02 March 2010

Book Review: The Howling

The Howling (1977)
By Gary Brandner

My copy of The Howling was a birthday gift this year from a friend who is a serious “Howling Franchise” fan. He’s read all the novels and seen the numerous films, most of them straight-to-video. I’ve only seen the 1981 Joe Dante-directed and John Sayles-scripted The Howling, but it’s one of my favorite ‘80s horror films, and I hold it up as one of the best werewolf movies ever put on celluloid. That it came out the same year as An American Werewolf in London, another lycanthropy classic, is a sign from the Film Gods of their general approval of werewolves. (And then there’s Wolfen, the third wolf-flick of ’81, which is a whole other rambling post I might do some day.)

I knew that the 1977 novel The Howling is significantly different from the movie adaptation because of the commentary and special features on the DVD release. My friend decided to satisfy my curiosity about the source material, and confident that I wouldn’t pass up a werewolf novel, presented me a used copy with a tie-cover from the movie. “A Terrifying Novel of the Occult—Now a Blood-Curdling Motion Picture from Avco Embassy.”

The differences between film and novel start almost immediately. After an eerie historical prologue in the village of Dradja, on the border of Greece and Bulgaria, the book leaps right into a disturbing rape scene. This is frequently a warning sign in a novel. In fact, this is the second novel I’ve read so far in 2010 that has an early scene of the main female character getting raped. (The other is Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer. In case you were wondering.) Handyman Max Quist, a criminal on parole, breaks into Karyn Beatty’s suburban house and sexually assaults her, causing her to miscarry her three-month pregnancy. In order to cope with the psychological trauma, Karyn and her husband Roy move from their Los Angeles suburb to a tiny central California town with the curious name of Drago.

The movie handles this establishing material much differently. Protagonist Karen White is an investigative reporter for a TV station. She arranges a secret meeting with serial killer named Eddie Quist as part of a live exposé. The cops shoot Eddie down before he can attack her, but Karen witnesses something bizarre in the moments before. She can’t recall exactly what she saw, but the amorphous memory remains. She and her husband Bill head for a therapeutic colony in California to specifically address the trauma.

So only three chapters into the novel, we have no TV station and no est camp for werewolves, which are the cornerstones for the film. Neither comes from Brandner’s novel; they developed from John Sayles’s extensive rewrites of early drafts of the script and the decision to essentially throw out the book. The core idea remains the same: a couple on retreat to escape the wife’s psychological damage end up in a community composed of werewolves. A temptress pulls the husband away, and eventually the wife has to resort to calling in a friend from outside to rush in to save her from a world that seems to be going mad.

That’s both stories condensed—the details are otherwise entirely divergent. And while reading The Howling I missed the TV station and the self-help colony and the meta-referential humor. I’m being unfair, perhaps, to Brandner’s novel because the movie is a separate entity that uses the book simply as a basis for its own story. But I can’t help make the comparison, and the novel comes up short each time. It’s a pulpy, very fast read (I flashed through it in two days) with an ending so speedy and done with that it might have come from a Universal Horror film. But it’s also slight and rarely scary. None of the werewolf joy and fun of the film comes through in its bare-bones woman-in-jeopardy story.

The novel is about a couple falling apart from stress. The relationship between Roy and Karyn Beatty is the forefront: Karyn’s difficulties overcoming her memories of her rape, Roy’s counter-reaction, and then the problems of the sinister force in Drago that sends Karyn into a spiral and paranoia and does . . . other things . . . to Ray. The surrounding characters don’t have much presence, except for the sultry and sexy Marcia, the dark seductress. The town of Drago, for a place that supposed to drip with strangeness, seems damned ordinary and empty of the weird people you would expect to find there. A mythology should lurk behind this town, but the three-page prologue is almost all that’s given. And why would anyone choose such a shabby and decrepit place for an emotional retreat?

The werewolf exposition falls to a woman named Inez Polk, an ex-nun who befriends Karen and then lets her in on her suspicions about Drago’s dark past. Inez’s lessons in lycanthropy are nothing new for anybody familiar with werewolves, however, and she trots out the same generic occult tomes other horror novels have dog-eared almost to death. Inez has an interesting backstory and secret, but it’s finished almost the moment after it’s introduced, making me wonder why Brandner included it at all.

Something Brandner does excel at is describing a human’s descent into lupine form, the changing into a werewolf. Most of the writing in The Howling is tepid, but it stirs alive when it enters the POV of a werewolf. The book has many sexual scenes written in silly and overheated prose, but the “wolf mating” moment is truly charged and lets the reader shiver inside the fur of the creatures. If the book had brought the werewolf transformation and viewpoints into the mix earlier, it might have taken The Howling in some interesting directions.

The heavy emphasis on sex, silly as most of these scenes read, did make me wonder if Brandner was trying to express the idea of the savage beast through the most primal of human desires. Werewolf tales are often allegorical rape tales, and this is why I felt more forgiving of the opening rape scene as I read along . Max Quist is a “human werewolf,” a seemingly normal man who can suddenly give into the beast. Or, I could just be reading too much into this through my lens of werewolf-love, and Brandner just wanted to through a few extra juicy sex scenes into his story. If Max Quist had showed up again in the story as a werewolf, as Eddie Quist does in the film, it would have made this theme stronger. John Sayles must have recognized this and saw an opportunity to draw the story threads together tighter.

Something else Brandner does well: teach you how you too can make silver bullets by simply using the Yellow Pages and driving to Culver City!

Brandner wrote two sequels, The Howling II (1979) and The Howling III: Echoes (1985). The sequels to the movie have no connection to any of these books—or to the first movie, come to think of it. With one exception. The fourth film in the franchise, The Howling: The Original Nightmare, was an attempt to make a version closer to the book—although nobody who has seen it seems to think it’s any good. I certainly have no interest in seeing it. Maybe one day I’ll see it by accident.

By the way, I read The Howling while listening to recordings of wolf howls. Really cool. I love wolves. The children of the night, what . . . oh you know the rest.