Wolfsbane, by William W. Johnstone
March, 1987 Zebra Books
(Original Zebra edition 1982)
Yet another thick horror paperback courtesy the prolific William W. Johnstone, Wolfsbane was first published in 1982; shown here is the cover of the 1987 reprint, which I lifted from Too Much Horror Fiction (where you can also see the original cover). I can’t make out the artist signature, but this cover, while super cool (and embossed in true ‘80s horror paperback style), has no relation to the story itself. This one is Johnstone’s take on werewolves, but don’t go into Wolfsbane expecting a typical werewolf tale.
Instead, expect Johnstone’s typical horror novel plot: Satan comes to Smalltown USA in the 1980s. (I grew up in Smalltown USA in the 1980s, and trust me, Satan would’ve gotten bored quick.) Actually, Wolfsbane takes place in 1976, though the “shock twist” finale occurs in 1981. Otherwise it’s the same as the other Johnstone horror novels I’ve read, with the caveat that Wolfsbane isn’t nearly as twisted, perverted, or downright great as The Nursery. But on the other hand, it’s definitely better – which is to say sleazier – than Toy Cemetery. It just isn’t as sleazy as The Nursery.
I say this is a werewolf novel, and technically it is, but Johnstone rarely uses the word in the book; instead he calls them “loup garous,” given that the novel takes place in Louisiana. But man, these creatures, when they do appear in the book (which honestly isn’t all that often), are hardly even described. Johsntone’s powers of description fail him greatly when it comes to the creature feature material; about the most we get is that the beasts are hairy and have hideous faces. Most of the time they appear in shadows, and there are other monsters besides the werewolves, like a witch and a horde of things that try to attack the protagonist during a memorable if brief sequence in the finale. None of them are much described.
Otherwise, Wolfsbane was a lot better than I expected it would be. For the first hundred pages or so I was thinking to myself that it was a fine novel, with little of the rampant exposition or page-filling of Johnstone’s other novels. Unfortunately though, the book kept going. In fact, it kept going to almost 300 pages, and by novel’s end all that exposition and page-filling was out in full force. The novel actually got to be humorous with the lame page-filling, with interminable stalling in the third half as the hero, Pat Strange, incessantly traded barbed dialog with the villain, 90 year-old witch Madame Bauterre. That said, Wolfsbane does not feature any of Johnstone’s right wing sermonizing, but to tell the truth I wouldn’t have minded much if it did. In fact that was just the extra icing on the cake in The Nursery, which is seeming more like the William W. Johnstone horror novel that has it all.
The opening seems to be inspired by the old Universal horror classics, with a werewolf loose in the bayou hamlet of Ducross Parish, in 1934. The werewolf is taken down by the townsfolk and the human corpse immolated and sealed up so that the creature will never rise again. Then the guy’s wife and children are kicked out of town. We move then to 1976, and that wife, the aforementioned Madame Bauterre, has returned to Ducross Parish. She will be the prime villain of Wolfsbane, a 90-something crone of pure evil…one who indulges in a few super explicit sex scenes that are actually stomach-churning. Johnstone clearly seems to be chortling to himself as he details, in graphic detail, M. Bauterre’s rape of a few captured men in the novel…it’s sleazy stuff for sure, but just extremely gross, with lots of detail about the old witch’s various, uh, “dry” bodyparts.
But it wouldn’t be a horror PBO without a hotstuff heroine, and she comes in the form of Janette Bauterre Simmons, granddaughter of M. Bauterre and widow of a ‘Nam special forces commander. Janette seems to be the main protagonist as the novel starts, and I thought Johnstone for once was going to get away from his traditional “Vietnam vet badass” hero. But I was wrong, as Pat Strange – a Vietnam vet badass – is the true hero of the tale. Janette is atypical of the usual Johnstone heroine, though, or at least unlike the ones in the other Johnstone novels I’ve read: she’s determined, brave, and follows her own path. She sets the events in motion, deciding to visit her grandmother in Louisiana despite M. Bauterre’s order not to – and Janette soon figures there is some crazy stuff going on.
Given the bayou setting, be prepared for a lot of hamfisted “accented dialog” stuff; ie “you rat” instead of “you’re right” and “lak” instead of “like.” Luckily neither Pat nor Janette speak this way, so we only have to endure this when it comes to a few minor characters. The opening has you prepared for the worst, though, with a lot of Ducross Parish locals gawking at the returned Madame Bauterre and going over the events of 1934. The only local character who has more of a part in the novel is Sheriff Edan Vallot, and Johnstone pulls an interesting trick here in that Vallot, the cop, is actually more believing of the supernatural than Pat Strange is.
As for Pat, he’s of a piece with other Johnstone protagonists: yet another professional soldier in his 40s who is chosen to become God’s Warrior. It’s goofy but fun as Pat, when introduced, is gone to fat and living in a shack in South Carolina, having recently given up his warring ways. But for reasons he can’t comprehend, Pat abruptly stops drinking and begins working out and running ten miles a day(!), to the point that he’s a fit fighting machine when Janette shows up at his door one day. Of course, “God Himself” has chosen Pat to be “His Warrior,” to fight Satan in this latest installment of the “game” the two beings engage in.
Oh and that’s another thing. Wolfsbane answers a question I’ve wondered about for a while: whether William W. Johnstone had a sense of humor. He clearly did, because there is a lot of humor in the novel; tortured, unfunny humor, but an attempt at humor nonetheles. This is mostly relayed via none other than Satan himself, who often appears (via his voice only) in the final third of the novel…and starts talking about his love of baseball! The devil’s voice comes from a “bubbling” section of the bayou and makes sarcastic comments throughout the novel’s climax, disparaging “Him” and taunting Pat. It’s all more goofy than actually funny, yet at the same time it could be evidence that Johnstone realizes his repetitive horror plots are shit and he himself doesn’t take them seriously. I mean folks the devil at one point actually says to Pat, “Who do you think I am, Barbara Streisand?”
But the unintentional humor is more prevalent. As mentioned the book becomes almost tiresome in the second half with the egregious stalling. Actually this starts off even in the first half; Janette, in Paris, is attacked by a werewolf in her grandmother’s study, actually sees the beast revert to human form after being shot by a guard, and yet spends the next several chapters wondering if there is “more going on” with her grandmother. So Janette goes to Ducross Parish, where M. Bauterre bluntly tells Janette she should leave, but Janette stays behind, suspecting something is going on (remember, she was attacked by a friggin’ werewolf), and she even goes to the lengths of getting a nightvision camera so she can take photos of the hairy beasts that congregate in the courtyard at night.
And all along her grandmother keeps appearing to her, telling her to leave, etc. It’s tiresome but only a taste of the tiresome events that will ensue. Pat comes into it because Janette just happens to come across an old letter from her deceased husband, the Special Forces commander, which mentions Pat Strange – and yes, Janette’s husband was indeed Pat’s commanding officer! All this is just the work of God, of course! So Janette goes down to find Pat Strange in his South Carolina shack…and the two immediately start screaming at each other…which of course leads to one of Johnstone’s OTT sex scenes. Again, not nearly as OTT as when the hero first had sex with his girlfriend in The Nursery (a scene which featured such unforgettable dialog as, “I want to suck you, Mike. I want to suck your cock.”), but still pretty OTT, with dialog like, “It’s called doggy style,” and “Cum with me!” And yes, it’s spelled that way, same as in The Nursery.
Actually the two go at it all night long and into the next day, there in Pat’s shack, which doesn’t even have indoor plumbing. Johnstone leaves the ensuing boinkery mostly off-page, and only a stray mention of it here and there in the latter half of the novel, when Pat returns to Ducross Parish with Janette and stays with her in her room in M. Bauterre’s mansion. For Janette has brought Pat back with her as her guardian, and now it’s Pat’s turn to wonder if all those creeping shadows down in the courtyard are really werewolves and whatnot. Here the stalling hits us full force, as Madame Bauterre incessantly taunts Pat, only for Pat to taunt her back, the old woman getting angry at Pat’s uncouth language. It goes on and on, with “I could destroy you now, but I won’t” crap, only nothing happens, mostly because M. Bauterre is aware that Pat is “God’s Warrior,” thus he cannot be touched due to the rules of the “Game.”
Pat’s investigation entails lots of driving around Ducross Parish and meeting the locals, including an old witch-woman who lives in the swamp. Johnstone also brings in a “family” subplot in that warring dynasties are involved with the werewolves, but this too just comes off like more page-filling. The sad thing is it takes forever for anything to happen. A few corpses pile up, clearly werewolf victims, but we have the usual horror trope where no one wants to believe it was a werewolf who did the killing. Again though Johnstone subverts the usual by having the sheriff be the one who suspects werewolves, and not Pat, who keeps searching for rational reasons.
This too is another Johnstone schtick, the warrior chosen by God who not only isn’t religious but who also doesn’t believe in the supernatural. But also part of the schtick is God’s Warrior gradually coming to accept his lot – which of course means a finale in which he takes up a gun and shoots down a bunch of people. Oh I forgot, another Johnstone schtick is where the town is slowly corrupted by Satan, with the small group of heroes excised from the community; this happens so quickly and with such little setup and followthrough in Wolfsbane that it was actually humorous. But anyway, as God’s Warrior, Pat is able to gun down werewolves and such with nothing more than a shotgun and a “.41 mag.” Whereas the average person would need silver bullets or whatever, Pat’s divine blessing allows him to kill the creatures with regular bullets.
But man, any hopes of Pat going up against a host of creatures are quickly dashed. Johnstone blows through the action like he’s running out of space…and I guess he is, given that he’s spent the past 250-some pages stalling. Again, it’s nowhere near the craziness of The Nursery, where that “God’s Warrior” gunned down possessed teens with nary a concern. Instead here Pat heads onto Madame Bauterre’s grounds – after enjoying a quick snack on her lawn! – and is quickly shooting at zombies and werewolves and other assorted monsters, none of which are described. Johnstone also has that goofy quirk of referring to various characters Pat’s gunning down by their names, with no reminders, and the reader has no idea who the hell they are. So that too adds to the unintentional comedy.
The biggest miss here is the abovementioned part where Pat is chased by sundry monsters on the estate, but the description of them is vague at best. There was all kinds of opportunity here for true horror as Pat is chased by creepy crawlies across the estate. Also the final confrontation with M. Bauterre is a bit weak, with the old evil woman standing there patiently as Pat sets her up for a divine shotgun blast. But even worse is that Johnstone rushes through the monster-killing action, and instead goes for a “shock” finale where the devil plunges Pat into a deep sleep…and he wakes up on Halloween of 1981. Johnstone seems to be setting things up for a sequel, with Pat vowing to stay in Ducross Parish to ensure the devil never sets foot in it again, but I’m not sure if Johnstone ever wrote a sequel to Wolfsbane. It’s looking like he did not.
Overall though Wolfsbane wasn’t too bad. It had a lot of stalling and padding, but there was just enough of Johnstone’s typical goofiness to make it fun. I mean I know I’m supposed to say he’s a horrible writer and all, but I’d rather read something like this than “serious” horror fiction.