Monday, March 20, 2023

Mark Of The Werewolf

Mark Of The Werewolf, by Jeffrey Sackett
February, 1990  Bantam Books

Jeffrey Sackett published a handful of horror paperbacks in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; I have a few of them but Mark Of The Werewolf is the first I’ve read. I was looking for a good werewolf yarn and that’s what this one promised – that, and a cool-sounding plot about a group of neo-Nazis who hope to figure out how to create werewolves of their own and use them as a sort of super-army. 

Sounds like a great B movie-esque plot, but unfortunately it’s all squandered. What Mark Of The Werewolf is really about is immortality…and this too is squandered because the immortal can’t remember anything about his life. The reader must be prepared for some long-haul tedium as the majority of the novel turns into episodic flashbacks about this man’s life through the ages, almost coming off like short stories that have nothing to do with the novel itself. Werewolf action is scant, and when it does occur it too is squandered by some rather lifeless prose – in the action and horror stuff, at least. Otherwise Sackett is a good writer insofar as the character introspection goes; there’s just nothing whatsoever visceral about the horror sequences, and the violence is rendered in such blasé prose that it lacks any impact. 

Things start off okay, though, with enough in-jokey references that there’s no question Sackett is a fan of the classic Universal Monster franchise. For one we have character names like “William Henry Pratt,” which happens to have been the birth name of Boris Karloff. We also have the name “Hull,” as in Henry Hull of Werwolf Of London. The opening of the novel seems to pick up a few decades after The Wolfman; a group of Gypsies, including an old woman who is 100% based on Old Magda from that film (and its sequel), are rounded up in North Dakota, and among them is a haggard man all the other Gypsies seem to be afraid of. Of course he turns out to be a werewolf…not to mention the immortal mentioned above. His name is Janos Kaldy, and in a detour from the Universal classics he’s nothing like Larry Talbot…indeed, he will turn out to be someone else entirely, but by the time we learn this the novel has spiralled very far from this setup. 

And dammit, the setup is kind of cool. Sackett presents a sort of collapsed society; no year is mentioned, but it seems that Mark Of The Werewolf takes place in some “near future” in which an army of neo-Nazi thugs patrol the country, snatching non-whites and taking them back to a secret facility in North Dakota for imprisonment, torture, and death. Kaldy and the Gypsies are captured in the opening – but only after an effective scene in which Kaldy turns into a werewolf and makes quick work of the “whips,” ie the Nazi thugs. Yes, just like those hokey Universal classics, stuff always seems to be happening during a full moon, and that’s the case here. But Kaldy and his Gypsy minder Blasko are taken anyway…and they will spend the rest of the novel stuck within the Hulltech Center for Genetic Research. 

Here's where the tedium sets in. Janos Kaldy isn’t even our protagonist. That duty is sort of shared by a trio of characters: Bracher, the sadist in charge of the genetic experimentation and who hopes to ultimately create a werewolf army to conquer the planet for whites; Louisa, Bracher’s cousin and the voice of reason in the novel; and finally Neville, Louisa’s simpering loser of a husband, who happens to be a preacher…and a doctor capable of performing autopsies…and a psychiatrist capable of performing hypnosis-induced regression therapy. The novel flits between these three characters for the majority of its 300-page runtime; eventually we have another Hulltech doctor, Petra, a hotstuff brunette who has a burning yearning to kill werewolves, given that her parents were killed by a werewolf

But man, I italicized “cousin” above because I just couldn’t get over how flat-out lame the setup was; I mean Bracher’s this shitkicking sadist who was in the military and various black ops and CIA and other shit, and now he’s heading up this secret genetic research facility which has the ultimate aim of killing off all the non-white races…and the dude goes out looking for his friggin’ cousin who he used to argue with all the time when they were kids(!). Why? Uh, because her husband can do autopsies or something like that. It was just such a disconnect for me. And of course Bracher’s a total control obsessive in true Nazi fashion, and lords over everyone with an iron fist…yet he puts up with his cousin’s browbeating and arguing for the entire novel. 

That’s just the start of it, though. Around page 100 Neville, in the hopes of figuring out what makes Janos Kaldy tick, starts putting him under hypnosis. Now as mentioned, Kaldy lives among the Gypsies, but it soon becomes clear he’s only been with them a few decades…and his minder Blasko, now an old man, was a young father when Kaldy first appeared. (Oh, and Kaldy the werewolf killed Blasko’s wife and child, but Blasko’s forgiven him…) So Janos Kaldy cannot die. Absolutely nothing can kill him. This has been established in other werewolf yarns, but Jeffrey Sackett takes it into new dimensions: Janos Kaldy is immortal, if not eternal. But the helluva it is, folks, he’s lived so long that he can’t remember anything about his past

Imagine, if you can, the frustration of reading a novel about someone who has lived thousands of years but can’t even remember what his real name is – nor even how he became a werewolf! Mark Of The Werewolf is in some ways like a continuous kick to the crotch. You keep wanting a werewolf novel, but intsead it becomes a slog of episodic flashbacks to the ancient past. And a lot of these flashbacks are underwhelming. Like for example, it turns out that Kaldy at one point had a traveling companion named Claudia, who traveled with Kaldy for centuries. She too is a werewolf, cursed with immortality, and accuses Kaldy of making her a werewolf…though neither Claudia nor Kaldy are really sure, because even Claudia can’t friggin’ remember anything about her past. Well anyway, at one point in a flashback they’re in Hungary and tracking down none other than Dracula himself, and the whole scene is so damn stupid…Dracula talks like a pompous oaf, taunting the werewolves, then apropos of nothing turns himself into a werewolf when they themselves transform (per tradition, Kaldy and Claudia have come to see Dracula on the night of a full moon, dontcha know), and then Dracula flies off and is never mentioned again. 

We get flashbacks to ancient Rome, to the Biblical era (complete with walk-ons by such personages as Pontius Pilate – just the type of character you’d expect in a werewolf novel, right??), and further back to the origins of prehistory. Each sequence is yet another clue in how Janos Kaldy – or the man known now as Janos Kaldy – became a werewolf. Sackett ties in an apostasy angle here that also plays on the title of the novel. I felt it was a bit too much and really detracted from the mythos of lycanthropy, gussying it up way too much. The helluva it is, the non-flashback material is pretty cool; Bracher is a true sadist, using prisoners as unwilling test subjects for various serums Petra creates in order to turn people into werewolves. There are a lot of brutal parts here of poor people being pulled into an exam room by Whips and Petra jabbing them with a syringe and then everyone waiting expectantly for the results as the prisoner goes into paroxysms of unbearable pain. 

Other than the belabored “flashback to prehistory” setup, what really hampers Mark Of The Werewolf is that the writing lacks much bite, if you’ll pardon the lame pun. There is nothing visceral in any of the scenes that are supposed to be tense or scary; Sackett writes in an almost “blah” prose style that robs everything of impact. For example: 

If you didn’t pick it up, the above sequence detailed a werewolf chasing after a car full of people. And still being behind them even after they’ve been driving for “hours” (though supposedly all this takes place in a small town?). Yet it’s written in such blasé terms that Sackett just as well might be documenting something as mundane as a person crossing the street. 

Even more grandscale sequences lack any drive, like when two “good” werewolves take on the “bad” werewolves that have finally been created by Hulltech: 

Violence and tension are relayed in an almost offhand, casual fashion, almost giving the impression that you’re reading the outline of a more gripping novel. That really is what took me out of Mark Of The Werwolf. That, and the fact that the actual werewolf stuff was scant. Sackett is more concerned with the unending turmoil one experiences as an immortal than he is in writing a werewolf story; in this book the titular mark of the werewolf casts you into a millennia of suffering, longing for a death that you can never have. To the point that even fun pulp stuff is taken from us; Kaldy and Claudia, having lived so long, don’t even have libidos anymore. And Kaldy makes for a lame werewolf protagonist; he’s so clueless about his past that he comes off as a moron, which was surely unintentional on Sackett’s part. 

One thing Jeffrey Sackett is guilty of is one of the lamest “surprise reveals” I’ve yet read in a novel. No spoilers, but late in Mark Of The Werewolf we learn that a certain character is really someone else. But what makes it so stupid is that another of the characters knew this all along, yet never said anything. And when confronted with this he basically shrugs and says, “I had no reason to tell you that I knew.” Like I said, I won’t give anything away, but it’s just super, super lame. Also you might notice from the above two excerpts that Sackett has a tendency to render everything in summary. Endless sentences that spin out into forever – hey, sort of like Janos Kaldy’s life! While it might work with Sackett’s theme, it doesn’t work in horror fiction, at least horror fiction with the B-movie plot of neo-Nazis who want to create an army of werewolves. 

On the plus side, I did read the whole thing, if only to learn Kaldy’s origins. But as mentioned, I found the apostasy angle underwhelming. Actually I found the entire novel underwhelming. Bantam Books was fully onboard the Jeffrey Sackett train, though; Mark Of The Werewolf features a few pages of Sackett’s Blood Of The Impaler at the end, a Dracula riff that Will at Too Much Horror Fiction seemed to like about as much as I liked Mark Of The Werewolf. Not only that, but it even features a few pages from an untitled novel Sackett hadn’t even yet finished; looking online, it seems to be the novel that would be published in 1991 as The Demon.


Will Errickson said...

I will just never understand writers who come up with amazing ideas for their books and then just wander off while writing as if they've forgotten their central conceit. I don't know why you need to mix werewolves with Nazis or whatever. You point out "Violence and tension are relayed in an almost offhand, casual fashion, almost giving the impression that you’re reading the outline of a more gripping novel," and that is something I've read a lot of as well. Ugh.

I'd forgotten how I actually liked the ending to BLOOD OF THE IMPALER, all I recalled was of the novel was it being mostly amateur-hour despite, again, having a decent set-up.

Another great review, Joe! Sorry it was for such a dud.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey Will, thanks a lot for the comment! Yes, it is very puzzling how these authors fail to reap the potential of their own plots. But "werewolves meets Nazis" must have been a hot topic at the time...we've got that weird dream sequence in "An American Werewolf In London" and I also have a book by "Survivalist" author Jerry Ahern titled "WerewolveSS," with the SS bolts for the two Ss. I'm sure you are familiar with that one! Then there's also Robert McCammon's "Wolf's Hour," which I'm sure you also know about (I feel very stupid telling YOU about horror novels!!). That's one I wanted so badly to read back when it came out, but either I couldn't find it or I just couldn't get into it, I can't recall. I did just finally read a McCammon novel, "They Thirst," which I see you didn't like. I totally see your points but I liked least most of it. I think the main issue was that IT WASN'T A VAMPIRE NOVEL. In fact, the problem was that it couldn't figure out WHAT it was. A serial killer crime novel? An end-of-the-world disaster novel? A quest novel? It was all those things and more, and another issue was characters would just disappear after a lot of narrative buildup. Once I'm able to get my thoughts together -- damn that was a long novel -- I'll write a review, and link to yours in it!