As anyone who has ever loaned me a book knows, I have a lousy habit of letting things I want to read pile up. A long time ago, probably when I was in my early years of high school, a used copy this 1977 novel found its way into my house. I honestly cannot remember who bought it or why. Since I usually remember buying books, one of my parents probably did it, knowing of my interest in horror. I had heard of Joe Dante’s 1981 film but I had no idea that it had a literary source. In fact, since the copy of Brandner’s novel I had was a movie tie-in edition, I briefly thought it was a novelization of the film. However, the cover clarified that the film was based on the novel and I became seriously interested. Then my lousy habit kicked in and the book sat unread by me for well over a decade.
Let me clarify that my copy of The Howling went unread but certainly not forgotten. Over those many years, despite my fondness for Gremlins and Innerspace, I deliberately avoided watching Dante’s film because of that battered, yellowing paperback. I used to have an ironclad rule about reading the book a movie was based on before seeing the movie. While I’ve relaxed somewhat, that is still my default position. Now, if anyone ever wants me to WATCH The Howling, I can finally say yes. At last, I have READ The Howling!
And it’s good! The Howling is certainly no masterpiece but it’s a fast-paced, entertaining beach read sort of novel. Apparently, the film is only a loose adaptation of Brandner’s work. The film reportedly displays Joe Dante’s trademark quirky humor and there is precious little humor in the novel. It is rather a completely straightforward, frequently savage chiller. Brandner opens with a dark, disturbing prologue set in 1500s Bulgaria. This is probably one of the best written parts of the novel and I was sorry it was so brief. The primary plot begins with the brutal rape of a young, pregnant California woman named Karyn Beatty. This section is appropriately harsh but Brandner admirably avoided gratuitousness. Of grim historical interest is the description of the police’s sensitivity as “their new, more sympathetic procedures for rape victims.” Karyn suffers a miscarriage and, after her physical recovery, she and her husband Roy decide to take an extended vacation. They rent a house in the secluded village of Drago and…well, I don’t want to spoil anything but werewolves are involved!
I would classify The Howling as part of the “everything is normal till the creepy stuff starts” school of horror. From my internet readings, I get the impression that some fans of the genre don’t like this school. It is capable of being a bit pedestrian but it can also be quite effective in the right hands. Ira Levin was able to turn this style into a deliciously dark comedy in his masterful novel Rosemary’s Baby. Brandner doesn’t get anywhere near those heights but he was a capable wordsmith. Karyn, the protagonist, is an excellently drawn heroine, neither damsel in distress nor superhero. She is an intelligent, resourceful woman, but also someone dealing with events that would overwhelm almost anyone. Her reactions to traumatic events, supernatural and otherwise, are completely identifiable. She neither morphs into an avenging angel nor collapses into helplessness. Considering the denigration/idealization female characters often suffer from male authors, all of this is very refreshing. Otherwise, the characterizations are mostly minimal but believable. While he spends most of the book as a fairly one-dimensional figure, Roy develops in some tantalizing directions near the end. Another character, a surprisingly (for the late 70s) complex and positive lesbian, could have been the subject of her own story! It was unfortunate Brandner didn’t spend more time on her.
Actually, Brandner would hardly have had time to dwell on even the most fascinating character. One of the real virtues of this novel is its energy. It drives you along with a rather breathtaking force. Luckily, this helps one avoid noticing Brandner’s occasionally clunky prose and risible plot twists. There’s nothing TOO ridiculous (California werewolves!) but, if you were really paying attention, you might start to sneer. Brandner was a skillful enough writer to know his strengths and how to deflect attention from his weaknesses. That skill made The Howling an exciting horror novel, modest and even quaint from a literary viewpoint, but great fun all the same.