Silver bullets. Wolfsbane. We’ve seen them in just about every werewolf story out there, but in Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels, it turns out those tried and true methods of killing are the least of a werewolf’s worries. In this novel, a family of werewolves living on the fringes of society carves out a place for themselves in a world where gruesome death is a constant threat. It’s not the pitchforks and torches of incensed mobs that they have to watch out for—well, sometimes it is, but mostly their survival hinges upon seemingly trivial matters, like avoiding junk food and road rage, and knowing what not to wear.
This entire novel is charming beyond belief, but it’s the several-page stretch where our young narrator imparts upon us the four biggest threats to a werewolf’s existence that made me an instant believer. Both ingenious and crisp, these evocative details drew me deeper into this suddenly all-too-plausible story, locking me there with words sharper than lycanthrope teeth.
Where pants will tear away, split out over the thigh and calf, burst at the waist no matter how double-riveted they are, your fancy panty hose, your stretch pants, they wolf out with you. I’d imagine you look kind of stupid, with your legs all sheer and shiny, but anybody who laughs, you just rip their throat out, feast on their heart. Problem solved.
At least until morning, when you shift back.
Just like that tick that impacted itself into Grandpa’s skin, a pair of panty hose, they’ll retract with your legs. Except, instead of one tick embedding itself in your skin, flaring into some infection, this time every hair is pulling something back with it.
What happens is your skin, your human skin, it’s part pantyhose now.
How it kills: Slowly. Painfully. Maybe you can pick some of it out of your flesh, but you’ll never get it all. You’ll spend your last breaths cursing that LuLaRoe leggings catalogue that had the misfortune of finding its way into your mailbox. If you’re lucky, though, your werewolf family will put you out of your misery.
Each night at dusk one of us leans out the door to burn the trash, just because we all know what can happen if that trash is left in the kitchen: Somebody’ll go wolf in the night, and because shifting burns up every last bit of fat reserves you have and even leaves you with a hole for more, the first thing you think once you’re wolf—the only thing you can think, if you’re just starting out—is food…
When we first open our eyes as werewolves, the trash is so fragrant, so perfect, so right there.
There’s things in there you can’t digest, I don’t care how bad you are.
Ever wake up with the ragged lid of a tin can in your gut? Darren says it’s like a circle-saw blade in first gear. But it’s only because you’re so delicate in the morning, so human.
How it kills: Bleach bottles, twist ties, broken chicken bones, they can all do a number on your intestines. So you empty the kitchen trash every night, without exception. Only this carries a risk of its own, since these odd trash habits make werewolves easy for neighbors to spot.
But calories aren’t the dangerous part of the french fry. The dangerous part of the french fry is that once you have a taste for them, then, running around in a pasture one night, chasing wild boar or digging up rabbits or whatever—all honest work—you’ll catch that salty scent on the air. If you still had your human mind, you’d know not to chase that scent down. You’d know better.
You’re not thinking like that, though.
How they kill: So you track down the smell. Gobble up the fries, bag and all. Maybe nibble off a few salty fingers that the fries had previously been attached to. You know, “have it your way.” Soon, word around town spreads that werewolves are busting up family picnics, and that’s when the pitchforks and torches come after you. And let’s be honest–how fast are you going to be with a bunch of greasy junk food sitting in your gut?
Plus, fries require ketchup, and if you run out, it might lead to the number one killer of werewolves…
Driving While Wolf
Usually it’s just making a run to the gas station for ketchup packets. Somebody cuts you off and you wrap your fingers extra tight around the steering wheel, until the tendons in the backs of your fingers start popping into their canine shape. At which point you reach up to the rearview to check yourself, to see if this is really and truly happening. Only, the rearview, it comes off in what’s now your long-fingered paw…
Give it a mile, you tell yourself. Just another mile to reel things back in. No, there’s no way to unsplit your favorite shirt, to save the tatters your pants already are. But you’re not going to wreck another motherf-
But you are, you just did. Scraping the passenger side along a guardrail, for the simple reason that steering wheels aren’t designed for monsters that aren’t supposed to exist.
How it kills: You know how your dog likes to hang its head out the window? Werewolves like that, too. Your former feet are heavy on the accelerator. Maybe your fur’s gotten tangled up in it. Either way, you’re doing 100mph now, having the time of your life…right until that oncoming semi-truck rises over the top of that hill, or the cop hiding behind that billboard catches you on their radar.
These things never end well for werewolves.
Many authors aim to get their readers to suspend their disbelief, but that’s just a game, an inside joke written upon a page. Werewolves are real, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Stephen Graham Jones has moved beyond that. All throughout this book, the descriptions are so vivid, so specific, and so convincing that I believed, and you’d still be hard-pressed to convince me that this is merely a work of fiction. From now on, I’ll be leery of neighbors who have odd trash habits, of coworkers who order their burgers rare and never with fries, of friends who adamantly refuse to try on those stretchy pants even though they’ve got legs that would absolutely kill in them…
I see you. I’m watching.
Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods, now available from Harper Voyager, is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. Catch her on twitter @nickydrayden.