How does it feel to be ripped to pieces: will there be desperate agony or will some mechanism of the brain provide relief?
Total coincidence, but here's yet another novel that works in both the crime and the horror genres. Less well-known than its loose 1981 film adaptation with Albert Finney, Whitley Strieber's The Wolfen is a mainstream thriller through and through but with a strong evocation of, and rational explanation for, vampire and werewolf myths throughout history. The Wolfen are a superior species of wolf-like creatures who have till now hidden themselves from civilization. While certainly not evil by any means, the ferocity and intelligence with which they dispatch of their human victims lends them a malevolent yet fascinating nobility and grace.
Avon 1988 reprint
The police procedural aspects are in full effect from the start: detective partners George Wilson and Becky Neff are total opposites, a veritable Felix and Oscar of the police force who are much resented by their superiors; Wilson is an aging lazy slob with a real attitude problem, and Becky - well, Becky's a woman. And for mid-1970s New York City cops, that's practically a crime itself. Even Wilson seems to resent her, when he's not falling for her. The novel begins with two hapless police officers finding themselves face-to-face with the terrifying Wolfen in a city impound lot, and then torn apart before they can barely reach their weapons. The grisly attack baffles and sickens the police force, and Wilson and Neff get down to the exhausting business of tracking the killer. Of course they have no idea what they're up against.
At a loss, Wilson and Neff enlist Ferguson, a zoologist from the Museum of Natural History; he does some serious research based on the clues they've given him and realizes these creatures were the impetus for the werewolf legend. More primitive people, coming into contact with the Wolfen, couldn't believe that animals so smart weren't part human... Ferguson begins to respect the Wolfen, and thinks he can communicate with them peacefully. You know how that's gonna go.
The Wolfen. In fact I had a bit of a hard time suspending disbelief at first, but Strieber is skilled and convincing in presenting a fairly believable pack of intelligent and cooperative creatures and their thought processes. What makes the novel unique is this depiction of their furtive lives on the fringes of human society. There are some terrifically suspenseful moments when Wilson and Neff inadvertently come close to the Wolfen's lair in an abandoned building. Lots of police department and city politics may detract from the eerie fact that the two cops are now being stalked through the city by these "monsters," and high-rise apartment buildings are no protection. These animals know that the two humans are aware of them and it angers them. When the Wolfen ambush on Neff and Wilson fails, they go after Dr. Evans, the medical examiner to whom the cops revealed their suspicions:
Then they were on him, pulling and tearing, ripping full of rage, spitting the bloody bits out , angry that the two important ones had been missed, angry that this one also dared confront them with his evil knowledge. They had cracked open the head and plunged their claws into the brains, plunged and torn to utterly and completely destroy the filthy knowledge.
The paperback at the top (Bantam 1981) seems like the movie tie-in edition, while this bland and amateurish cover, the first-edition paperback (my copy, Bantam July 1979) basically meant the publisher was trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, people who wouldn't buy one of those down-market trashy-looking horror novels with their lurid paperback cover art. The Wolfen simply don't go after screaming blonde ladies as the pupils of those stupid cut-out eyes insist. That said, the book should still find a pretty wide audience because it is definitely a gripping, suspenseful, scary read; I found it compulsively readable. Strieber's first novel has a good balance between pulpy creature horror and investigative police procedural, between awe and wonder at the predatory perfection of the Wolfen and the stark inescapable fear their kind will always engender in that weaker and stupider species, mankind.