Holiday greetings, dear spookyfans! Are you enjoying the Grim(m) Season so far? Yes, the days keep growing shorter, which leaves us in the northern hemisphere with longer evenings for things to go bump in the night.
As you may know, there are certain astronomical events during the year that held special significance for the ancients of many culture. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes marked the equal divisions between day and night and the change of seasons, whereas the summer solstice/midsummer’s eve/feast of St. John or, if you prefer, Walpurgisnacht/the witches’ feast marked the wildest night of the supernaturals and mythical beings, when they all got to strut their stuff. The harvest moon/Samhain/All Hallows’ Eve/Halloween marked the end of the seasons of abundance and the coming of the dead season, a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world was thought to be thinnest.
Likewise, the winter solstice, coming partway through the dead season and the long, dark nights, used the eye-searing-bright snowbound days to remind us that the light was ever so slowly coming back – and with it, the promised of renewed life and, possibly, a better year ahead. Typically, the winter solstice was guaranteed to bring out the crowds – and still does. People seek out comradeship, bestow gifts and feast together, find excuses for winter festivals, ice sculpting and snow sports, and try to find ways to ablate the cabin fever they know is coming before the dead season ends and the thaw begins. And this brings us to … werewolves. Ah, but not just any werewolves: the werewolves of midwinter, as invented by Anne Rice and told in her recent books, The Wolf Gift (2011) and The Wolves of Midwinter (2013). These wolves, too, will celebrate – the season, their fellowship, their very aliveness. But of course, there is a dark undertone to all of this, and more than one death.
Werewolves in literature usually come in one of two varieties: either they are of the cursed/horror variety that have no control over their nightmare natures and signify wanton destruction and mindless death whenever they appear, as in the old, classic horror stories and the more recent Underworld film series, or else they’re two-natured people, one variety of werebeings who shift with the fullness of the moon but otherwise can be good, evil or mediocre in nature and temperament, just like normal people, as characterized in Charlaine Harris’s entertaining Southern Vampire series, Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten series, or Chloe Neill’s urban-fantasy Chicagoland Vampire series (all of which yours truly, being a ravenous reader, has thoroughly enjoyed – each for a different reason). But surprise: Ms. Rice has taken her werewolves in another direction and supplied them with a completely different mythology, one that mostly hasn’t been unraveled yet by the end of the second book (which, we fervently hope, promises a third volume with a creation story To Explain It All).
Likewise, there are variations in myth as to how werewolves are made. They may be cursed into being, born, or bitten. Ms. Rice’s wolves are bitten, but as the title of the first volume implies, the werewolf transformation is, in this instance, not a curse but a rare gift – one not to be bestowed indiscriminately or lightly. In fact, it would be unethical and evil, if not exactly criminal, to bestow it without consent. The werewolves in question come into view very slowly; a good part of the first book unfolds to tell us about our young protagonist, the charming but laid back, late-20-to-early-30-something scion of a prosperous San Francisco family. A journalist with a literary bent with (luckily) no need to do either kind writing for money, though certainly with a desire to earn it himself, he goes to do an interview with a woman who lives in a fabulous 19th century lodge, located at the fictional Nideck Point, a desolate stretch of the rugged northern California coast a few hours north of the bay area. While there on an extended visit, he is bitten and torn up in a vicious attack that he is not intended to survive, one during which this same mysterious woman is murdered. While he lies in the hospital struggling to survive, his physician mother is first desperate to save him, then astonished at his rate of recovery, though it takes her a long time to face her suspicions and tenaciously pursue answers. His brother the priest, sympathetic, tries to provide consolation.
Meanwhile, our terrified and confused hero has no one to explain what is happening to him, the other, stranger symptoms of which begin to overtake him. As he recovers, he is stunned to learn that the dead woman, whom he knew only briefly, has left him her entire estate – the beautiful lodge and an enormous amount of pristine, valuable wilderness surrounding it – having no other heirs and having concluded that he would probably enjoy the property more than would complete strangers, had it been sold by her attorney instead. Unclear about why she chose him, the young man has uneasy dreams as he returns to covering a story he’s been following: a series of grisly murders of some especially deserving people. In every case, the evildoers have been victimizing other people; but then they are themselves bloodied and killed by a creature witnesses claim is a monster, a wolf of nightmares. Except that this wolfish being saves the actual victims that his prey had been harming and, a few claim, talks or at least whispers to them. And while he is covering these deaths, the young writer begins to suspect that the terrible dreams he’s been having are related … and that he himself may have been committing the murders, or at least seeing them in some way.
But he’s being watched, of course. One by one, the werewolf brotherhood of sorts begins to reveal itself to him, if only to learn how it is that the young man has become one of them – for none of them turned him, nor were they present when he was given the gift. They are remarkable people, exceptionally long lived, world travelers, some of them philanthropists or historical figures, others wrapped in mystery, all now living in the shadows. You begin to wonder, as the young man does: just what kind of fellowship is this that he’s fallen into? Who are these Morphenkinder? The mystery deepens as the young man saves another woman who seems to realize – and even welcome – what he is. Things get more complicated as he tries to understand and come to grips with what he has become, even as his mother (and possibly other, more dangerous people) are closing in on the truth.
The Wolf Gift is a very atmospheric book, evocative of a specific place and, possibly, of a forgotten time that clashes with and seems to intrude upon our own, bringing up memories of rich men’s wilderness clubs such as the Bohemian Grove and old, forgotten regional California history that is all the spookier for having been spawned and nurtured among the redwoods of the rough, primitive, mysterious, sometimes terrifying coast of northern California. The sequel is only slightly less so. Both have the feel of a retold legend that might have a kernel of truth to it, if only we knew where to look for it. And because of this, they exert a powerful pull upon the reader. You can almost feel The Truth behind the truth, even though we know the details may be false and misleading.
[Editor’s aside: I’ve since read several reviews on Goodreads about these two novels. Many like them, as I do; the ones who don’t mention being unhappy that our young protagonist, Reuben Golding, seems too self-absorbed. Well, DUH — how can you not be when you have all this creepy stuff happening to you and your body doesn’t seem like it’s yours anymore, and there are Morphenkinder all over the place?? I’ll consider virtually all other criticisms, but not that one: it’s ludicrous.]
Just as these books create a certain atmosphere, they are perhaps best read in a certain atmosphere as well: on a snowy winter’s night, with or without a wind whispering outside but definitely with a fire in the fireplace, yourself in a big overstuffed chair near the fire, a warm lap robe, fuzzy socks, and a cup of tea and a snifter of very fine Armagnac beside you (or, lacking that, fine cognac or German brandy; nothing else will do). Do this, and you will regret none of it. A cold, rainy night would be the next best thing, but a very distant second; these are truly winter books, not meant for the blithe optimism and sunshine of warmer days but for long, cold nights and dark introspection, the moodiness, isolation, and strange physical and psychological landscape that come with deep snow and set your imagination on edge.
Finally, make sure you have a copy of both books – once you have finished the first volume, you won’t rest until you’ve laid your hands on the other, so you may as well have both before you begin. Ms. Rice has done well: once you’ve finished the books, she immediately makes you long for more. The sign of an expert writer. Therefore, be merciful to yourselves and have both at the ready.
A cozy and blessed solstice to all of you, with much celebration and the camaraderie that is most welcome in winter.
Until next time,
Your spooky reviewer, Marie