Last week’s lecture and seminar for ‘Generation Dead’ was dedicated to Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver (2009), the first novel in the Wolves of Mercy Fall trilogy. Moving away from vampires, this novel is a YA Gothic novel featuring a love story between a werewolf boy, Sam, and a human girl (although is she?), Grace. In its lyricism and the elegance of its language, Stiefvater’s novel shares similarities with Sedgwick’s writing. Both evoke a sense of the folk tale and certainly Stiefvater’s werewolves move away from the more overtly horrific creatures that audiences have seen depicted in twentieth- and twenty-first-century horror films. Stiefvater’s werewolves transform with the seasons: as the winter draws in and the temperature drops, they become wolves. Stiefvater re-invents lycanthropy, moving away from the ‘traditional’ werewolf. Her werewolves are not anthropoid and, once transformed, cannot be distinguished from any other wolf which leaves them open to attacks from humans who feel threatened by their presence.
To open the lecture, I included a quick round of ‘What’s werewolf?’ The premise is simple: students were given a Post-It note and I explained that they had to imagine that they were in werewolf film/ novel/ computer game. In order to defeat/ save/ discover the werewolf, it was their duty to explain what a werewolf was to the rest of the band of high-school students. On the Post-It note, they needed to write down one trait of werewolves. Throughout the course it has become clear that each text we read adapts and re-appropriates the monster, so it is important to ask ourselves what effect these changes have on the way that we understand otherness, and the redemption of the monster. Using the traits written on the Post-It notes, it became clear that most people have a working-definition of the werewolf. Certain ideas were repeated: the idea of transformation was key to the werewolf, as you might expect, as was the idea that werewolves are typically ferocious and violent. Most students identified the werewolf as being half-human, half-man.
In comparison, in Shiver the werewolves are not aggressive unless they were also aggressive whilst humans. Otherwise, they rarely appear in transformed form instead melting into the woods in which they live. In many cases, the novel suggests that it is humans who are more threatening than the wolves. Students argued that Stiefvater’s werewolves effectively combine both a more naturalistic representation of the werewolf, in tune with the seasons, with a scientific explanation for lycanthropy. Lycanthropy in these novels is a disease and it can be cured should the afflicted werewolf contract a high fever. Like Sedgwick, Stiefvater’s novels tend not to label or name the ‘monster’, and terms like ‘werewolf’ and ‘lycanthropy’ are rarely used. This means that her shapeshifters are disassociated from earlier representations of the werewolf and the cultural identity they have gained. Despite this, Stiefvater’s werewolves do ‘suffer’ from being a werewolf, not simply because it is a disease. Sam, who mediates the reader’s experience of lycanthropy, dreads the transformation and explains how unpleasant it is. Yet, the brief coverage of Olivia’s transformation at the end of the novel suggests that this isn’t always the case. Students noted that her acceptance of lycanthropy and her previous celebration of the wolves earlier in the novel indicates that being a werewolf can be pleasant.
Within the seminar, we considered how Shiver follows traits of YA Gothic which we have come to expect. For example, Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver state: ‘As with many novels aimed at an adolescent audience, the trilogy is essentially a romance’ (Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, p. 32). Chantal Bourgault du Coudray suggests that the function of the werewolf in paranormal romance follows ‘the formulaic representation of the romantic hero’s transformation from an attitude of aggression or indifference to one of attentive tenderness [which] can be read as an expression of women’s demand that mean become more communicative and affective’ (The Curse of the Werewolf, p. 124). Within our analysis of Shiver, and as discussed below, it became clear that whilst the novel follows the YA Gothic paradigm of romance between a human and supernatural character, the representation of Sam and Grace’s relationship does not follow the model set out by Du Coudray.
This became clear when the issue of Bella vs Grace arose. Both female protagonists take the role of the ‘every girl’. They are uninterested in their appearance, do not partake in teenage rebellion, and are helpful around the home. Moreover, both Bella and Grace instigate the sexual relations between themselves and their male partners. Although more sensitively handled, Sam is equally reticent about having sex with Bella as Edward. The following exchange takes place:
‘A long moment passed before she said anything. “Why are you so careful with me, Sam Roth?”
I tried to tell her the truth. “I – it’s – I’m not an animal.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said’.
(Shiver, p. 326)
Both young men fear that they will hurt their partners. Sam clearly tries to differentiate himself from the more typical depictions of male werewolves as symbolising aggressive masculinity. Indeed, through his interests, Sam is shown to be sensitive: he plays acoustic guitar, works in a book store, and likes poetry, in particular translations of Rilke. His books and his love of language symbolise his desire to cling to his human identity. Whilst Sam’s behaviour towards Grace and sex is admirable, it was pointed out by the students, that in these novels female sexuality is predicated by the presence of a male. Until they meet their love interest, neither Bella nor Grace are shown to be sexual in any way. Their desire is not ‘turned on’ until it can be aimed at one specific person. This conforms to a relatively safe, heteronormative representation of sexuality as contained within a monogamous relationship.
One of the similarities that was noted between Bella and Grace was the lack of parental guidance. Following accusations that the representation of Grace’s parents was not realistic, Stiefvater wrote a blog post on her website stating that not only were absent parents a necessary plot device to allow the teenage protagonists agency, but that she recognised this form of absentee-parenting as increasingly prevalent in affluent middle-class households. As with the more traditional forms of Gothic, discussed in my previous blog posts for ‘Generation Dead’, the lack of parental structure allows the young adults within the novels, to explore the parameters of their identity in relation to the presence of the monstrous other. However, I would also suggest that Stiefvater’s comments about the reality of this form of parenting also draws attention to another important aspect of the novel: emotional versus physical well-being. Sam’s back story features parents who turn from being very present emotionally in his life to physically abusive once they discover he is a werewolf. Grace and Sam are drawn to each other because of this absence in their life.