Friday, September 28, 2018

Wilding by Melanie Tem (1992): Ladies of the Canyon

"Horror is a woman's genre," says my Paperbacks from Hell pal Grady Hendrix, and he is so right. Horror is often seen as a boys' club, and that is true to an extent, yet there is a feminine power flowing through the genre that is not always acknowledged. The genre features many novels, minor and major, from a beleaguered woman's point of view: "The Yellow Wallpaper," We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill HouseFlowers in the Attic, The Possession of Joel Delaney, The House Next Door, and others lesser-known, such as Burning, Nest of Nightmares, The Landlady. The female experience is not one unfamiliar with fear, pain, and betrayal of the body itself. So much of this kind of horror is entwined with the emotional weight that home and family bear on the feminine psyche since time immemorial. Horror offers a perfect opportunity to turn these anxieties into monstrous metaphor... and fiendish entertainment.

Such is the case with Melanie Tem's second novel for the fabled Dell/Abyss publishing line, Wilding (Nov 1992, cover artist unknown). Taking her title for the suspect term of marauding youth (then probably more recognized as such, being only a few years after the initial crime), Tem reclaims the word as a notion of subversion. You want wilding? She'll give you wilding: these wilding women are werewolves, wouldn't you know, and engage in just the right kind of wild werewolf behavior. And then some. In this thoughtful, temperate novel of lupine dark fantasy, Tem doesn't shy away from the tenderest, most elemental hurts (and this was family: ultimate alliance and danger more intimate, more knowing than any other). She goes further into these unsettling places and with more confidence than in her debut, another woeful tale of familial dysfunction, 1991's Prodigal.

The sisters had come most recently from wooded, green, and rainy Pennsylvania. Before that they'd lived in the Everglades, on an island off the Carolina coast, on the English moors, at the northern edge of the Black Forest, high and deep in the Carpathian Mountains (a-ha!)

There's a city-wolf/country-wolf dynamic at play: the family has split into two distinct factions, with distrust, suspicion, disagreement, and power plays at base. Should the women be away in the hills, so to speak, or should they be tested by city life and its pressures? This is the family riff, and a confrontation is coming. The heads of these clans, the murderers and devourers of their sisters, are Hannah, the country-wolf (the stench of the city poisoned her), and Mary, the city-wolf; Mary lives in one of four houses forming a square enclosed city block in Denver, a joining of them together against all the world that was not family.

The two clans have somewhat reluctantly come together at the novel's beginning on a full-moon night for the initiation of teenage Deborah, Mary's great-granddaughter. You might, as you begin reading, want to sketch a quick family tree of who's-who on a handy bookmark, for the litany of names can be numbing in its biblical simplicity: Mary, mother of Ruth, Ruth mother of Lydia, Lydia mother of Deborah. Then there are siblings and cousins. And teenage Deborah, pregnant and stubborn, rejects the initiation of wolf skin and escapes the house, leaving her relatives in a state of snipping, snapping frustration. The ancient grandmothers Mary and Hannah will not sit for it.

Teenage Deborah escapes into the city (the rest of the night she walked and ran, sometimes upright and sometimes on all fours—the women can transform at will) and various misadventures ensue: a diner pickup that leads to date rape; an encounter on a bus with a harasser that is quite satisfying for every woman who's been in the same sitch; then a ragged street person named Julian offers understanding, a place to stay, food, a sympathetic ear: This is to be a sanctuary relationship. For both of us. A place of peace and trust, Julian tells Deborah, even when she doesn't want to hear it. Tem's experience as a social worker dealing with the abused, the forgotten, the houseless, the addicted, was front and center in Prodigal and it is even more developed here; she well understands how the marginalized can create their own family dynamic. This moral dimension girds the novel into something uncomfortably real.

Anger. Wildness. Anger in the streets. Anger in the veins... anger pooling in the bedrooms, kitchens, hallways, stairways, cellars, attics, closets where people lived and loved and where they died... never enough anger. Never enough blood. Even though the world reeked of it... Little girls choked with chocolate cake they'd tasted without permission... little boys held in scalding bathwater for messing their pants again. 
Wilding, the ravening for transformation...

Finnish edition, 1994

Meanwhile, Lydia is beside herself with concern over her runaway daughter, even though her feelings towards Deborah are deeply ambivalent: She had never known how to take care of her. Lydia still mourns the death of her other children, in infancy, and the fate of newborn boys to any member of this wolf clan is absolute. She works in a drab office and a coworker, Pam, like Julian, offers sympathy and friendship, yet unlike Julian, perhaps something more. Yes, something more. The fate of this good coworker is... absolute, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of horror I've yet read.

There is more, much more to Wilding. Emotional rawness, memories of beloved men and boys and normal lives thwarted, of unbearable tension between generations of powerful women who can barely fathom their own minds much less their relatives'. The final chapter reveals the dim history of this werewolf clan (The man stopped screaming when he heard the werewolf speak). Tem is unconcerned with presenting a traditional novel of horror: there are no wolf-hunters armed with silver bullets on the women's trail, no grizzled Kolchak investigating mauled remains found in a city park, no despair by a woman who wants to rid herself of the wolf curse. Why, it wouldn't be an Abyss book if there were! In all these ways Wilding is the quintessential Abyss title.

Current ebook

Wilding is often a state of mind rather than a exact rendering of the real and the true. Using a minimum of dialogue, Tem offers dense paragraphs of inner turmoil, anxiety, and doubt: in going after psychological truths, the story can slow to a crawl. But it's an illuminating crawl: Tem's perceptive insights into the characters' human nature are the real draw here. Don't worry, there's plenty of gory werewolf action—it's threaded through a curtain of heartfelt humanity, but it's there. Hearts are eaten, hearts are broken, hearts survive. Werewolves or no, family is family.

She could still feel the breath, still taste fresh kill, still hear the sounds of her grandmother saying her name. Blood instead of breath. Rage instead of love. Love.

2 comments:

Zwolf said...

I've had this book since it first came out and haven't read it yet because werewolf novels tend to be pretty bad (although I read one recently, Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman, that was actually pretty good... but I didn't know it was going to be a werewolf novel when I started it). I should probably take it down and read it anyway. I remember thinking Tem's The Prodigal was one of the best books Abyss put out.

Jon Weman said...

I wonder if this portrayal, with at will-transforming werewolves with clans and initiations and differing philosophies was inspired by the Werewolf roleplaying game? Or maybe the other way around, they must have come at same time. Werewolf: the Apocaplypse even have one (but only that one) all-female werewolf tribe.