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.

———-

It’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.”

Hap­pi­ly, 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.

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.