I'm reading through several best of/scariest horror lists with a couple friends, M.B. Partlow and DeAnna Knippling. You can read more about this challenge and the books on it here. The first book I did was Drawing Blood, by Poppy Z. Brite. The second book I read was The Wolf's Hour by Robert R. McCammon.
I don't understand why this is considered horror. It struck me more as a thriller with paranormal elements. Basically, it's James Bond if 007 were a werewolf. It's set during WWII. Secretly Russian Michael Gallatin is working for the British, and we find in an action sequence in the beginning that he's a werewolf, tasked with getting information from behind enemy lines. He's soon sucked into a bigger, tougher mission, contacting a man who is part of the underground rebellion in France to get information he's concealing. But getting into France is tricky if you aren't a Nazi, and this man is being watched, because the Nazis are aware he has this information and is trying to get it to the underground.
Much like Bond, Gallatin has good luck with the ladies, despite occasionally smelling like a wet dog. He's big, he's hairy, he's tough, and he's in control. He is determined to stop a mystery assault against the Allies, but with only a little information to go on, he first has to go through many adventures.
There were violently chilling moments, such as when Boots (think Jaws, but with big metal boots instead of teeth) stomps someone to death. Another moment that stuck out to me was when Gallatin was making an escape with a dead man locked around his throat, dragging him down. Yet another involving one man hunting another. But to me, these elements didn't make it horror. And, of course, there are elements of WWII and the Holocaust that are real-life horrific, but even these didn't make this particular story horror. Maybe it's just because he's a werewolf.
There's a parallel story line through much of the book that gives us his origin story. It bounces back and forth between his origins as a werewolf and his current mission. His origin story doesn't stay restricted to that, though, sporting a separate set of conflicts from the main premise of the story.
One note on writing style I need to throw out is the prevalence of head hopping in this book. I don't know if that's typical of McCammon's style, as I haven't read any of his other books yet, but I swear we hopped into the heads of most characters, even characters who were just in a brief scene. It might leap between three people in three paragraphs. While it was almost always immediately clear whose head we were in, this began to get to me during my reading. Would I have noticed it if it wasn't so pounded into writers' heads that head hopping is a no-no? I have no idea. All I know is that it was bothersome to me through the course of my reading.
The first two books I've read have made me wonder if I have the wrong idea of what defines horror. What's the purpose of horror? To scare you? To make you think about something that disturbs you? The Horror Writers Association defines it as such: "Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as "a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay." It stands to reason then that "horror fiction" is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader." (There's much more to their description, which you can read here.) Wikipedia quotes J.A. Cuddon as saying horror is "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing."
The problem is, there are a lot of things that can cause fear, loathing, dread, and dismay that don't get classified as horror. Since it's part of this book, what about the Holocaust? Anything I read about it makes me feel all of the above, despite being nonfiction, not horror.
So is it the purposeful attempt to make the reader feel that way? When someone writes about a real life serial killer, are they merely trying to educate, or do they also want to illicit your visceral reactions? What separates that from horror then? The fact that it's real life? Can horror only be fiction?
Obviously, I don't have any big answers for this. But there wasn't an aspect to The Wolf's Hour that I found to be horror. I liked the story. It was well written, though the head hopping was a distraction for me. The characters were engaging and interesting. The pacing was well done, not so frenetic that it wears out the reader, but not slow either. The story line was solid if you like espionage, intrigue, and action. If you're a James Bond fan, you'll like this. But if you're sitting down to read something to freak you out, I wouldn't recommend it. Not for that purpose. Read it because you want a story of a werewolf helping the Allies against the Nazi forces, but not because you think it will give you the late night willies.
Next up for me is The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron.
Have you read The Wolf's Hour or other books by Robert McCammon? I'm looking forward to his Swan Song, which is also on the list. What did you think? Has the list given you any ideas?
May you find your Muse.