Cut (v): make (a movie) into a coherent whole by removing parts or placing them in a different order.
The Top Werewolf Films You (Probably) Haven’t Seen But Should: Stephen Graham Jones Talks ‘Mongrels’
When I initially pitched the idea for this column to the editors at Cemetery Dance Online, it was a very, uh… loose pitch. The “hook” was me discussing horror movies and horror fiction, wherever they happen to intersect.
And while that loosey-goosey connective theme has probably turned off some readers (“now we’re just reading a list of books he likes? Get out of your own butt, guy!”), it’s meant that I basically get to write about whatever I want and have it get a bunch of eyes on it.
suckers visionaries at CD were cool with that. Also I keep coming up with jokey clickbait headlines, so that probably helps. There is a list of “Top Werewolf Films” somewhere in this interview, but you have to read to find it.
Having no set format means I get to have guests. Which is a long-winded way of saying that, this month: I wanted to talk to one of my favorite authors! And he said yes!
For those who don’t know the work of Stephen Graham Jones, the door’s thatta way, see yourself out…
No! I’m just kidding, don’t click away! It’s cool. You’re cool. Maybe. There’s no way of knowing, really, but you found this article so that’s one point in your favor.
Even if you do know the work of Stephen Graham Jones, it’s unlikely that you know all the work of SGJ. He’s published upwards of 15 novels, 6 collections, and 200-something short stories, and within that output has genre-hopped like crazy. He’s also got a PhD and teaches horror at a university level (more on that in the interview).
His new novel, Mongrels, is both a perfect starting point for new readers and a crystallization of what long-time fans have been enjoying for years. It’s also one of the author’s most high-profile releases, dropping this week in hardcover from William Morrow.
This is an interview, not a review, but let me take a second to tell you that I’ve read Mongrels and it is a book you should be buying. We’re not even halfway through a year stacked with anticipated releases, but this is already on that coveted “best of” shortlist.
Humane, grisly, and funny, I think the marketing materials are deliberately downplaying how much of a horror novel is in this cross-country werewolf bildungsroman. And I get that: you catch more flies with honey and you attract more “general readers” (gross) when you don’t use the H-word, but anyone who reads this site with any regularity is probably looking for that word. Mongrels is a beautiful, unnerving, country song of a novel.
So, no more ado. More interview:
ADAM CESARE: Mongrels is working on a lot of levels. A lot. And I’m going to predict right now that non-genre critics and folks in other genres are going to try and “claim” this novel for themselves. But they can all go to hell (I’m especially looking at you, Urban Fantasy), because this is a werewolf novel, and among one of the best ever written.
If the horror people aren’t allowed to call dibs on a werewolf novel—even one tonally and stylistically divergent from most “horror novels”—what kind of world are we living in?
That’s not my first question, more of a preamble that means to ask:
Lycanthropy in the novel can and will be seen as a stand-in for a lot of abstract ideas (class, race, puberty, imagination, etc.–there are a ton of others, right?), but, as a genre fan and academic, where did you take the brass-tacks of your werewolves “rules” from? Film, fiction, folklore, or a mixture?
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: I’d like to say I smuggled the rules of the species out from The Howling, as that’s the altar at which I werewolf-worship, but to be honest, the only real parameters you get for the werewolf there are that they change, and they’re bitey. Well, I guess fire and silver kills them, right? And they’re infectious. And kind of hyper-sexual. And they like their burgers rare. More I talk about it, more I suspect I did take from The Howling.
But, consciously, what I was working from, it was The Wolf Man. 1941. It always confused me that the Bela-wolf could bite Talbot, and then Talbot doesn’t become the same kind of werewolf Bela was. Bela went full-on wolf—you can see it back there, in fast silhouette—but mopey old Talbot, he just gets halfway there, maybe. Instead of writing that off as special effects limitations circa 1941, I figured, well, what if that’s the way it is? What if Bela was born into this blood? Evidently that means he can lean over onto a pair of forepaws. Talbot, though, he’s just bit, he’s just infected, so the werewolf rages through him. It takes him as close to wolf as it can get—the head, the hands, the feet—but it’s finally just a death sentence. Man-wolves, they’re never smart enough to not end up in the public spotlight. They can’t feel the crosshairs settling between their shoulder blades. They just want to bite the world. That’s what I was working with, or from, with Mongrels. Well, that and my kind of disgust that so many werewolf transformations refuse to adhere to conservation of mass. How can a hundred and eighty pound dude morph up into a nine-foot tall, three-hundred pound monster? What are those extra hundred and twenty pounds made from? Wishful thinking? Dramatic license? Magic?
AC: I wore that VHS out and I never ever thought about the two werewolf types in The Wolf Man. Feeling outclassed, already.
But you’re giving too much credit to the work of others, there’s a bunch of werewolf lore in here that’s gotta be pure Stephen Graham Jones. I’m thinking of grandpa’s story about the tick, which comes back later in a discussion of proper werewolf attire (and is maybe prefigured by your short story “So Perfect” which is gross as hell).
SGJ: Yeah, I mean—I just considered “What if the werewolf were real?” Once you imagine that, then, yeah, there’s no reason they wouldn’t get ticks. So many werewolf stories, they want to make the struggles the werewolf faces be grand and epic. “Oh, man, the Nazis want to turn me into a weapon! Oh, man, that family of hunters is after me again! Oh no, the vampires are back!” And on and on. None of that’s ever something I can finally connect with, though. What we look for in stories, it’s pieces of ourselves. That’s how we identify. Like looking at a shattered mirror. You see yourself there, and there, and you want to reach in, hold on. I don’t know what it’s like to have a family of Nazi vampires after me. But I do know what it’s like to play in the tall grass of a lake all day, then find the ticks later that night, drinking me in.
AC: I mean, I was more of an indoor kid. Ticks weren’t a big part of that, but I’ve read enough about the outside world to understand the sentiment.
You teach a class about werewolves, right? I know you’ve had a few wolves running around your short fiction, but does teaching that class predate all or part of the composition of Mongrels? What’s that like?
SGJ: That werewolf course, it’s kind of right in the middle of writing Mongrels. I wrote the story that became chapter one right before diving into all the research for the werewolf course—piles of books and movies, articles and more—and then, coming out of that research, I fast-wrote the rest of Mongrels. Teaching the class, though, that wasn’t until I’d been months done with Mongrels. I’ve done it once or twice since then, I think. And it’s pure learning, for me. What I’ve finally figured out, at least for now, is that there’s basically four kinds of werewolf story. There’s the “I’m bit, what am I?”-kind, which American Werewolf in London exemplifies in iconic fashion. There’s the “Someone here’s a werewolf”-kind—see Silver Bullet, yeah? Then there’s that rarest of creature, the “Monster” werewolf. You hardly ever see these. Only couple I can identify would be Dog Soldiers and Howl, probably. These are stories where, really, were the werewolf a mer-man, say, you’d have pretty much the same story. Trick is, all the man/beast stuff involved with the werewolf, it’s so fascinating that hardly any werewolf stories stay pure Monster. Just, there’s so much territory to explore. The fourth kind is the kind most in fashion now, I’d say. I call it “Secret History.” Think Bitten, say, or Blood and Chocolate. Werewolves have always existed, are just another parallel species, a shadow culture. These stories are maybe the most popular right now as they allow a kind of metaphoric space where the story can discuss and critique race relations, class-stuff. Secret history werewolf stories seem to me more about our world right now, I mean. But they can be bloody, too. They’re best when they are, really.
AC: As a quasi-layman, it would seem to me that there’s no one or two definitive, canonical werewolf novels. The way, say, Dracula is to vampires. There are plenty of “known” werewolf stories for genre fans, but the one that seems to cross most the cultural lines is The Wolf Man (1941), and that’s a film. If Stephen Graham Jones were going to crown something as the essential werewolf text, what would it be?
SGJ: Hard call. But we’ve been gifted with so much, this last decade. Buehlman’s Those Across the River, Percy’s Red Moon, Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, Garton’s Ravenous. I really dug Liar and Blood for the Sun, too. And you can click back a decade earlier, pick up Skipp and Spector’s so, so excellent Animals. That novel kills, man. A lot of people say that George RR Martin’s The Skin Trade is as good as the werewolf story gets. And they might be right. I really like the attention Martin pays in that to the culture of the werewolf. It’s easy to focus just on the animal, on the beast. But they have ways of life that are peculiar to them, too. And I so dig that there’s an asthmatic werewolf in The Skin Trade. And we can’t forget McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour, either. I mean, reading Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series, you see that, unlike so many, she actually pays attention to conservation of mass. It’s refreshing. Same with McCammon. His werewolf Michael Gallatin, he ages in canine years when he’s running around on all fours. Which I just stole, it was so good. But, you asked for one, not all of them. And, while I wish I could say The Howling, what really fired my imagination all those many years ago, and still’s curled up in my head, snarling, it’s Strieber’s The Wolfen. That species, and how they think, how they survive—they’re my model, pretty much. The werewolves in Mongrels, they look like Strieber’s wolfen. Were one to flash by you out in a pasture, you’d know something just happened, but you’d maybe write it off to a big, fast dog, say. But, slow that down to frame-by-frame, and you see that these wolves are too long in the foreleg. And their paws, they’re kind of wrong. And—and what’s that with their necks and heads? Their eyes? However, if you get close enough to see all that, then you’re not telling anybody. That close, you’re food, sorry.
AC: That’s a pretty next-level list. I could stop with the questions, Buzzfeed that up with some pictures, title this “The Best Werewolf Books You’ve (Probably) Never Read” and call it a day.* It may even net me more readers, but where’s the fun in that?
With books out of the way, what films are required viewing for Professor Jones? The more under-seen and less name-checked, the better.
SGJ: So, just ones not everybody knows, right? I’ve already hit the big players anyway, I think. How about When Animals Dream, then? That really plumbs the cost of transformation. I don’t much like it when going wolf is like a superpower. Rather, I like the “curse you learn to live with” model. So, I mean, for me Ginger Snaps is as good as it gets, definitely. And forever. Also I’d give a lot points to Professor Lupin, from Potter land. First, his werewolf is beautiful and amazing, but more important, it’s painful. It’s something Landis taught us, and Jacob tried to get us to forget. We need to always keep it in mind, though. What else, what else . . . oh. You know, I really like that old Amanda Seyfried Red Riding Hood (2011). I mean, it wasn’t exactly indie or underground or anything—built to be commercial, definitely—but that moment when the werewolf’s talking to her, and she says to it, “How are you doing this? Your lips aren’t moving,” and he says back to her that that’s not for her to worry about—I was so sold, right there. I love that kind of stuff, that in-character dismissal of what would seem to be story or world problems. It’s a very Herschell Gordon Lewis tactic. And we’re all his grandchildren, I’d say. But back to smaller werewolf films. Wolfcop has one of the cooler “werewolf builds a bad car”-montages I guess I’ve ever seen. Late Phases is pretty happening. Nick Damici always brings it. But, you know? People never watch Werewolf of London anymore. 1935—six solid years before The Wolf Man, and already giving us a man-wolf. I think the transformation effects used in 1941 were initially meant for 1935, too, but got censored out and saved, as the Scopes Monkey Trial thing was still too recent, in 1935. It’s why that transformation in Werewolf of London happens behind the pillars like it does. Way cool effect, wonderful workaround, but still, we like to see it hurt.
AC: [Here’s where I break the interview fourth wall and acknowledge that SGJ and I held this conversation via email correspondence. A lot of the email interviews get chopped up for word count, but I’m not touching any of this. This dude just went from 2011’s Red Riding Hood to Herschell Gordon Lewis to Werewolf of London facing censorship because of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Mad respect. It’s like watching horror nerd aikido. I’m going to send him pretend interview questions from now on just to get him to send me stuff like this.]
For people who don’t know your work (SHAME!**) it should be said that there is no one kind of Stephen Graham Jones story. Probably the most defining quality of your body of work, outside of some thematic echoes and a semi-regular revisiting of Texas, is how different most of your novels and stories are from each other. There are ones that read like annotated screenplays, ones that have zombie pro-wrestlers, more down-to-earth crime sagas, and a couple of serial killer stories that are just fucking terrifying. But reading this book, this werewolf book, I was most reminded of Growing Up Dead in Texas, which is probably one of your most—pardon the generalization—“literary” novels.
Then, in researching, I find you calling Mongrels 80% autobiography, so I’m guessing that’s the connection between this and Growing Up Dead, which is presented as a weird invented (is it?) autobiography. I’m probably being way too literal-minded, but if this is 80%, then what’s the percentage in Dead?
SGJ: Yeah, that’s how I’ve been explaining Mongrels to people, actually. It’s Growing Up Dead in Texas, just, with werewolves. As for Growing Up Dead in Texas’s percentage? I’d put it at seventy, seventy-five percent. Every page of that, I see a scene I lived through, one I remember. But there’s made-up stuff too. I mean, made up so as to better get at the real thing. But not, like, historically accurate, not verifiable. If that matters. So much of it’s real, though. Just achingly real, to me. Same with Mongrels. Just, moreso.
AC: Could you talk more about that quality of autobiography? Because I think a lot of writers sometimes confuse that old “write what you know” chestnut with what you’re doing in these novels and, no offense to them, but they end up writing boring books.
SGJ: Maybe I can get at with Demon Theory best. Reason that book’s in three parts? [AC: a little bit more background than what Jones provides: Demon Theory, if I’m remembering correctly, is written as the imagined novelization/treatment of an imagined slasher movie trilogy. It’s pretty great.] There’s the “horror comes at you in trilogies”-thing, sure. But that was just fun.
What was real there to me, the reason I had to cut the story up into three discrete experiences, it was that, coming across a cotton field one fall when I was twelve, with my cousin Darla . . . let me start a touch earlier. I’d wrapped my three-wheeler up a mile or two from where we lived, and got banged up in some way, so she was carrying me back to my porch. Kind of at top-speed, too, injuries being what they are and all. Why I know it was fall and not summer—summer would make for a better story—it’s that the cotton, it was tall. Like, it was hitting the backside of your fingers when you were holding onto the grips. Anyway, we’re burning down a row, she’s got that throttle twisted all the way back, and we’re both leaned forward to stay out of the wind, and, as happens, the cotton stalks got thick enough to push my right heel back into the grabby knobs of the rear tire on that side, and like that I was sucked down into that bad, bloody place between the peg and that spinning wheel. The three-wheeler clumped over me, and kept going. Somehow I wasn’t too bad hurt to stand, though, so I got back on when Darla circled back around, and this time we were going even faster, because I was bleeding even more. Except—it happened again. I got sucked down, cycled through, left back in the dirt. Then I climbed on again. And it happened one more time. So when I wrote Demon Theory, that was at the core of it, that was its beating heart. That was what gave it its shape, its structure. It’s what made it real to me. What let me invest every sentence of it with blood. And stories without blood, man—why even tell them? Mongrels is the same. Really, all my novels are like that. But Mongrels especially. Just, more, even. These werewolves in Mongrels, they’re me and my family, growing up all over Texas. Going from place to place, name to name, situation to situation. Every line of this novel, for me, it’s a beating heart all its own. It made me be more careful with them. This time out, I had no choice, I had to get everything as right as I could.
AC: And people are going to read that, then read the synopsis of the novel (a coming of age werewolf story where a young boy raised by his aunt and uncle waits to see if he’s going to wolf-out) and think that you’re putting them on. But I get it. There’s an intangible, almost journalistic or documentary feel to the book.
This is probably going to lead to a hackey question. But this is a column about the intersection between horror fiction and film, and a big part of that is adaptation.
I can see a number of ways that Mongrels could be made into a film, a great film, but because our perspective is so close to the protagonist, it’s not exactly like the prose is “ready-made” for the screen. It wouldn’t be a one-to-one adaptation.
The book’s going to be a monster hit, someone’s going to make it into a movie (or TV show) at some point. How would SGJ himself do it?
SGJ: I think I’d do it as a television series, really. I’ve got the next two books of it planned out, I mean. It could go three seasons, and, once a room of writers get involved, there’d probably turn out to be a lot more story in there than I even know.
But, talking film? The trick would be crossing the time period of the novel—which I’m trying not to spoil—in a couple hours, right? I think what I’d likely do is distill the whole thing down to that last long chapter. Well, I’d have bookends, I suppose. Up-front would be a bit to establish the life cycle of this family. Their pattern, their usual day. Then would come something to disturb that—something that already happens in the first chapter, as-is—and then they’d run all the way to the last long chapter, which would be the dramatic spine of the movie, leaving the actual last chapter as a kind of coda, a resolution to the intro. If that makes sense. I mean, yeah, it’d hurt, burning all the other good stuff, giving up the episodic structure. But movies are fundamentally different animals than novels, and come asking for different conventions, different constraints. What I’d like, though, doing Mongrels as a movie? That the effects-budget would likely be higher. Werewolf stories need some serious effects dollars invested. Practical is the ideal, of course, but for the final form—the Prof Lupin, say—you’d have to CGI some, too, I expect.
AC: Speaking of film, I like your film writing (mostly found on your blog) just as much as your fiction. When are we going to get a book of essays or a non-fiction film book of some kind? Soon, right? If you’re adverse to that, why?
SGJ: Thanks. Not at all adverse, of course, but, way I look at it, I just ramble on sometimes about this or that movie, and usually try to bring in all kinds of pseudo-theory and intertextual fun and kind of basic enthusiasm, but I wonder if I ever really have a thesis. Or, I kind of know I don’t. I just like the talking, and the chance of hooking somebody else into this wonderfulness. Movie theaters, they always feel like the holy sanctuaries in life, these rare places where we’re encouraged to dream. I go there every chance I get.
AC: Ha! That’s a very poetic but also a very non-committal answer. Some folks at Cemetery Dance might end up reading this interview. I think they (or any other publisher that made it this far) should back the money truck up to your house so we can get that book of film criticism sooner rather than later. Thesis optional.
Thanks so much to Stephen Graham Jones for taking the time to talk with me!
Mongrels is available right now. Buy it. It’s great.
*Yeah, I, I made something like this into the actual title of this ~4,000 word article.
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.