John Legg’s novel Wolf answers a question you have probably never asked yourself. What would happen if a werewolf were to try to navigate America’s Wild West during the age of stage coaches and telegraphs? The answer is as bloody as you might expect.
Alone, he could be what he was, doing what he wanted without having to hide his activities or his…eccentricities. He could howl, he could growl, eat what he wished and how he desired.
John Schilling is a lot of things. Loner. Bounty Hunter. Werewolf. When he rides his large horse Black Ghost into Lupine, Colorado, all he wants is to collect the bounty on the dead men tied to his saddle, spend a few days in town, and get back to the solitude of the wilderness. Instead, a series of events lands him with a new job as Marshal of Lupine, a new girl, and a new enemy in Mr. Pettigrew, the nefarious rancher who owns most of the town and terrifies the other half. He soon finds himself torn between the two halves of himself, wanting to stay with Meg Travers and settle down and knowing that his wolf self wants only blood and violence. Soon the grisly deaths in Lupine begin to attract attention and the arrival of a werewolf hunter in town soon sends things spiraling to a horrifying conclusion.
Wolf is a very interesting blend of fantasy and western. The sinister horror of the werewolf, depicted as a true uncontrollable monster, shines through every page, while the intrigue of keeping order among dangerous men as the Marshal keeps the human aspect at the surface.
A recurring theme in Wolf is that of monsters, more often human than not. There is an abusive alcoholic father planning to rape his daughter. There is the rich rancher Pettigrew, who believes that his wealthy and influence allow him any liberty, including rape and murder. There are Pettigrew’s men, following in their boss’s footsteps to create an atmosphere of terror in the small town. Alongside characters such as these, a bloodthirsty werewolf hardly seems like the worst thing in town.
Almost as bad as these characters are those who sit back and allow the cruelty and violence to escalate due to their own cowardice or skewed priorities. This is an issue for most of the population of Lupine, all of them too afraid of Pettigrew to protest his tyranny, even when people around them are dying. During the brutal final confrontation, there are two men who stand out. The young deputy and the werewolf hunter bear witness to acts of horrific cruelty to innocent women and do nothing to stop them. Neither of them are depicted as especially bad men. The werewolf hunter, despite being the nemesis of the main character, is arguably a good man trying to do the right thing, trying to kill the beast who rips men to shreds each month. In his quest to kill the werewolf, which he converts the timid deputy to believe in, he allows evil things to happen which make him just as culpable as the monster he hunts.
Falling in love was something he had always guarded against. Should the stirrings of such feelings arise, he would always move on, lest he fall into that trap.
I wanted to like Wolf. I wanted to love it. I am so interested in innovation and authors who are not afraid to take risks and try something new. Like Werewolves in the Wild West. However, Wolf had some serious flaws that I found difficult to overlook.
First of all, Wolf was not particularly well edited. There were several typos right off the bat in the prologue and first chapter, and while there were few found in the rest of the novel, it gave the initial appearance that not much care was given to proof-reading. Admittedly, this is not entirely Legg’s fault as the novel was published through a publishing house with an editing service that should have caught at least a majority of these errors. This doesn’t completely absolve Legg though, and I was forced to knock off a star from my score as a result.
A key aspect of westerns, and to an extent any historical fiction, is the darker side of the past. Westerns tend to glorify the Wild West, portraying the era as a time of freedom on the open plains. Unfortunately, that freedom came at the expense of the rights of others, and sexism, racism, and homophobia were rampant. In Wolf, I expected these things. What really irked me while reading was the way in which the rape or threat of rape to female characters was used to further the main male character’s plot-line.
Meg, The Love Interest, her mother, and Schilling’s land lady are the only three female characters in the novel, at least those who exist outside of being threatened with rape by one of The Bad Guys. Rape is often used as a convenient shorthand for showing that characters are Bad Guys. Of the three female characters, Meg is threatened with rape multiple times, from the very first scene she appears in, and her mother is violently gang raped to teach Schilling a lesson. She later chooses to die heroically rather than live with her Shame. Meg doesn’t die literally, but experiences a sort of metaphorical death at the end of the novel. Throughout the story though, women are consistently portrayed as being weak victims in need of saving. John, despite protestations of love, consistently acts in ways which put the women in entirely avoidable danger.
Legg clearly doesn’t believe many women will read his book, and it is true that the primary demographic for Westerns is men, but the trope of the helpless-virgin-in-constant-need of-rescue-who-gives-her-virginity-to-her-rescuer-and-it-destroys-her-life is overdone and stale and borderline sexist in this day and age. I understand that Western writers need to straddle the line between what was acceptable and probable at the time and what is acceptable today, but to me it seemed that Legg went too far to one side. Honestly, this was a large reason why I gave Wolf the score that I did.
I am giving Wolf three stars. While there were parts of it that I enjoyed, there were also parts that didn’t work for me. Overall, this was an average story. Despite its innovative approach, it followed the Western conventions to a T. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged until the last page, but it didn’t blow my mind. If Westerns are your thing though, check out Wolf or some of Legg’s 50 other Western novels. Not all of them have Werewolves.