Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Wereling

The Wereling, by David Robbins
No month stated, 1983  Leisure Books

David Robbins has published many, many novels over the past few decades; he’s probably most known for the ‘80s post-nuke pulp series Endworld, as well as its spin-off series Blade. Yet despite the guy’s prolificity in a genre I love, I’d never read any of his books, and rather than his men's adventure work I decided to start with one of his horror novels.

Beginning in the very early ‘80s Robbins published a handful of horror novels through Leisure Books, on up until the horror paperback crash of the mid-‘90s. It would appear that The Wereling is the most fondly remembered of these novels, and even received a “revised, updated, and expanded” reprinting through Mad Hornet Publications in 2013. But I’ve always been more a fan of the original issue, and so sought out the Leisure Books edition, which true to the label’s spirit has an embossed cover and lurid front and back cover copy.

I can see why The Wereling has its fans, as it’s pretty good. An old-fashioned creature feature with a new twist, it’s about a werewolf that tears apart Ocean City, New Jersey one summer season. But this isn’t your typical “changes with the full moon” sort of werewolf. Instead, muscle-bound, 19-year-old Harvey Painter, a mentally disturbed monster movie freak who lives with his domineering drunk of a mother, finds that when he wears an expensive werewolf costume he becomes possessed by the Spirit of the Wolf, which has chosen Harvey to be its current vessel on earth.

Harvey is a true ‘80s kid and parts of the book hit home for me, as I too grew up in that decade with a single mom and spent a lot of time alone reading or watching movies. Unlike Harvey though I wasn’t as much into the horror genre (and besides, I was long out of the house by the time I was 19), and I wasn’t as borderline psychotic as our villain is. Actually, Harvey Painter reminds me a lot of this creepy guy I was friends with in high school, a socially-awkward guy who was obsessed with gory horror movies. Like Harvey, my friend even had a dad who was a cop, though Harvey’s dad we learn was gunned down by a thug when Harvey was seven years old.

Now Harvey spends most of his days in his bedroom, which is adorned with monster movie posters, one wall dedicated to werewolves in particular. He reads monster mags, lifts weights, and when he doesn’t have to go to work at the local deli he likes to spend his evenings in the Dunes, a remote wastelands off of the beach where Harvey can be alone and think his morbid thoughts. But Harvey’s getting more and more pissed that others trespass on “his” domain; especially now that tourist season is in, more and more people are crashing his private fun at the Dunes.

Then in one of his beloved monster mags Harvey sees an ad for a “realistic” werewolf mask…even made with real wolf fur! At seventy-five bucks it’s pretty pricey for Harvey, who’s only managed so far to save less than two hundred bucks for his planned move out of the house. But when he sees that the mask also comes with werewolf hands and feet, both with realistic claws and also made with real wolf fur, he orders the costume. The novel opens with a prologue in which we see a werewolf tearing up the Eastern Europe countryside in the 1800s; from here we learn of the Spirit of the Wolf, and so we’re not surprised that Harvey is going to become its next vessel.

Meanwhile Robbins introduces us to a large group of characters. These will be the heroes of the tale, and Robbins is a good horror author in that he doesn’t show any favoritism when it comes to the killing. The Ocean City police force contributes the largest group of characters, in particular attractive, young Leta Ballinger, who is dating Earl Patterson, a sergeant on the force; Leta patrols with Charlene Winslow, the other hot cop on the force. Then there’s Lt. Russ Gilson, who twelve years before was the partner of Harvey Painter’s father (and who blames himself for not being there to save his friend – something for which Harvey blames “Uncle Russ,” as well).

There are other police characters to keep up with, like Chief Watson and Dr. Myrna Kraft (a consulting psychiatrist who coins the term “wereling,” which is a combo of “werewolf” and “changeling”), but outside of that world we have more characters besides. Like Allan Baxter, a 20-year-old tracker who reluctantly comes to Ocean City for one last vacation with his parents. There’s also Warren Mckeen, a radio reporter from Atlantic City who is looking for a ticket to the big leagues, and thinks he’s found it with this “Ocean City werewolf” story.

Robbins takes all these characters and more and lets them simmer – luckily, despite being 336 pages the novel doesn’t come off as very padded. And things get pretty fun when Harvey receives his werewolf costume. Having bought it just because he’s obsessed with werewolves, Harvey only later realizes that he can use the costume in a war of terror against the “trespassers” at the Dunes; he figures if he scares enough people, word will get out that a werewolf haunts the area, and people will stay away.

Given that Harvey’s costume only covers his head, hands, and feet, I guess we’re to take it that his werewolf look is more along the lines of Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man or Michael Landon in I Was A Teenage Werewolf (or even Benicio Del Toro in the 2010 Wolfman). In other words, the werewolf of this novel isn’t the hulking, bear-like creature of An American Werewolf In London or the long-forgotten ‘80s Fox TV series Werewolf. Even when the Spirit of the Wolf fully takes over Harvey, later in the novel, he’s still just a human in a werewolf mask, gloves, and shoes.

Harvey’s initial acts are goofy fun, scaring random tourists and locals who pass by the Dunes at night. People call the cops to report the incidents, most of them flat-out calling the attacking thing a werewolf, but of course the cops don’t believe it. Gradually Harvey’s pranks become more violent, culminating in an attack on a gang of bikers who come by the Dunes after the brother of one of them was ambushed by Harvey one night. The werewolf hurls bikers left and right and ends up nearly killing one of them. Now the police are actively on the case.

A problem here is that Harvey becomes less of a presence in the novel. Robbins occasionally brings him back into the fold, but his possession by the Spirit of the Wolf could’ve been played out more, or at least more elaborated on. But it would’ve been nice to see him the morning after more of these attacks; as it is, Robbins keeps our glimpses into Harvey’s psyche rather limited, with him waking up in his room with no recollection of coming home, indeed remembering nothing after putting on his werewolf costume. We also learn that he suffers from bad headaches, and when brushing his teeth in the morning he spits out stuff that looks like meat.

When the cops get on the case, their solution is total ‘80s horror movie: have the two hot cops on the force waltz around the Dunes all night as bait! The novel kicks in gear at this point, with the werewolf ripping up Leta and killing Charlene. I should note here that The Wereling isn’t particularly gory; though Harvey the werewolf tears up several people, Robbins doesn’t provide too much graphic detail. It is though a disturbing touch when later the coroner reports that Charlene’s throat was torn open by human teeth!

While Leta recuperates, Robbins shifts focus over to reporter Warren Mckeen, who witnessed the attack on the bikers and broke the story, much to the chagrin of the Ocean City police force. Trying to get a job with a prestigous news corporation, Warren makes the werewolf story his life, and with a total lack of self-concern starts wandering around the Dunes each night. But the heat’s picked up and the werwolf isn’t coming around. But when Warren checks out similarly-remote areas of Ocean City, he runs into the creature, only saved when he falls into the water. For some reason the werewolf appears to fear the little lake, and runs away, and Robbins never explains why.

Warren strikes gold when he finds an abandoned checkbook in the field; he assumes it can only be the werewolf’s(!), and thus he is the first person to discover that the werewolf is Harvey Painter. Rather than report him to the police, Warren eventually decides he’d like to interview Harvey – and he gets his interview, though not in the way he’d expect. In one of those stupid moves only possible in the horror genre, Warren stakes out Harvey’s home and then enters it when he sees the muscle-bound recluse leave one afternoon.

I should mention that meanwhile we’ve finally gotten a few more glimpses into Harvey’s mind, in particular his revelation that something else is controlling him. However, he seems a little too blas√© about it. Robbins does provide some melodramatic spark with the payoff of Harvey’s strange relationship with his mother; after taking enough of her shit, Harvey taunts her with her impending death, puts on the werewolf costume, and rips her throat out (another hallmark from the Chaney, Jr. Wolf Man, who too always went for the throats of his victims).

While the novel is a little busy with characters, as mentioned Robbins shows no reluctance in offing many of them. Some of these kills are fun in the hoped-for B movie sort of way, like Warren’s “interview with the werewolf,” in which our stubborn reporter gets more of a scoop than he bargained for. As the novel goes on, the werewolf sightings become more frequent, culminating in a July 4th assault on the Boardwalk, in which the monster runs amok, tearing apart tourists – another fun, B movie sort of scene, featuring a tourist family with a nervous wife and an overbearing husband who insists “the werewolf will never attack us!

In fact this stuff makes you wish the werewolf was more active earlier in the novel. But it isn’t until well past page 200 that Robbins really amps up the horror action. My favorite bit is the old widower who goes out on the now-deserted beach with his metal detector, and of course takes a nap! When the werewolf comes after him as expected, Robbins really plays it out, with the creature right at the old dude’s heels, and the guy refusing to turn around and look at it as he keeps hurrying away from the beach. But many of these kills aren’t just of random characters; another memorable incident has “Uncle Russ” visiting the Painter home to see what’s going on. Like Warren the reporter, he finds a lot more than he bargained for.

Things pick up more and more as the novel progresses, but Robbins is a little guilty of some repetition, with frequent scenes of Chief Watson sitting around with Officer Grout and discussing stuff we’ve already seen happen. Also, Leta sort of drops out of the narrative, only to be reinserted at the very end to play the hero (in what is admittedly a very fitting payoff). Same goes for young Allan Baxter, who shows up in the final twenty pages or so, offers Chief Watson his tracking abilities, and uses them to hunt the werewolf after his latest kill.

This is a fine finale, with the cops following along after Allan, who grows increasingly desperate as a storm closes in; once it hits, the fresh werewolf tracks will be lost. An unfortunate thing about The Wereling is that it doesn’t deliver on some of the payoffs you want to see, and also that Robbins decides to cut away from the action at times and stop right when things are picking up, only for the reader to find out what happened via dialog between characters after the event. The same sort of holds true for the finale, with Allan following the tracks to the Painter home, and Leta and a fellow cop rushing into the blackened house.

But Robbins doesn’t tell us what happens in there, leaving the perspective with Allan, who of course finds himself alone against the werewolf. As for Harvey himself, he’s long gone from the narrative at this point, and I guess we’re to assume that the Spirit of the Wolf is in full control of his body. Again, it would’ve been nice to have seen more of his inner turmoil, if there even was any – in other words, this is no An American Werewolf In London, with Harvey worrying over what he has become.

Despite not paying off several of the promised plot points, Robbins does deliver an effective finale, with the werewolf attacking Allan and Leta in the darkened Painter home, all while a storm rages outside. I’ve forgotten to mention that Harvey, early in the book, came across his dad’s old bulletproof vest, which somehow ends up protecting him from .357 Magnum rounds; however, the vest does not extend to his head, something which is displayed in a very satisfactory sendoff for the werewolf.

Robbins has a definite understanding of horror pulp writing; his prose is fast-moving and economical, and he doesn’t try to wow us with fancy word-spinning. If I had any criticism it would mainly be of his use of dialog modifiers; characters are always “quipping” or “stating,” with the much-better (and less distracting) “said” rarely being used. Also, per the genre norm, Robbins tends to POV-hop, with perspectives changing between paragraphs without any white space to notify the reader of this perspective switch, but what the hell; I’m getting used to it. And as mentioned, he could’ve exploited the sex and violence a little more; as it is, there’s none of the former and not enough of the latter.

But overall, I found The Wereling to be very entertaining; I blew through it in no time. It’s a very readable tale, and Robbins keeps you wanting to know what happens next. I’ve picked up more of his horror novels, and will likely make Spectre the next one I read; that one in particular is supposed to be quite gory, which is always a good thing so far as ‘80s horror paperbacks are concerned.


Anonymous said...

I like Robbins earlier novels. As you get to the late 80's his books show the strain of producing at such a rapid clip.

As a suggestion, you should try William Schoell and Richard Laymon, both horror writers who know how to kick the pulp levels to 11...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Eric. Also, thanks for the recommendations! I don't have any Laymon books, but I have most of Schoell's horror novels. I just haven't read any of them yet -- I've been thinking I might go with "Saurian." I tried to read "Spawn of Hell" the other year, but got stuck in the overly-melodramatic love story between the starving cartoonist and the ultra-hot fashion model...!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the Leisure horror novels of this period often seemed stretched to fulfill a higher word count, Schoell included

I'sd be happy to send you some Richard Laymon novels if you'd like.

Felicity Walker said...

I fondly remember the 1980s Fox network Werewolf show! In fact, when you wrote that the werewolf costume was just head, hands, and feet, and not full-body, I immediately thought, “Ah, so not like the costume from Werewolf!” ☻