Written by: Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Unlike many other subgenres of horror, it is difficult to point to a single werewolf novel as the definitive work. Some people cite Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), but it isn’t a werewolf novel strictly speaking. There is no werewolf equivalent to Dracula. Modern werewolf horror owes more to the film The Wolf Man (1941) than to either folklore or a Victorian predecessor.
That said, a number of horror writers have taken the werewolf theme and created literature that enriches our understanding of the human condition. The following novels (click the images for purchase links) stand as the greatest in the werewolf subgenre:
#5. Wolf’s Trap, by W. D. Gagliani (2003)
Does one have to become a monster to catch a monster? Gagliani’s novel combines werewolves with a gripping detective story to create a taut page-turner. A serial killer clashes wits with a police officer undergoing an existential crisis. There’s even a splash of romance thrown in to round out an engaging story.
#4. The Wolfen, by Whitley Strieber (1978)
Although it also has a police angle, The Wolfen explores different themes. The werewolves live among us, and as human society breaks down, the beasts come out to feast. Part reflection on urban decay, part secret history, Strieber’s novel succeeds by preying on our fears that the universe doesn’t in fact work the way we think it does. Hungry eyes watch us from the dark corners of reality. (Strieber returns to this theme in subsequent works, but in a radically different mode.)
#3. Cabal, by Clive Barker (1988)
Another tale of werewolves living among us, Cabal explores the joys and dangers inherent in embracing the beast within. A series of twists and turns keep the reader wondering who really is the villain. As with the best of Barker’s works, the story is at its most terrifying when he shows us the beauty within the horror. Pain and ecstasy may just be two sides of the same coin.
#2. Darker Than You Think, by Jack Williamson (novella 1940; novel 1948)
Predating The Wolfen by decades, Darker Than You Think also is a secret history. Werewolves have always lived among humanity. Once persecuted by man, they have cultivated in us a culture of skepticism and disbelief to create a place for themselves. As a human investigator learns about this hidden world, he feels more and more drawn to it. Can he resist the freedom of running wild, even if it might kill him?
#1. The Nightwalker, by Thomas Tessier (1979)
Homo lupus homini, the ancient proverb runs. Man is wolf to man. Who then better to star in the ultimate werewolf novel than a veteran of the Vietnam War? After seeing humanity at its worst, who could doubt that a beast lurks within each of us? The Nightwalker is a bleak, tightly paced story so utterly haunting because it is so damned believable.
All of these excellent stories hold up a mirror to human nature, and therein lies their power as horror novels. When we see the beast, we are looking at our own faces.