I’ll be the first to admit I love a werewolf (well, the idea of one anyway). The idea of dreading a full moon, bones cracking and re-arranging completely out of one’s control, trying to piece together what atrocities have been committed when the human returns bloody, muddy, and naked…thrilling! The mythology with its essential question: is salvation possible? The silver bullet. Gets me excited just thinking about it! Werewolves are grotesque, violent, and often chock full of self-loathing.
Why then, have the werewolves of recent YA fantasy fiction been so deadly dull?
The creatures I refer to here are those found in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight “saga” and those in Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls novels (Shiver, Linger, and Forever). Meyer’s version are angsty Native American teens governed by hormones and the nearness of her equally dull vampires. Stiefvater gives us a more diverse set of individuals who shift from human to wolf as the termperature drops and eventually stop returning to human form altogether. The problem is that none of these werebeasts are particularly beastly.
Meyer’s werewolves “evolved” (this term is used though the actual explanation describes something more like a summoning and fusing of wolf power with human, drawing on Native American spirituality) in response to vampires preying on members of the Quileute tribe. One bcomes a werewolf by being the right age at the wrong time, and the only cure is the bloodsuckers (in this case, drinkers) finding a new hangout. Shifters resemble very large wolves and retain human thought, even gaining telepathic communication with the pack. Effectively, this takes the teeth out of werewolf myth. The “curse” goes from eternal damnation status to something akin to a period, and there is no real need for salvation. Just wait around and hope those Cullens move real soon.
Stiefvater’s werewolves don’t even qualify, as far as I am concerned. The only similarity to the werewolves we all know and love is the fact that lycanthropy is contracted via bite. Humans become, in every way save one, wolves whenever the mercury drops. They look like wolves, think like wolves, and behave like wolves with human eyes (and, again, some telepathic ability). Though Stiefvater’s main shifter Sam Roth is properly self-loathing, the tension of the story relies on an assumption that very soon he will be Canis lupus for good (this gives Sam and his would-be girlfriend Grace a sad). Salvation figures into the story, but in a fashion more scientific than spiritual.
Compare these tepid creatures with Stephen King’s Reverend Lester Lowe or J.K. Rowling’s Remus Lupin. Out-of-control when shifted, these beasts’ vicious ferocity can only be contained by other beasts or a life-ending silver bullet. Even Lupin’s monthly potion can’t stop the change, it only sedates him until the danger has passed. There is no cure, and in Rowling’s world a werewolf who chooses to embrace the change like Fenrir Greyback is a fearsome thing indeed: an evil creature not fit for human society. Lowe and Lupin each struggle with the contradiction of their position in society and the curse that makes them inclined to maul people. Lupin suffers endless discrimination and resultant poverty, while Lowe is killed within a year of his first transformation. For these characters lycanthropy is a cursed existence, not an obstacle to teen romance.
With that, we have arrived at the real problem. Teen romance. In both Meyer’s and Stiefvater’s novels lycanthropy is mere window-dressing on the young swains vying for our heroine’s affections. What a dreamboat and oh, how quaint, he turns into a dog sometimes. This shameful bastardization of mythos is an insult to occult beings everywhere. Werewolves aren’t big dogs with dreamy eyes, they are beasts neither man nor wolf who can tear out the throat of the woman they love with their own teeth and suffer the guilt in the morning! Werewolves are destined for tragedy, not romance.