A discussion with Sam about what I thought were the most important werewolf texts of the 21st century led me to compile the following. It was surprisingly difficult. Firstly, there is an absolute glut of werewolves popping up in all sorts of texts. With this in mind, I set myself the following parameters: the series had to centre on werewolf characters or at least the werewolves had to be the central character. This rules out Harry Potter’s Remus Lupin and the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries by Charlaine Harris. Secondly, the series had to start in the 21st century. (Sorry Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in the late 90s). And, finally, they had to be were-wolves as the central character rather than were-other animals. Thus Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson did not count as she is a were-coyote.
Beyond that I was free to choose what I want. Of course, this list will be coloured by my own personal opinions (for example: I’ve included the 21st century texts that I wrote about in my thesis), and my reasons may not resonate with other people.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Even outside of the 21st century, Ginger Snaps is one of the best werewolf narratives. Playing on the paucity of female werewolves – I like to think Ginger’s white pelt is homage to Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf (1890) – this film deals with teen angst from a young woman’s point of view, albeit with less moping and more ripping people to shreds. Although the film aligns menstruation and lycanthropy it does so without reductively presenting women as evil. Thus it reacts to previous depictions of female werewolves that suggest the cruelty of women is an apriori state and lycanthropy simply allows the beast to emerge.
Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow (2008)
Although the werewolf has been immortalised in song a number of times, there are not that many werewolf poems. (For those interested, I recommend ‘Ballad of the Werewolf’ by Rosamund Marriot Watson ). Barlow’s book is written in free verse. Its eloquence and harsh, jagged beauty lends itself to the subject matter – indeed, it goes some way to answering the difficult question of how we represent non-human subjectivity in written form. Set in the darkened corners of Los Angeles where the lost gather, the novel plays with the overlap between packs and gangs, tying in themes of drug culture, homelessness, and stray dogs. In doing so it illustrates the appeal of losing both your human and your individual identity to become part of a family of hybrid creatures.
‘Howl’, Florence and the Machine (2009)
There have been one or two stand out songs about werewolves in the 21st century – ‘She Wolf’ (2009) by Shakira and ‘Howl’ (2015) by Laura Marling, in particular. However, Florence and the Machine’s interpretation of this monster is particularly appealing. Florence Welch’s voice has a visceral emotion in it that perfectly vocalises her pain and desire. The imagery in this song evokes the violence that has been central to the figure of the werewolf, dripping in blood and gore. Welch imagines ripping out her lover’s heart in an act of obsessive love having chased him through the forest.
The Last Werewolf series, Glen Duncan (2011-2014)
Glen Duncan’s novels are clever. His werewolves are knowing and self-aware, and the narrative is interwoven with references to lycanthropes throughout history. I am a little delicate about using the term ‘postmodern’ to describe this series as this can sometimes suggest an author who is more concerned with the style rather than the central characters. However, Duncan manages to acknowledge and react to stereotypes within this genre whilst still making the characters appealing – despite the fact they would happily, indeed pleasurably, kill a human come the full moon. The skill of this series is that it makes the werewolf sympathetic without removing its innate monstrosity. Written in first-person, the reader is forced to take part in the act of killing a human and yet it is the human werewolf hunters who are shown to be the most monstrous characters.
Wolves of Mercy Falls series, Maggie Stiefvater (2010-2014)
It would be impossible to mention the changing form of the werewolf without thinking about the impact of YA literature. Meyer, of course, (in)famously pitted vampires against “werewolves” in the Twilight series, and the world was split between Team Edward and Team Jacob. YA literature helped to make lycanthropes lovers not ravenous beasts. The Wolves of Mercy Falls novels by Maggie Stiefvater features a love affair beyond species boundaries. What makes Stiefvater’s novels notable is the lyrical intensity of her writing. The relationship between the two lovers is believable and the texts explore the beauty of language. At its core, it’s a love story but, with the addition of the supernatural, it’s also about the power of choice and the possibilities of adolescence.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
This is just a thoroughly good, scary and fun werewolf film. Unfortunately, werewolf films are often disappointing. In comparison, this is a masterclass in werewolf films. The basic premise is werewolves versus soldiers. However, the narrative eschews obvious displays of masculinity and a banal exploration of ‘the beast within’. Instead, at the centre of the forest is not a wilderness but a home under siege in an increasingly claustrophobic manner. The film makes excellent use of the Scottish landscape and has a satisfying twist at the end. It also taught me that you can stick cuts together with super glue (or nail glue, at a pinch).
Teen Wolf (2011-)
The original Teen Wolf (1985) may be regarded as a classic piece of nostalgia but it’s a little before my time. It also bears all the hallmarks of 80s horror films – namely sexism and homophobia. (At one point Scott’s best friend from the original film announces that he better not be about to come out preferring to be friends with a werewolf than a gay man). The 21st century television series bears all the hallmarks of millennial lip-service to diversity. So, no, it’s not perfect, but it is interesting to compare it to the original to see how mutable the werewolf can be. Often stereotyped as regressive, the contemporary werewolf can be a force for change. Also, well done for engineering the Beast of Gévaudan into the story line.
While the importance of the YA genre in redeeming the monster has been analysed, children’s literature tends to be overlooked. Aimed at a slightly younger audience, this series was shown on CBBC. The werewolves were sympathetic, and an intimate connection was drawn between their lycanthropic identity and the landscape. Family and friendship were central to the representation of these werewolves. What I found particularly interesting were the online tie-ins. These included games and short information videos that aimed to demythologise the wolf itself presenting it, like the werewolves in the series, as more sympathetic.
Lonely Werewolf Girl series, Martin Millar (2007-2013)
Like Ginger Snaps, Martin Millar’s novels explore the experience of being a teenage girl through lycanthropy. Kalix is a werewolf who is depressed, addicted to laudanum and suffering from anorexia. This may sound very heavy and a little dark, however, Millar manages to explore this difficult subject matter without allowing it to overcome the narrative. Kalix is not a victim despite her pain and her (human) friends are continually supportive and kind. The novels themselves are effervescent featuring a cast of brilliant and memorable characters. Moreover, these are entirely modern werewolves more than capable of living in central London and starting their own fashion lines and punk bands. In this way, Millar brings the werewolf in the 21st century with resounding success.
Red Moon, Benjamin Percy (2008)
This is an incredibly difficult book. It imagines an alternative world, not too dissimilar to our own, in which lycanthropes are hunted down until they resort to terrorism. It’s dark and political and dystopian. Benjamin Percy mixes personal story lines with overarching narratives to create a deeply uncomfortable vision of the future. The themes feel 21st century – 9/11 haunts our subconscious informing so many of our stories – and the novel uses werewolves as a vehicle to explore these concerns in a way that feels unforced. Percy’s text show that werewolves remain a central monster in the canon, transforming to meet the needs of the author and the reader.
What do you think? I’d love to hear whether you agree in the comments section. Am I missing one of you absolute favourite texts? Are any of the above too terrible for words?