All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.
All of them?
Sure, he says. Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”
– Margaret Atwood
It happens occasionally, browsing through the agent profiles in The Writer’s Market or on #MSWL tags in Twitter. Not often, but often enough to realize it’s a hot button issue in the writing community.
The agent is looking for high-concept or speculative fantasy, with diverse characters and a strong female MC, a unique retelling of a fairy tale or myth. As I read along, nodding, I internally give myself a high five. I wrote some of those things!
Until I reach the end of the paragraph:
“No paranormal or supernatural,” the agent firmly stipulates. “No werewolves.”
That clinches it for me. I cut my losses. I put my tail between my legs and mope.
I understand the werewolf backlash, I really do. It’s not so much backlash as collective industry and cultural burnout. From a marketing perspective, werewolves are viewed as a trend. At a certain point, a trend saturates fiction and is thereafter declared “dead,” and it is assumed nothing else can be said on the topic that either a) hasn’t been done before or b) will make anyone bothered enough to care about it again.
Anything that explodes in fiction will fizzle out pretty fast. The crushing enormity of popular books like the Twilight series obviously inspired a renewed fervor for the vampire/werewolf feud (why do they always have to be pitted against each other anyway? Can we all move on from that too?) and spawned numerous bandwagon iterations.
And I will say nothing more on that particular take, except that it could have benefited from some serious interventions with a red pen.
I, too, am burned out on werewolf fiction. But not for the same reasons as agents. Agents look at it, shake their heads, and say, “Not this again…Been there, done that.” I look at it, shake my head, and say, “Not this again…There is so much more to do.”
And whether you’re pointing the finger at Twilight or Teen Wolf or any other modern interpretation of lycanthropy, remember that they weren’t there first. You’ll have to go back further than Teen Wolf (the original) or An American Werewolf in London or more obscure cult films like Ginger Snaps, further than Harry Potter, further than the novel series by urban fantasy mavens Kelley Armstrong and Carrie Vaughn and Patricia Briggs. Furrrther.
You’ll have to go all the way back to Lycaon. Remember that its roots lie deep in a centuries-old European folkloric tradition, and older still if you trace the etymology to ancient Greece. Stories of shapeshifting and anthropomorphic beasts are found in cultures worldwide.
And yet, even though there’s nothing conceptually new about it, we keep treading the same ground: the “alpha male,” silver bullets, super-strength, lack of self-control, nudity for the sake of convenience. At least, these are all the touchstones of werewolfery that are given the biggest dues.
Growing up, I’d always loved the mythology of werewolves, and wolves in general. But the two were strangely incongruous in fictional portrayals. They took the hierarchical structure of wolf packs — essentially a single breeding pair, sometimes accompanied by an adaptable auxiliary family of relatives and strays — too literally, insisting on enforced roles of dominance and subjugation. And of course, the werewolves must always be big, bad, and bloodthirsty. Nevermind that actual wolves rarely attack humans and have a high tolerance for periods of famine.
Werewolves were always howling at the moon for no apparent reason other than to make a spooky sound, even though it’s a highly nuanced means of communication between gray wolves. There was always one male alpha werewolf, aggressively claiming “females” and territory against “outsiders,” as if the wolf is an excuse for toxic masculinity. Wolf patriarchies aren’t a thing.
All told, it’s exactly what the horror genre is going for: an angry, scary monster that’s only vaguely wolf-like, if only in namesake. And sometimes, in the literal physical sense (no offense to Buffy’s gorilla costumes; they did their best on a low budget).
I couldn’t help but wonder where real werewolves had disappeared to. These modern characters were so different from one of their earliest manifestations: the Faoladh.
The Faoladh of Irish mythology would be considered an anomaly in the horror/supernatural canon because it subverts the mainstream preconception. They can shapeshift at will into your average-looking wolf. They are considered guardians of children, the sick and wounded, and lost people. According to multiple sources, their predatory behavior reflects that of typical wolves. They sometimes live as wolves for seven year periods. They were recruited by kings during times of war.
Werewolves with true duality and morality. Now that was a mythology I could get behind.
The Faoladh was an inspiration for THE SOFT FALL by proxy, because its lore was exactly what I’d been missing from werewolf stories. That, and plenty of other unexplored terrain.
I wanted to write female and gay werewolves, because the theme of transformation and self-control and identity is ripe for metaphorical possibilities thus far overwhelmingly limited to male violence.
I wanted to write werewolves making found families that more accurately depict pack dynamics, all the playfulness and depth of caring for other members in the emotional context of internalized accursedness.
I wanted to write about the impact of werewolves on their environment — having as-yet-unexplained magical powers over the earth — to reflect the value of wolves as keystone predators on the ecosystem.
“It’s a very serious story about werewolves,” I would say to that agent that is not looking for them, given the chance. “In all fairness, my manuscript never mentions the word ‘werewolf’ once. And it hardly qualifies as paranormal romance, but I still feel the need to apologize about that, thanks to a certain popular book series with a certain contentious love triangle. Sorry.”
(Not really sorry.)
My critique group is reading it right now, and I can’t wait until they find out the werewolves were the good guys all along.