Discussing Mongrels with Stephen Graham Jones
“For a moment our headlights slipped out into the fields, and there was a pale canine-thing standing there at the fence, watching us,” says author Stephen Graham Jones. It was tall; it had these long legs. By the time we got the headlights directed back, it was gone.” Just like that, the werewolf entered his life and, as far as anyone can tell, it hasn’t left.
Resident professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, recent visiting professor to the University of Utah, and author of 15 novels, one novella, six short-story collections and somewhere near 220 short stories, Jones is a literary mad scientist, in the most inspiring way. His works respectively run the genre-gambit from fantasy to memoire, romance to mystery, horror to young adult, each work as impressive as it is experimental.
With one guiding rule, “Try my hand and pen at everything,” and his commitment “not to ritualize the writing process,” Jones has built a vast and ever expanding bibliography. The one creature Jones has longed to capture, longed to write about in all its glory, is the werewolf. While Jones has written about werewolves several times in the past he hopes that his newest novel, Mongrels, does just that.
Set in the back highways and forgotten towns of the Deep South, a young unnamed narrator, his bleary-eyed grandpa, brash Uncle Darren, and overly cautious Aunt Libby, are moving town to town every couple of weeks, working odd jobs, scraping to get by. “Mongrels is about a kid, on the run, making his family up as he goes, like Lilo & Stitch kinda stuff,” says Jones. “And for me that was kinda autobiographical until I grew up… The family in this novel [was] my family.” Certainly the families must have some similarities, but our narrator’s family also howls at the moon, can’t touch silver and prefers ketchup on their raw rabbit meat. “I was never able to transform into a werewolf,” says Jones, “but what I can do is change the definition of werewolf; I can cast my family as werewolves.” Mongrels is about being the misfit in a pack of misfits, it’s about finding home wherever you are, it’s about belonging despite obvious and subtle differences. Ultimately, says Jones, “It’s not about being a werewolf on the outside, but being a werewolf on the inside” that counts.
Familial connections aside, Jones’ love for werewolves as characters and creatures began in childhood. “The first werewolves I encountered, that I remember, are from [1981’s] The Howling,” says Jones. “They totally corrupted me or inspired me—however you want to look at it.” Corruption or inspiration in mind, Jones went on to engage every werewolf film and book he could get his hands on, like 1941’s The Wolf Man, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London and 2000’s Ginger Snaps, along with Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour, Marvel’s Werewolf by Night and Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Jones even went so far as to try his hand at becoming a werewolf. “I would drink from a wolf’s paw print, drink downstream from a wolf, roll in the sand under a full moon; I tried all the tricks.” The lure of the werewolf, if we think about it, is obvious. It is a creature of appetite and fulfillment, driven by desires alone, bold in the face of disheartening odds and capable of astonishing feats. It houses the best of man’s and dog’s respective abilities and, perhaps most importantly, it is basically indestructible (aside from a stray silver bullet). Yet it is also the monster with the messiest history.
If, like me, you find yourself deeply interested by monster lore and the occult, then there is no need for me to explain the varied rules and history of the werewolf. If, on the other hand, you are only vaguely familiar with the werewolf, you should know almost each and every werewolf—from movies, stories, myths—functions differently in some way, whether that be its ability to transform with the moon or at any given time, its susceptibility to silver and wolf’s bane, its level of memory overlap between human and wolf forms, or how the person came to be a werewolf, by infection, birth or curse.
The werewolf has suffered from innumerable and often conflicting interpretations, and a general lack of a “biblical” text (like Bram Stoker’s Dracula was for vampires). “[Werewolves] are the guard-dogs, sled-pullers; they are the weapon you send out into the field to kill your enemies,” says Jones. “[And it’s because] none of them get their deep history or their own desires and regrets.” They are, for better or worse, “the blue collar monster”—not as cold and sleek as the vampire, not as mystic or apocalyptic as the zombie, and more ontologically recognizable than the ghost.
In order to shape a more complete werewolf, Jones had kept a list of do’s and don’ts: “[I]f I ever tell a [comprehensive] werewolf story, my werewolves will be like this,” says Jones. “And it really came down to them making sense as animals.” Which is to say that, in other interpretations, the werewolf has functioned well outside of even the excusable laws of nature. “A lot of werewolves I read about don’t subscribe to conservation of mass, so a 150 lb person will become a 350 lb werewolf, and I can’t figure out where those extra 200 lbs. come from,” says Jones. “I like the idea of [transformation that] the moon brings to the werewolf, but the moon actually having physical properties that compel the transformation never made sense to me.”
As an examination of the moon’s transformative role with the werewolf, Jones says, “[I]f moonlight is that potent, would a half moon be half as potent and a quarter moon a quarter as potent?” Yet one trope that Jones is willing to subscribe to is the werewolf’s susceptibility to silver, but even this must make sense: the silver acts as an infecting agent, giving the werewolves a blood infection that isn’t easily managed. “In my world the werewolf makes as much biological sense as I can make it. It makes them more scary if you think they could be real,” says Jones.
It was Jones’ fascination with werewolves and his knowledge of their disheveled history that, no doubt, led him to write his own werewolf stories. Back in 2009, Jones published “Wolf Island” on Juked.com: a short story about a man and woman stranded on an island, one’s discovery of the resident werewolf and the other’s run-in with a fearsome killer whale. Before that, Jones had worked on, though never published, an unnamed werewolf novel.
These two works were trying, in their respective ways, to commune with the werewolves that Jones has always admired. And commune they very well might have, but what Jones wanted, more than anything, was to bring order to the functionality and lore of the werewolf—no small task. “[A] large part [of my stories] is me resisting all the other werewolves I read about and trying to supply a cleaner werewolf, one that I can believe in,” says Jones. “What I’m trying to do with Mongrels is establish [werewolves] as a species that makes sense, even though the idea of transforming from human to werewolf is a pretty gamy proposition.”
This leads us, most directly, to Mongrels: Jones’ comprehensive corrective Bullington to a millennia worth of wrongs, the seeds of which began back in 2013 when a friend, Jesse, asked Jones to contribute to an H.P. Lovecraft-themed anthology, Letters to Lovecraft. “[Burlington] wanted all of his writers to select a passage from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Supernatural Horror in Literature,’ and write a story from it,” says Jones. “So I opened up my copy, and I searched to see if Lovecraft said ‘werewolves’ anywhere, and he did in one place. So I wrote Jesse back and said, ‘Yeah I can do this; I can write a werewolf story.’”
Jones’ contribution went on to feature in one of his short story collections, After the People Lights Have Gone Off, as “Doc’s Story.” “I kinda modeled it on Neil Gaiman’s issue of The Sandman called The Hunt, where a grandfather is telling stories to his granddaughter,” says Jones. With much shaping and revision, “Doc’s Story” eventually evolved into the first chapter of Mongrels—a grandfather telling his grandson a series of “all true” stories about life, love and werewolves. “I did the first draft of Mongrels in 16 days, and it surprised me that it held together a little bit. It still needed a lot of work, but it was nice that it came together; it was like it wanted to be together.”
As a reader, Mongrels stands as a pinnacle work. It takes all the lore, stories, myths, a fresh batch of new ideas, combines the lot and looms as easily one of the strongest, most engaging werewolf works to date. The werewolf, as it now stands, is closer to having its “biblical” text than it ever has been before. With this fiercely-fanged work backing him, Jones hopes to initiate a shift in the public’s consciousness. “My goal, for the werewolf in general—and maybe Mongrels can be a part of it—is that we step into a werewolf renaissance,” Jones says.
“We’re just getting out of the zombie renaissance, and before that, vampires were big. I think it’s the werewolf’s turn.” But Jones does not believe that this goal can be achieved alone. It will take others like himself, other works like Mongrels, to complete the shift. “I think that if some of us can map out the werewolf with enough detail and make it into a person that the reader can engage, then the werewolf has a chance to catch on.”
I believe that Jones, through Mongrels, is connecting the human and the werewolf, making them a symbiotically synonymous thing—creating a space for us to see the monster in the mirror and find hope in that, to stand naked under the night’s sky and find freedom in that. Ultimately, “We need to acknowledge the animal side of ourselves, that we have these beastly compulsions and we have to figure out how to moderate them and give them room to run,” says Jones. In the end, “Everybody should believe in werewolves,” for they come from within.
Mongrels is slated to be released on May 10, with the launch party being held at George R. R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Theatre in Santa Fe. Jones says, “I don’t doubt that I’ll come through Salt Lake City to do a reading at King’s English or Sam Weller’s,” in the coming months. Until then, listen close for that clawing at the gate, that breathing just outside your window, the padded footstep on the other side of your door, that growl from within. Close your eyes, listen close.
For more information on Stephen Graham Jones and his many projects check out Demon Theory’s website.
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