THE WOLF GIFT
By Anne Rice
Having established herself as a brand name in contemporary horror fiction by writing blockbusters about modern-day vampires and a reawakened mummy, the prolific Anne Rice continues her revisitation of Universal Studio’s back lot in this spirited tale of a pack of cosmopolitan werewolves.
Our hero, Reuben Golding, is a rich-kid cub reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. While on a tour of a fabulous and mysterious Mendocino mansion he is bitten by . . . well, you know. Infection is followed by the usual consequences, and soon the emasculated mama’s boy is growing longer, thicker hair and expressing an “intolerable craving” for “really good fresh beef broth.”
He has, of course, become the “Man Wolf.” Or, in Rice’s portentous terminology, one of the Morphenkind. These creatures take a familiar Rice-ian form: cultivated yet bloodthirsty sensualists who enjoy immunity from old age or illness (“but not from violent annihilation,” OK?). The werewolf gene itself is transmitted by way of supernatural gunk in their saliva called “the Chrism,” which must be related to the Mummy’s elixir of immortality and the “gift” that keeps on giving of the vampires.
The Morphenkind are also sexy beasts. This is still Anne Rice, after all, even if she now seems to be mailing a lot of the juicy parts in. The transformations, for example, come over Reuben in an “orgasmic frenzy,” and a “riot of orgasmic sensation.” He repetitively rides “a paralytic wave of pleasure,” “paralytic waves of pleasure,” and “waves of ecstatic pleasure.” You get the picture. But in case you don’t, here’s a more arresting image for you:
Something had happened to his entire body that was very much like what happens to the erectile tissue of his organ when a man is sexually aroused. It increases marvelously in size, no matter what the man wants to happen. It goes from something flaccid and secret to becoming a kind of weapon.
Luckily these giant were-erections are the good guys, having evolved a super-sensitivity to the scent of evil which compels them to defend the weak and the innocent everywhere. And so before long our turgid crusader is unleashing a one-man bukkake of blood on the streets of San Francisco, his mighty jaws going snicker-snack on rapists, murderers, kidnappers, and gay-bashers. A lover and a fighter, he stalks and eats a cougar, and then a mountain lion too (the cougar’s name is Laura, by the way). Naturally he becomes a celebrity superhero, which attracts the attention of other Morphenkind as well as a pair of sinister werewolf hunters.
The Wolf Gift is a delightfully bad book, but make no mistake: it is bad. Very, very bad. Indeed there were times reading it when I thought it must deserve consideration as the worst novel ever written. After a slow build-up filled with Rice’s trademark overwrought interiors and double-barrelled adjectives the pedal gets pushed straight through the metal and the Man Wolf, who can move “infinitely fast,” is racing through the tree tops (don’t ask how), leaping over small buildings in a single bound, and killing bad guys so quickly their decapitated bodies don’t hit the ground before he’s on to the next. There is no attempt made at building suspense, or even introducing characters properly. It is the closest thing one can imagine to a comic book without pictures, complete with dialogue like “Gaaaarrrrr!” (which, I might add, comes out of the mouth of a character who is not a werewolf).
Rice has written some first-rate porn in the past, but the sex here is clichéd and leaden; something which is even more remarkable given that most of it takes the form of bestiality. Even veteran softcore readers may feel that by now there should be a rule against men “impaling” women “gently” on their “sex.” As in the transformation scenes, the actual naughty stuff also involves a lot of making waves: “jarring volcanic waves that almost swept him off his feet,” and (only a page later) “orgasmic waves [that] rocked him violently but quickly.” It’s a wonder the Man Wolf doesn’t get seasick. Meanwhile, Laura has so many nightgowns ripped from her “hot silky naked flesh” by Reuben’s flashing claws that she has to carry an extra suitcase of them around with her.
If the sex is mundane, the theological speculation is downright bonkers. Having publicly distanced herself from organized religion, Rice here substitutes a pantheistic spiritual Darwinism that seems to owe something to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. One would like to think the whole thing was meant as a joke, but apparently Rice is in earnest – even in the scene where Reuben, in full Man Wolf mode, dons sunglasses, raincoat, and a scarf in order to sneak into confession disguised as a seven-foot Paddington Bear.
There are good bad books, and even great bad books, just as there are great bad movies. And if Rice has written fiction’s equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space, that itself is a noteworthy accomplishment. After all, anyone can write a garden-variety terrible book. The Wolf Gift is much more than that. The Wolf Gift is an event.
Review first published in the Toronto Star February 18, 2012.