Author post: Stephen Graham Jones on Mongrels

Today sees the ebook release of Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels, a spellbinding tale of a family of werewolves, living on the fringes of society. Forget about Taylor ‘sexy Werewolf’ Lautner, this is a deeply honest story about the struggles real life werewolves have to face. 

Here, Stephen talks us through the origins of the story and the things that sparked the idea into his mind…


For a couple of my novels, I can play arson investigator, and go back, dig through, identify a single point of origin. For one it’s a photograph I saw on a bulletin board. For another it’s a three-wheeler wreck. For Mongrels, though—that fire seems to have started all over the house, all at once:

– Me in the early eighties. I’d guess I’m about twelve here, so that puts me at about 1984. Twelve is how old you are when all the magic things happen, isn’t it? =And the magic here is a VHS rental. What’s important to understand is that this is a friend’s house. We wouldn’t have a VCR for years yet. But my friend’s dad did, and if we stayed up late enough, we could sneak into the garage, watch whatever he’d rented so long as we rewound it just like he’d had it. He’d rented The Howling this Friday night. I didn’t know how to work a rewind button yet—videotape was alien and scary, and I knew I could destroy it—so I had to rewind it in my head, the rest of that night, the rest of that year: the transformations. These people turning into werewolves. I was hooked. The kind of hooked that, there, in that movie, I saw my future. I wanted to be a werewolf. First stop was the bookshelf, of course, for any tried and true methods. After that, there’s me, drinking from what I could pretend were wolf prints. There’s me, twelve, thirteen years old, stripping off my clothes in the moonlight. There’s me, wanting this so badly. And here’s me, still waiting. Having to write myself there instead.

Me all through those eighties, living just like these werewolves in Mongrels. How do you know a werewolf? They’re the ones driving the four-door, older sedan, the one sitting too heavy on its springs. The one with cardboard boxes stacked in every part of it, because these werewolves, these people, they’re always moving on, are always going to the next place. Back then, you carried your school records from place to place. I’ve always kind of thought that being pre-digital like that, it’s where I became a writer. Carrying your records, I mean, that means you can edit those records. I changed my name, tried on different personas, became different characters, place after place. And—you know the old joke that novelists, writers, we’re never really at the party, but more watching it instead? I wonder if that doesn’t start for a lot of us by being the new kid at school after school, always kind of drifting around at the edges, trying to figure how this big machine works, this time out. Then, after a while, you just stay there, don’t you? At the edges. Not at the party, but watching it. Werewolves, they’re always padding around at the edge of the light. They’re always looking for scraps. And they run away the first time they catch a little attention. This is a life I know. You won’t see me at many parties.

Ever since the eighties, I’ve been mainlining every werewolf comic book, short story, novel, movie, and action figure I could luck onto. The werewolf, I figured out, is everywhere—some go on four feet, some on two. Some bites infect, some just kill. Silver works here, doesn’t work there. The moon matters, the moon doesn’t. And all of this means that the werewolf is alive in our literature. That it’s always changing— too fast for us to try to nail it down with our puny human rules. All the same, though, encounter enough werewolves, and you come away with some preferences. And what I realized was that, for a creature to be proper-scary, it had to be kind of real. For me, that means the creature needs to make some sort of sense, that magic couldn’t explain its biology. So I began to sketch out my ideal werewolf. It would have to obey conservation of mass. An average size person simply wouldn’t have the body weight to become a nine-foot monster, right? And I thought silver was important, too. All good monsters have an Achilles heel of some sort, something that undoes all the unfair advantages they have against us. The moon, though, that’s never made sense to me. Wouldn’t a quarter-moon turn you partway into a werewolf, then? And, what’s the actual difference in sunlight and reflected sunlight? What does a human stomach do with what-all the wolf’s eaten the night before? The list goes on and on—most of it’s in Mongrels, right down to birthing processes.

Where it all landed me was 1941. Werewolves don’t start there, with The Wolf Man, of course. But The Wolf Man is a bottleneck, a rebirth, a codification. And a pretty great one at that. Watch it closely next time. Note how that first werewolf, Bela Lugosi wolfs completely out, into a four-footed wolf. Right? But then, Lon Chaney, Jr. only wolfs him out half the way. It leaves him a true monster: half-man, half-wolf. Instead of explaining this away as the limited special effects of 1941, I instead took it as a model. What if there were family wolves, werewolves born into this? They could wolf out, I figured, and still keep some of their mind. But, should they bite someone, that person could only get as far as Lon Chaney did: a wolf-head, wolf paws, wolf feet, all Frankensteined together on a human body. Those are the werewolves we should feel sorry for. The real werewolves? You never get a chance to feel for them. First, you never see them, but second, should you see them, you’re not going to get the chance to tell anyone. Which is a lesson I take more from Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen, another prime text for me.

A couple years ago, I was re-reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Reading this culture as that animal, that culture as those other animals, it’s all in good fun, but also not, and at precisely the right times. Still, when the narrator’s story is happening in eighties America, and Americans are these big floppy-eared dogs—which felt pretty right—I closed the book, kind of wondering what would I be, then? I’m Blackfeet. Native. American Indian. And this cued up an old episode of CHiPs I’d seen, in those formative eighties. It’s the episode where these two heartthrob highway patrolman are on the trail of some crimes that seem to involve a wolf. Only, instead of a wolf, Ponch and Jon keep seeing this Indian guy hanging around at the edge of things. And then, near the end, there’s some generic flute music, and where this Indian guy was standing, there’s now a wolf, and we all go “wow”. But that’s how we’re always drawn, isn’t it? With wolf heads. Check any truckstop. Every third shirt has it. Every second blanket. And I suspect people do it out of some… I don’t know… respect? Now that they’re not at their front door, people generally like wolves. The problem, though is all the bounties on wolves. Its the wolf’s endangered status. I don’t at all mean to say Art Spiegelman would have been careless enough to draw us like that, had we been that hitchhiker at the end of Maus. I do mean to say that that’s how we always get drawn, though. So, instead of waiting for it to happen again and again, I figured I’d just do it myself, as right as I could. Write my own werewolf novel, and try to make those wolves so real that people couldn’t look away.

There are more points of origin, too. Professor Lupin would be one. Of every werewolf I’ve seen on-screen, he’s my favorite. He looks like I imagine Strieber’s wolfen to look. But Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine would be another. The way she renders family, it’s like you’re part of it. And, for actual trigger point? I had a werewolf story due for an anthology, and wrote it last-minute, turned it in, but found that I wasn’t actually done with those werewolves. So now there’s Mongrels, which is hardly done with me.

And, as it turns out—no planning, here, just luck—Mongrels is coming out on The Wolf Man’s 75th anniversary. Kind of fitting, as that one movie infected a whole century, and beyond. It forever infected me, anyway. The best part of me, it’s still out there howling at the moon. It’s still waiting naked out in the trees, to transform into something faster, something with teeth.

There’s a lot of us waiting, I think.

Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels is out on 19th May

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