Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: The Wolf Gift, by Anne Rice

Long before Stephenie Meyer made vampires popular in her Twilight series, Anne Rice had already been making them glamorous, yet dangerous, in her The Vampire Chronicles series. Unlike Meyer, Rice found the fact that vampires are immortal to be an object of fascination. Where Meyer's vampires choose to spend eternity as high schoolers (which should provide them with greater insight into the education system than anybody), Rice took a more mature route, exploring the identity crisis a vampire faces when changing from the living to the undead and suddenly having an appetite for human blood. Now Rice has undertaken the subject of the werewolf, another creature Meyer made popular among teenagers. But again, Rice explores the subject with more maturity, and more fascination, than Meyer. However, there are moments where it felt as though Rice was treading the Twilight line a little too closely, with cheesy melodrama and characters who are perhaps too nice - all leading to a rather anticlimactic ending.

It all begins with Reuben, a twenty-something year old man trying to find a comfortable niche for himself in life. Of course, he has it made. He is quite wealthy, mainly from some luck and inheritance. He enjoys his job as a newspaper reporter, and his stories are widely read. Yet, closing in on his thirties, he feels unaccomplished.

The story begins with Reuben researching an article on a large, secluded mansion, called Nideck Point, where its owner, Marchent Nideck, is planning to sell it. Reuben is excited to write this story, but develops a growing sense to buy the house himself. Like I said, he has plenty of money. He knows his girlfriend, Celeste, would be aghast, but he's not entirely sure he's happy with her. His mother, Grace, might also complain, but his father, Phil, a retired college professor and a poet, would no doubt love the place. It becomes clear to Marchent that Reuben adores the place, and eventually, inevitably, the two develop a strong attraction. Reuben agrees to buy the place, and she agrees to sell it to him. Immediately, without his knowledge, she signs it over to him. After a slowly built, though engrossing, introduction, the main plot begins when the werewolf strikes that night.

Werewolves aren't the most exciting of the classic monsters. Vampires, much more human and more subtly dangerous, tend to make the most interesting movie villains or antiheroes. Zombies are less compelling in terms of character depth, but make for some fun, gore-filled action. A werewolf seems more akin to the Hulk, an intelligent human transforming into a brute, thoughtless creature bent on havoc and destruction. There's also a sexual appeal to the werewolf, one different from the vampire because it is not a human sexuality. It represents some beastly desire in both man and woman - the thrill of the hunter and the hunted. The werewolf in most stories either tears through the woods and randomly kills villagers, or it is the object of desire from some young maiden and the object of scorn and fear from the villagers. Thus a hunt is inevitable. Rice, however, sidesteps the usual conventions.

Reuben nearly loses his life that night, as a pair of intruders assault him, and then he is bitten by a strange dog-like beast. Right away it's clear something has happened to him. Reuben recovers quickly in the hospital, with a vitality that astonishes not only his family and the doctors, but himself. His wounds heal miraculously fast, and he begins to develop a super sense. He can hear what people are saying on another floor of the hospital and then on the streets outside. He becomes distressed by cries of help. Meanwhile, his mother wants to probe deeper into what happened that night. There was no trace of an animal at the mansion, despite Reuben's claims of what saved him. She grows worried when she realizes there's something odd about Reuben's own blood samples, which are corrupted before they can even be tested.

Reuben undergoes a transformation, both physically and mentally. His mother and his girlfriend note how much more handsome and larger he has grown. He's also no longer the timid young man they remembered. He seems apathetic, as though he no longer cares about the things the old Reuben used to care about. There's one change only Reuben knows, however, and that's his ability to transform into a wolf man at night. Not only can he hear voices from afar, but he can smell evil. He has an instinctive impulse to kill the bad and rescue the good. In no time the man wolf becomes an object of fascination to the media and of trepidation to the police. He realizes he can no longer stay at home, and moves into the seclusion of the mansion.

There is plenty more that Reuben becomes obsessed with, particularly werewolf lore and his own roots. The mystery, for some time, is who transformed him? What will happen when he confronts that person, or beast? Another woman also comes into play, one much more sensitive and caring than Celeste. Rice seems much more interested in philosophical musings than pure action, which is both good and bad. One of the central questions is, if Reuben can sense evil and has a desire to destroy it, is he good? His goodness is tainted by the fact that he kills people, evil as they are, without a chance for a trial. Reuben wrestles with the morality of his actions, but finds the desire to carry them out much too strong. He tries to justify what he does by pointing out that the victims of evil also did not have a chance for a fair trial. Their lives were shortened by an act of malice. Doesn't it only make it right to get even? But if one justifies killing out of revenge, when will the line of revenge stop?

Rice enjoys getting into the sensations of being a wolf man. There's a strong desire to feast on a newly killed creature, human or otherwise, and the excitement is greater when the challenge is greater. But no beast can match Reuben's strength as the man wolf. Rice explains his kills with vivid, gory detail. The transformation also comes with pleasurable sensations, and he has strong sexual desires, which are met by a lonely woman who is happy to accommodate. What strikes me as odd about the sex scenes is the description of Reuben the man wolf planting kisses all over her body. Does he have a face more human-like than wolf-like? Or are his kisses of the dog variety - that is, licking?

At about the halfway mark the story begins to lose steam. It seems as though Rice didn't have a goal in mind when writing it, and thus fails to create a compelling conflict. There's the mysterious and suspicious Dr. Jaska who wants to meet Reuben. There's also the discovery of Reuben's maker. Both of these plot points resolve anticlimactically. The story decides to go the route of the origin story, with Reuben eventually discovering the history of his kind. These kinds of stories, for me, are more boring than engaging. They add very little in terms of conflict or drama, because they serve as little more than lengthy back story. A few interesting developments occur about three-quarters of the way into the book before things begin to run on auto pilot.

And now I come back to our Twilight comparison. In Twilight, very little of interest happens. The Cullens live a life of luxury, with plenty of wealth and a nice secluded home, and we see similar developments in The Wolf Gift, with fancy dinners thrown seemingly every night. Edward wrestles with the decision to change Bella into a vampire so she can enjoy immortality with him forever, and this is no different than what develops in The Wolf Gift. What makes Rice's story different is its interest in philosophy. Unfortunately this philosophy is more ponderous than intriguing. Towards the end things feel a little too safe, which fails to make for compelling storytelling. I can only hope that things get more interesting in The Wolves of Midwinter and that Rice does not descend into the sameness that plagues the conclusion of The Wolf Gift.

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