Read a guest blog from Stephen Graham Jones, author of the surreal coming-of-age story, Mongrels!
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A spellbinding and surreal coming-of-age story about a young boy living on the fringe with his family – who are secretly werewolves – and struggling to survive in a contemporary America that shuns them. He was born an outsider, like the rest of his family. Poor yet resilient, he lives in the shadows with his aunt Libby and uncle Darren, folk who stubbornly make their way in a society that does not understand or want them. They are mongrels, mixed blood, neither this nor that. The boy at the centre of Mongrels must decide if he belongs on the road with his aunt and uncle, or if he fits with the people on the other side of the tracks. For ten years, he and his family have lived a life of late-night exits and narrow escapes-always on the move across the South to stay one step ahead of the law. But the time is drawing near when Darren and Libby will finally know if their nephew is like them or not. And the close calls they’ve been running from for so long are catching up fast now. Everything is about to change. A compelling and fascinating journey, Mongrels alternates between past and present to create an unforgettable portrait of a boy trying to understand his family and his place in a complex and unforgiving world.
Point of Origin
For a couple of my novels, I can play arson investigator, and go back, dig through, identify a single point of origin. For one it’s a photograph I saw on a bulletin board. For another it’s a three-wheeler wreck. For Mongrels, though—that fire, it seems to have started all over the house, just all at once:
- Me in the early eighties. I can’t even give a precise age. I’d guess I’m about twelve here, so that puts me about 1984. Twelve is how old you are when all the magic things happen, isn’t it? It was for me, anyway. And the magic here, it’s a VHS rental. What’s maybe important to understand here is that this is a friend’s house. We wouldn’t have a VCR for years yet. But one of my friend’s dads did, and if we stayed up late enough, we could sneak into the garage, watch whatever he’d rented so long as we rewound it just like he’d had it. What he’d rented this Friday night, it was The Howling. And let me tell you, I believed. I didn’t know how to work a rewind button yet—videotape was alien and scary, and I knew I could destroy it—so I had to rewind in my head, the rest of that night, the rest of that year: the transformations. These people turning into werewolves. I was hooked, and not just the kind of hooked where I’m a fan, not just the kind of hooked where I believe. No, I was the kind of hooked that, there, in that movie, I saw my future. I wanted to be a werewolf. First stop was the bookshelf, of course, for any tried and true methods. After that, there’s me, drinking from what I could pretend were wolf prints. There’s me, twelve, thirteen years old, stripping out of my clothes in the moonlight. There’s me, wanting this so badly. And here’s me, still waiting. Having to write myself there instead.
- Me all through those eighties, living just like these werewolves in Mongrels. How do you know a werewolf? They’re the ones driving the four-door, older sedan, the one sitting too heavy on its springs. The one with cardboard boxes stacked in every part of it, because these werewolves, these people, they’re always moving on, are always going to the next place. Back then, you carried your school records from place to place. I’ve always kind of thought that being pre-digital like that, it’s where I became a writer. Carrying your records, I mean, that means you can edit those records. I changed my name, tried on different personas, became different characters, place after place. And—you know the old joke that novelists, writers, we’re never really at the party, but more watching it instead? I wonder if that doesn’t start for a lot of us by being the new kid at school after school, always kind of drifting around at the edges, trying to figure how this big machine works, this time out. Then, after a while, you just stay there, don’t you? At the edges. Not at the party, but watching it. Werewolves, they’re always padding around at the edge of the light. They’re always looking for scraps. And they run away the first time they catch a little attention. This is a life I know. You won’t see me at many parties.
- Me ever since the eighties, mainlining every werewolf comic book, short story, novel, movie, and action figure I could luck onto. And the werewolf, as I figured out, it’s everywhere—some go on four feet, some on two. Some bites infect, some just kill. Silver works here, doesn’t work there. The moon matters, the moon doesn’t. And all of this, of course, what it means is that the werewolf is alive in our literature. That it’s always changing—that it’s changing too fast for us to try to nail it down with our puny human rules. All the same, though, encounter enough werewolves, and you come away with some preferences. As in, you prefer when they’re like this, not like that. That’s how it was for me. And what I realized was that, for a creature to be proper-scary, it had to be kind of real. For me, that means the creature needs to make some sort of sense, that magic couldn’t explain its biology. So I began to sketch out my ideal werewolf. It would, just because it exists in the world, have to obey conservation of mass. An average size person simply wouldn’t have the body weight to become a nine-foot monster, right? And I thought silver was important, too. All good monsters have an Achilles heel of some sort, something that undoes all the unfair advantages they have against us. The moon, though, that’s never made sense to me. Wouldn’t a quarter-moon turn you partway into a werewolf, then? And, what’s the actual different in sunlight and reflected sunlight? And, what does a human stomach do with what-all the wolf’s eaten the night before? The list goes on and on—most of it’s in Mongrels, right down to birthing processes—but where it all landed me, it was 1941. Werewolves, they don’t start there, with The Wolf Man, of course. But The Wolf Man is definitely a bottleneck, a rebirth, a codification. And a pretty great one at that. Watch it closely next time. Note how that first werewolf, Bela Lugosi, how he wolfs completely out, into a four-footed wolf. Right? But then Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela’s infectious bite only wolfs him half the way the way. It leaves him a true monster: half-man, half-wolf. Of course he’s going to ravage whatever he stumbles into. Instead of ‘repairing’ this or explaining it away as the limited special effects of 1941, I instead took it as model. What if there were family wolves, werewolves born into this? They could wolf out, I figured, and still keep some of their mind. But, should they bite someone, that person could only get as far as Lon Chaney did: a wolf-head, wolf paws, wolf feet, but all Frankensteined together on a human body. Those are the werewolves we should feel sorry for. The real werewolves? You never get a chance to feel for them. First, you never see them, but second, should you see them, you’re not going to get the chance to tell anyone. Which is a lesson I take more from Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen, really, which was another prime text for me.
- Me a couple years ago, re-reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. One of the standout books we have. Reading this culture as that animal, that culture as those other animals, it’s all in good fun, but also not, and at precisely the right times. Still, when the narrator’s story is happening in eighties America, and Americans are these big floppy-eared dogs—which felt pretty right—I closed the book, kind of wondered what would I be, then? I’m Blackfeet, I mean. Native. American Indian. And this cued up an old episode of CHiPs I’d seen, in those formative eighties. It’s the episode where these two heartthrob highway patrolman are on the trail of some crimes that seem to involve a wolf, according to eyewitnesses. Only, instead of a wolf, Ponch and Jon keep seeing this Indian guy kind of hanging around at the edge of things. And then, near the end, there’s some generic flute music, and where this Indian guy was standing, there’s now a wolf, and we all go “wow” kind of collectively. But that’s how we’re always drawn, isn’t it? With wolf heads. Check any truckstop. Every third shirt has it. Every second blanket. And I suspect people do it out of some . . . I don’t know: respect? Now that they’re not at their front door, people generally like wolves, I mean. The problem, though, it’s all the bounties on wolves. Its the wolf’s endangered status. I don’t at all mean to say Art Spiegelman would have been careless enough to draw us like that, had we been that hitchhiker at the end of Maus. I do mean to say that that’s how we always get drawn, though. So, instead of waiting for it to happen again and again, I figured I’d just do it myself, as right as I could. Write my own werewolf novel, and try to make those wolves so real that people couldn’t look away.
There’s more points of origin, too. Professor Lupin would be one. Of every werewolf I’ve seen on-screen, he’s my favorite. He looks like I imagine Strieber’s wolfen look. But Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine would be another. The way she renders family, it’s like you’re part of it. It’s like she’s saying things you would have remembered, if she hadn’t said them first. And, for actual trigger point? I had a werewolf story due for an anthology, and wrote it last-minute, turned it in, but found that I wasn’t actually done with those werewolves. So now there’s Mongrels, which is hardly done with me.
And, as it turns out—no planning, here, just luck—Mongrels is coming out on The Wolf Man’s 75th anniversary. Kind of fitting, I hope, as that one movie, it infected a whole century, and beyond. It definitely and forever infected me, anyway. The best part of me, it’s still out there howling at the moon. It’s still waiting naked out in the trees, to transform into something faster, something with teeth.
There’s a lot of us waiting, I think.
Stephen Graham Jones
Boulder, CO, USA
24 March 2016