My feelings toward dogs are pretty uncomplicated: I have loved them always. Our, and I mean humanity’s, relationship with dogs is old and maybe a little more complicated than pure love, but we are probably hopelessly bonded for the rest of time.
How close is that bond? Sometimes it’s so close that we turn into each other. I don’t mean how you think to yourself how much Darlene down the street resembles her poodle—how they seem to visit the same hair stylist and request the same permanent, and even have the same sharp nose and vacant dark eyes and seem high strung enough to probably see the same therapist. No, not that kind of turning into each other over time, which seems a quite natural stage of pet ownership. I mean the other kind. Yeah, that kind.
The werewolf kind.
Okay, werewolves probably aren’t real, although there is a legit psychological disorder for it, which means that at least one person was thought to have a legit case of it. (What.) But, man, stories about them are just the best, aren’t they? If you know me or have read things I have written you know how I feel about metaphors, and when we tell stories about transforming into a savage animal by the light of the full moon…well, there is nothing psychologically telling going on there at all, now is there?
Werewolf legends span all the way back to 1985, a pretty baller year for Michael J. Fox, who not only got his mom and dad to fall in love at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance before coming back to the future, he also became a literal baller in the not very metaphorical Teen Wolf. Look, the movie is awesome, and it is one of those movies that seemed to be in TNTs permanent rotation (along with Dumb and Dumber, The Shawshank Redemption, and the James Bond movie where he skis in front of a blue screen for what feels like eighteen years, which I hope is called Coldfinger but I can’t be sure).
Anyway, I saw Teen Wolf often and I saw it early enough in my werewolf viewing career that it sort of set the pace for all subsequent werewolf movies. I thought Scott Howard (which sounds a little like howler, don’t you think?) (see also: subtlety) was the original. Forget the centuries of legends and the awesome 50s classics like I Was A Teenaged Werewolf, which I think might have starred Michael Landon—can you imagine sharing a little house on the prairie with a dad who ate all the livestock once a month? That would make for one long, long winter and a slightly improved book series for young readers. For my part, lycanthropy began with poor Scott Howard, though my pity on him didn’t last very long because it worked out in his favor.
Being a werewolf usually sucks. You can’t control it, you can’t prevent it, you can’t even really remember it. All you get is a torn up flannel shirt, a mouthful of crusty blood and a lot of hours hoping that taste didn’t used to be your neighbor. If that wasn’t enough, sometimes the transformation appears to be painful as your bones and sinews shift and your legs get that weird joint that lets you run on all fours.
If that all wasn’t bad enough for—if you are still hungry for a little further suffering—the local villagers and devout Christians probably would like you put to sleep, and the only medicine the vet carries that will do the trick is a projectile made of silver. Nice.
If that still isn’t bad enough…I don’t know. I guess I’m out of bad things. But the whole deal is a little on bum side.
But is there a silver lining? One that cannot be melted down to a .38 slug and launched between the suffering eyes of a monster who just wants a midnight snack that happens to be your leg? Maybe there is.
I like werewolves, and there are a few that deserve to be liked, beyond Teen Wolf. If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you probably have picked out a character that kind of reminds you of yourself. Maybe you picked Hermione, because you’re clever and plucky and fiercely loyal. Maybe you picked Severus Snape because you are wounded, buckling under the weight of mistakes and regret, and are just trying to do the right thing. Maybe you picked Dobby because people generally can’t stand you until you tragically die.
The character in which I saw a bit of myself was Remus Lupin. You probably can’t tell from his name (see also: more subtlety) but he’s a werewolf.
But that doesn’t seem like fair way to put that. He’s a quiet but compassionate soul with some serious shame issues. For a moment, for the sake of this essay, let’s assume werewolves are a metaphor. And let us make the huge leap to connect it to depression—the black dog, as some have called it. And let us pause for a moment to think about all the quiet but compassionate people who have begged for a cure, be it a silver bullet or monthly dose of wolfsbane to keep that beast on its chain.
There was a time when all my closest pals were werewolves.
In 1995 at a slumber party in my basement, my friends and I discovered the surest way to make us cool once and for all, which also involved werewolves—a roleplaying game called Werewolf (see also: even more subtlety): The Apocalypse.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse is a game that could only have happened in the 1990s. The premise, in its most basic form, is this: the earth has a spirit and that spirit has been made sick by corruption, by pollution, and by whatever seeks to destroy nature. In order to protect itself, the spirit of the earth and the spirit of the moon put their heads together and whipped up a breed that could watch over it and protect it—boom, werewolves.
So they’re, like, New Age eco-terrorists that are nine feet tall, have claws, and not great attitudes toward the way most people treat the planet. (See also: probably seven hundred hours if time spent playing this game, because how could we not love that instantly? We were defenseless against its awesomeness.) Werewolf was a fun way to use our imaginations, and incidentally, almost the whole bunch of us became actors at some point.
The creators of the game played their share of Dungeons and Dragons, but felt like the over complicated dice rolling systems interrupted the true purpose of the game—the emotional stakes. So they designed a bunch of games devoted more to the story than to the dice, and they made one for just about every variety of young adult outcast you can think of. Forgive my crude pigeon holing here, which I’ve done for the sake of simplicity. The goth kids had Vampire: The Masquerade. The art kids had Changeling: The Dreaming. The kids who watched The Crow one too many times kids (see also: your narrator) had Wraith: The Oblivion. The New Age kids had Mage: The Ascension. And we had Werewolf.
So who were we, we happy few? Well. We were not complex enough to handle the nuances of Changeling, though we tried (and bombed miserably, but it’s a really cool game about creativity and I wish we would have tried harder). We settled for the more obvious violence instead. We were interested in myth, in heroism, in finding a place in a pack, and finding your pack’s place in the tribe. We had senses of humor but were each perhaps a little wounded. And we were nearing the end of our childhood—we were in a sense preparing for our own Apocalypse. Maybe this game was our final dramatic confrontation, one we surely couldn’t win.
I’m sure there are kids from all social circles, or kids who had to invent their own because the didn’t fit into the ones I mentioned, and I’m sure they all played whatever game they liked for their own reasons.
We loved that game. We loved sitting around someone’s bedroom floor until 2:30 in the morning. We loved how the Storyteller (this game’s version dungeon master) would stall because they weren’t sure what would happen next, and as we inevitably peered around imagined corners checking for imagined enemies, several real time minutes might pass, but we didn’t care. It was the witching hour, and we had nowhere to be but adulthood. And that could wait.
This is also maybe the clearest way to describe how I see the world. The world of the game is a world rich with spirits—literal spirits that inhabit a world close enough to our own to touch it, but separated by a thin veil. Werewolves can step through that veil and enter that spirit world, called the Umbra. In the Umbra, nearly every object, place, even idea is anthropomorphized into a living spirit. For example, you might be traipsing along on your adventure and have a conversation with an abandoned street who has made itself look desolate and scary in order to keep people out in order protect something nearby. You might be walking through a field in the spirit world and cross paths with Grain, a buxom auburn-headed woman who likes breaking bread and sharing pints and sharing stories with people she meets. You might meet a bird spirit that can teach you a song that will someday sooth a savage beast trying to hurt you. Any of these things could happen, because you were seeing the true core of life—the hidden meaning within the thing.
That’s where I tend to drift to when I’m relaxed. To me, the world is a costume, a veil perhaps, and I’m more interested in what it’s covering—the spirit idea at its center.
That may not make complete sense; I’m still making sense of it myself.
I picked up my old Werewolf: The Apocalypse rule book, and paging through it feels as familiar to me as coming back to your home town, hopping on your bike and finding you still know the streets by heart. Also, most sections begin with a quote from a song or a poem or story, and I’ve found most of them to be even better than I remember. For example, the chapter on being the Storyteller is something I would consider getting tattooed on me:
“Bow down; I am the emperor of dreams.”
—Clark Ashton Smith, “The Hashish Eater”
I hope that’s what I get to do with my life someday. I hope I get to build dream empires for people to read and enjoy.
For this week’s dedicated time to something I love, I re-read other chapters in that old Werewolf book, and I sure enjoyed them, too.