Whitley Strieber's The Wolfen (1978) is often mentioned as one of the best werewolf novels, taking the basic concept into a new direction. I wasn't that excited about the novel or the movie that was based on it and thus it took me a long time to pick up Strieber's other werewolf novel: The Wild (1991). But I'm happy to say that my fears proved unfounded and I enjoyed this novel more than I ever expected.
The story begins with an introduction of the protagonist, Bob Duke, who is a failed salesman visiting a zoo - which he hates because seeing the trapped animals makes him feel bad - with his wife and son. While there, he locks eyes with a caged wolf and his life is never the same again. On his next business trip he seems to turn into a wolf and run around hotel corridors. Upon waking up the next morning, he tries to put it down as a very strange dream, but the dream just doesn't let him go. He seeks professional help from a family friend who is also a psychiatrist, and she explains his story off as a dream manifestation of Bob's insecurities, an attempt to escape from his life. But when Bob is confronted with money problems and his wife calls him a failure at his face, Bob loses it and turns into a wolf right in front of his wife, son and the psychiatrist...
"I've never seen an animal that bad at wagging its tail. He shakes his rear and just sort of hopes the tail will wiggle." - Whitley Strieber
I was pleasantly surprised about how the story took unexpected turns a couple of times just when I was thinking that I knew where it was heading and kept me guessing about how it was going to end. I also very much liked Bob as a character and his sometimes humorous, sometimes not, commentary on human arrogance towards animals and the world around them. Following his journey across the city - and later wilderness - from one danger to another as he strove to regain his humanity kept me on the edge of my seat. The chapters where the POV was on his wife I found less interesting - perhaps because I had learned to dislike her and her attitude toward her husband early on - but Strieber manages to make also her insecurities and remorse very believable.
It was clear that the author had read up on wolves from the many excellent descriptions of their ways of life. However, the descriptions also reveal how dated the novel already is: Over the recent years research on wolves has revealed that many old beliefs about them are false simply because researchers studied wolves held in captivity and not in their natural environment. This leads to some false assumptions about wolf packs and the dynamics between their members. This cannot be held against the author or the story, of course, since he was working on the knowledge available at the time of writing.
Would he get rabies from eating a rat? Well, that was nothing to worry about. He would never eat anything alive. He was going to be the first noncarnivorous wolf. - Whitley Strieber
This is definitely not your typical werewolf story - there are no bloody murders, full moons or even that much action in it. Rather, it is a journey of man's mystical rediscovery of himself and his part in the world, a cry out for wildlife and wilderness. It is a commentary on humanity as much as it is a story of the strange fate of a single family.
The Wild easily jumps onto the list of my all time favourite werewolf novels and I'm happy that I did not get around to writing about that list on my blog before I came to know Strieber's work.