out essay, Bill Hughes’ “‘But by Blood No Wolf Am I’: Language and Agency, Instinct and Essence—Transcending Antinomies in Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver Series” wades through the mire of what Hughes himself admits is often badly-written YA romantic fiction to discover a more sophisticated, nuanced, and well-written example of a paranormal romance involving teenage werewolves. Hughes’ examination of the Shiver series reveals a complex narrative that does not look down on either humanity or animality, but instead considers the best qualities of both. For humanity, it is “love, creativity, society” (229). Then, after this thoughtful deliberation, the main characters must make a choice of which world to live in and who to love that is not based solely on biological determinism.

The collection shifts with Michelle Boyer’s essay on nineteenth-century Indian Removal and Relocation Acts in America that juxtaposes wolves and American Indians, specifically Sioux and Cheyenne tribes in Dances with Wolves (1990), Last of the Dogmen (1995), and more contemporary television series True Blood (2008-2014) and The Originals (2013-). Boyer’s tone is rightly indignant about the offensive and misleading depiction of Native Americans in film and television, however the essay fails to examine why there might be a re-emergence of the previous century’s tension in the 1990s (when wolves were controversially reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park) or more recently (the Standing Rock Sioux fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline of crude oil through tribal land). The history of each tribe and its current land disputes should be included, especially if issues of ecocentrism and racism are being addressed. In contrast, Roman Bartosch and Celestine Caruso’s essay on the “ubernatural” and representations of otherness in the Twilight saga is more specific to the Quileute tribe while also maintaining a scathing tone regarding Hollywood’s highly-stereotyped portrayal (on the rare occasions indigenous American actors get roles on screen) of characters like Jacob and his “pack.”

Fairy tales and folklore are the topics of essays by Margot Young and Matthew Lerberg. Young investigates agriculture via the wolf fiction of Angela Carter, focusing mainly on Carter’s setting in the European forests of the Middle Ages, although Young also interjects fascinating anecdotes and quotes from Carter’s experiences with animals, specifically ants and baboons in the London Zoo. Although the essay occasionally conflates land conflicts from nineteenth-century America, it remains most salient in Carter’s European setting.  Lerberg provides a contemporary look at fairy tales through the character of the Big Bad Wolf, who appears in noirish fashion as Bigby in Fables, a DC Comics series and Monroe from Grimm (2011-2017). Lerberg contends that critics must continue scrutinising the wolf in new fairy tales in order to find out if these tales maintain the negative connotations for wolves that were held in works by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.

For readers interested in early twentieth-century literature, John Miller’s essay examines the masculine, yet often homoerotic, wolf stories of Saki (H. H. Munro). Miller’s writing is layered with intriguing biographical sketches of Munro’s time in Burma and Russia, as well as being theoretically dense, linking Saki’s work to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Additionally, Robert McKay explores Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933) in its historical context of Depression-era America while also incorporating biography and integrating Endore’s vegetarianism and leftist leanings.

As a transformative monster, the werewolf is a tricky creature to pin down on the page with words. For the most part, writers in this collection have done so successfully, making creative associations between eras and genres, and opening up new avenues of study.

Review by Shannon Scott for The Dark Arts Journal https://thedarkartsjournal.wordpress.com/

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
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