Werewolves and Wendigos: Douglas Smith’s “The Wolf at the End of the World”

The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith (Lucky Bat Books, 2013)

From the official description:

The Heroka walk among us. Unseen, unknown. Shapeshifters. Human in appearance but with power over their animal totems.

Gwyn Blaidd is a Heroka of the wolf totem. Once he led his people in a deadly war against the Tainchel, the shadowy agency that hunts his kind. Now he lives alone in his wilderness home, wolves his only companions. But when an Ojibwe girl is brutally killed in Gwyn’s old hometown, suspicion falls on his former lover. To save her, Gwyn must return, to battle not only the Tainchel, but even darker forces: ancient spirits fighting to enter our world…and rule it.

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Still from An American Werewolf in LondonIt’s weird that, for all its iconic pop culture value, there’s actually fairly few good werewolf stories. In movies, for every The Howling or An American Werewolf in London there are fifty Underworlds and Twilights and Curseds and Blood and Chocolates and Teen Wolf Toos. Hell, the last good (actually freakin’ great) werewolf flick was Dog Soldiers way back in 2002.

In books the ratio is slightly better, with The Wolfen, Sharp Teeth, The Wolf’s Hour, and YA novels such as The Night Has Teeth and Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl pushing the genre to new places. Although, again, Twilight, a series that almost singlehandedly displaced werewolves from their archetypal “uncontrollable monsters of the id” status to that of “United Colors of Benetton models with slightly more hair than usual.”

The Wolf at the End of the WorldHappily, Douglas Smith has renewed my faith somewhat, landing his debut novel firmly in the “good werewolf novel” category. Not that Gwyn Blaidd, the wolfy shapeshifting protagonist of The Wolf at the End of the World, isn’t a fine example of manhunkdom when he wants to be. Smith is simply more concerned with telling a ripping good yarn chock full of shapeshifters, conspiracies, spirits, secret agencies, and First Nation legends than he is romance. Although there’s a bit of that, too. Plus, I’m always inclined to enjoy a story where “the monster” is the hero.

Expanding on his award-winning novella Spirit Dance, Wolf concerns a side-species of man known as the Heroka, people born with the ability to shapeshift into their “totem animal.” So technically they aren’t all lycanthropes, but as Blaidd’s a prime member of the wolf totem, he counts as a werewolf in my book.

The Heroka also wield a deep psychic connection to animal members of their totem. And right from the start of Wolf, the animals aren’t doing so well.

Though the wolves were miles away from him when it happened, Gwyn felt their deaths immediately. Felt each bullet shatter their bones and rip through their organs. Felt it as if he’d been shot himself. Felt them die, one after another. He slumped to the floor, weak and shaking, as he felt the life force of the wolves drain away, draining part of his own strength as well.

Pursuing the Heroka is a secret organization called the Tainchel, led by a wizened old man with a habit of spewing biblical verse to support his self-guided genocide. When a friend is slain by the dreaded “something unknown,” Blaidd finds himself drawn unwillingly back into the fight, and discovers the possibility of a reckoning far more dangerous than the physical perils of this world.

Wendigo

Considering Smith’s voluminous output of absolutely fantastic short stories that truly push boundaries (read Chimerascope; this isn’t a request, it’s an order), his debut novel is remarkably straightforward and slightly ham-handed in setting up early scenes of exposition. However, the narrative here is one of action and intrigue, and Smith quickly regains his footing through strong characters and a propulsive plot that drives his multiple POVs toward a final battle that, as with all great adventures, holds the fate of the world in its balance.

Beyond it’s action trappings, Wolf is also a story of myths and legends, leaning heavily on Cree and Ojibwe stories of spirits, evil, and the Wendigo to propel the action. The trickster god Wisakejack figures into the main action as a guiding presence to Zach, a young blind boy somehow key to the upcoming cataclysm. The novel is laden with First Nations lore, and Smith weaves in themes of environmentalism and government interference throughout, leaving the story with definite parallels (as author Charles de Lint notes in his introduction) to the Idle No More movement. It’s a testament to Smith’s talent and care that none of these issues come across as unwieldy or false.

As with the finest of urban fantasy, the collision of magic and reality works wonders, resulting in an entertaining fantasy that respects our legends even as it subverts them (see also: Chadwick Ginther’s terrific Nordic mashup Thunder Road). Smith guides his adventure with a firm hand, doesn’t skimp on the gore and horror, and leaves the reader (or me, anyway) hoping for further Heroka stories down the road.

I started this with a rant on the lack of quality werewolf entertainment, and then went on to talk about a book that really is only tangentially related to the genre (which speaks to how hard it is to find a recent werewolf novel of true quality). The Wolf at the End of the World may not, in the end, qualify as a “pure” werewolf novel, but even so, it’s certainly at the high end of the spectrum of recent furry people entertainments.

Because, again, Twilight.