"Mongrels" Book Review
Written by Matt E. Lewis
Published by William Morrow
Written by Stephen Graham Jones
2016, 320 pages, Fiction
Released on May 10th, 2016
There are a couple of ways to write the story of a werewolf's coming of age. You can go the fantasy route, borrowing text and structure from mass-market paperbacks, keeping the violence at a muted level, sandwiching in a stale version of star-crossed lovers. Or maybe you'd prefer the traditional horror way, like an ultra-gory version of Teen Wolf with the names changed. These kinds of books and their variations are a dime-a-dozen and usually fail to stay imprinted on our memories for very long.
Or you can go the Stephen Graham Jones way.
You can dirty your fantasy story with the grime of real life. You can crack open the ribcage of the book, beyond the clean white bone, and show readers the shit-stained guts of true horror. You can describe the reality of being a monster, where no real rules or regulations exist. You can acknowledge but not ignore the unspeakable consequences of taboos, the particular visceral fear that exists in the primal human heart. You can recount the terror of being an 'other' in a world full of people who would exterminate you if they knew the truth. You can agonize the pain of modern life and dive into the ecstasy of embracing a wild spirit without committing to one or the other, acknowledging the complicated nature of a being in between worlds. This is exactly the approach Stephen Graham Jones has taken in his new novel, Mongrels, a testament of a young man growing up poor, on the run, and in the grips of his emerging werewolf identity.
The narrator of Mongrels has pride in his heritage. He relishes the old war stories of his grandfather, tales that can be funny or horrific, usually intended to prove a deeper point. He envies the kind of joie de vivre exhibited by his uncle Darren, who savors his times of transformation and romanticizes the freedom of "going wolf". At the same time, though, the werewolves of Mongrels lead unglamorous lives fraught with danger. Jones paints the grim, realistic life of a werewolf as that of the ultimate outsider: transformations can be brought on by simple emotional outbursts instead of a full moon, which makes a conventional life of school or work nearly impossible. Close friends and lovers are at risk of being torn apart during a black-out transformation, in which "the blood" completely takes over the werewolf. In this kind of life, all the werewolves have are each other – they stay loyal to their blood relatives, the only ones in this world who can understand the lives they lead.
Jones lays out an interesting set of quirks to include in his werewolf mythos, reflecting not only a gritty, hand-to-mouth existence, but also the dark humor that comes with the ability to transform into a giant carnivore. Almost from the beginning, the reader can spot details that tell us Jones is already well-versed in lycanthropic lore, with subtle references to everything from The Howling to Robert McCammon's 1989 novel, The Wolf's Hour. Sure, Texas Rangers armed with silver bullets are always a danger, but have you ever thought about the damage that can be done by spandex? Tin can lids? French fries? All these things present real menace for the modern werewolf, who is just as susceptible to the ancient hazard of silver as they are to getting hit by a Semi. This is the kind of knowledge that Darren and the narrator's aunt, Libby, must pass down to him in order to survive. Jones recounts these scenarios in gruesome detail, demonstrating that contemporary society can be just as red in tooth and claw as nature is. The description of the transformation and the horrific abominations in between – things with names like "sad eyes" and "moondogs" – are more chilling and unnerving as anything you'll see in the latest CGI monster flick.
Where Mongrels really shines is in its depictions of family dynamics, particularly that of a non-traditional family, where crime and violence are seen as necessities to survive. This is not a monster story, this is a human story: the story of the kind of monsters that all humans can become. Through arrests, deaths, and school incidents, Darren and Libby watch over the narrator as they would their own child, giving him the best possible life they can. In addition to the awkwardness of puberty, his own "wolf transformation" seems to be blooming late, causing anxiety and doubt between them all – wondering if he has a chance of leading the normal life denied to them by blood. Even deeper is the exploration of the self-loathing of the werewolves of the book, which is as often tied to trauma as it is a complicated classification of lineage, exhibited in terms like "half-breeds", "sheep", and "feeders". The fact that terms like this have been used by racists to separate Native Americans and African slaves, to make them seem inhuman by comparison, is no accident. It's only too easy to see the disparaging words against "werewolves" substituted for any non-white person and see a reflection of their historical treatment in the American south. As a Blackfoot Native American himself, it is not difficult to imagine that Jones may have gathered some of the cruel details that the characters face from his own life experiences. Rather than horror fluff, Jones uses this story to draw attention to the very real problems of the US and the unequal treatment of non-white people that continues to this very day.
The quality of writing in Mongrels is superb – the story is complex and layered, and full of relatable heartbreak. Try imagining the most embarrassing things about your preteen years, and then add the whole "being a werewolf" to the mix. But this isn't a typical, goofy, sanitized YA novel, either. Jones shows us the depths of the shame and pain that people can suffer at the hands of others. The characters of the story are constantly treading through the muck of their own pasts, the hurt and violence of generations ago that follow their lives as much as the curse of a full moon. Mongrels is ultimately about a family's legacy of pain - a shared history of loss, grief, anger, and hatred that seeps into the new generations like black mold. Although the narrator's faith in his family is tested many times, he always seems to come back around to the phrase, "We're werewolves", echoed as a kind of mantra to justify the pain and suffering that his loved ones must endure. I believe it's meant to mean that no matter what this world throws at you, no matter what anyone thinks of you, you can never change who you are, and that's as close as we'll get to any kind of certainty in this life. And when you're a werewolf on the road, that certainty is more precious than anything you can feel when you howl into the night, looking for something you may not want to find, but can't help looking for.