Mongrels is the new novel from Stephen Graham Jones. Since my introduction to his writing with The Elvis Room (which was one of my favourite reads of 2014) I’ve been tracking down his work so it was with much delight that I heard about the new novel. That delight, I’m very pleased to say, intensified during the reading of the book which turned out to be everything I was hoping it would be – and more.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for werewolves. It’s on the back of my thigh where one of them bit me. Ok, not true. But only the last bit – I do enjoy a good werewolf yarn, have done since watching An American Werewolf in London (when it was first released) and, not long after, The Howling (which contains one of the best one-liners ever). Mongrels is a werewolf novel. It’s also a lot of other things but at heart it’s definitely a werewolf novel. Which is great.
So, does Mongrels bring anything new to the sub-genre? Well, yes it does – although I have to say that this isn’t a pre-requisite for my enjoyment of any book. Yes, innovation and tweaking of tropes is a good thing but sometimes a good old languish in accepted traditions can be a joy in itself. Mongrels doesn’t re-imagine or re-invent werewolf mythology, rather it builds upon it, adding in little nuggets of information which are a joy to read, evidence of great imagination at work. (In this regard, I found similarities with Ralph Robert Moore’s Ghosters, another favourite read of mine which did pretty much the same thing for ghosts).
Herein you’ll find (amongst other things) the real reason for dewclaws on dogs, the danger of wearing tights if you’re a werewolf and the importance of peeing before a transformation. There’s no mention of where a werewolf should put its tongue prior to changing but the author’s is clearly firmly lodged in his cheek. These are just some examples of the lovely, dry wit which runs through the book – something which acts as an effective counterpoint to some of the more grisly scenes, of which there are many. Yes, this really is a werewolf novel.
It’s a coming of age story, told in first person by an un-named narrator, a teenager living with his aunt and uncle, werewolves both and awaiting his own, first transformation. It’s a fractured narrative, the present day storyline interrupted by flashbacks which serve to create the protagonist’s history – as well as introducing the aforementioned tweaks to the mythology. The effectiveness of any first person narrative relies greatly on the voice created for the narrator and sterling work has been done in this regard – our narrator is unsure of whether or not he will ever transform and that angst comes across clearly in a prose style to die for, it’s written so well that it really feels as if the reader is a confidante of the narrator.
Allegory abounds of course. The werewolves are outsiders, cast aside by society, literally living on its fringes. The three main protagonists of the novel live in a trailer, constantly moving from state to state to avoid the law. There are points during the narrative when the thought might cross your mind that the whole thing is one huge metaphor, that this is the most unreliable of narrators. Such contemplations only add to the joy of reading it…
I enjoyed the hell out of Mongrels, a wonderful example of great horror writing, literary in style with much to say about society, family and a sense of belonging hidden within the gore and transformations. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – you’ll probably feel a little bit sick in places. You should definitely read it though.
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