The Howling (by Gary Brandner) [Narrated by Stephen Caffrey]

Karyn and Roy Beatty escape the big city for the quiet and solitude of the country. Karyn is recovering from a serious assault in which she lost their child, and her relations with her husband are understandably strained because of it. The small town of Drago initially appears just what they need, but there is something eerie in the woods, something that howls in the middle of the night, and no matter who Karyn asks no one has answers that can allay her fears.

As Karyn digs deeper into the oddness she feels in the town she discovers the possibility that the creature stalking the night might be something more unusual than a coyote or wild dog, and her fears are not softened by the aggression Roy begins to display. Increasingly isolated, Karyn discovers the identity of the howling creature, and finds herself alone against an age-old evil.

Most know The Howling from the 1981 movie directed by Joe Dante which is based on Brandner’s work. But if you have watched the movie and never read the book you are missing a substantial “alternative universe” version of the tale. Though the main plotline remains the same, there are multiple changes throughout the book. Most notably a change of career for the main protagonists, which alters a great deal of how the story affects the reader. In the book Karyn Beatty (Karen White in the movie, played by Dee Wallace) is not a TV celebrity but a housewife, and so she lacks any of the “clout” of her movie counterpart. 

For me this makes what happens to her far more affecting. Whereas in the movie Karen is pursuing the man who eventually attacks her, her book counterpart – Karyn – is the victim of a random attack. This changes what transpires considerably, as Karyn is far more vulnerable, and she does not have the weight of a TV network behind her when the truth is revealed to her.

The benefit of the movie version of the tale is that the graphic nature of the violence she suffers is reduced to a few moments of quick cut action. The book version of the character on the other hand suffers horrible abuse, and this in turn makes her husband’s behaviour later in the book far more unacceptable. The movie is essentially “softened” from the book, and this is probably a good idea, as the book has moments where a compassionate reader will be appalled at Roy’s behaviour.

The Howling is a dark tale, and not because of the werewolves stalking the night. It could be argued that the biggest transformation into a monster is not the lycanthropes, but Roy himself. After an encounter with a local woman he becomes drawn into a series of illicit encounters, and this draws him further from Karyn, eventually making his aggression towards her grow. It’s clear that a great deal of this is due to his own guilt, but it is also implied that this local woman has some kind of power over his behaviour, though this doesn’t soften the readers’ dislike of him. Not until the transformation is complete, at least, and we see the possessed Roy, the man who is now a beast who pines for his lost humanity.

Though The Howling is not a particularly complex book, from a storyline perspective, it is complex when it comes to character. As the reader moves through it the themes of domestic violence become more and more apparent, and the werewolves could be just a McGuffin to explore these problems.

I originally read The Howling back when I was a teenager, and I had forgotten how bleak much of it can be if the reader dwells on these points. I had seen it as a werewolf tale then, as it can be seen as now. But there is more going on in the book than that. The more serious themes may not be as well developed as they might have been, but for that I’m grateful – they are dark enough.

After re-reading the book I think – now – that there are two novels in one with Gary Brandner’s The Howling. There is a tale of werewolves hunting around a small town, and theres also a tale of growing domestic terror.

Originally I read The Howling in paperback, but this time I was offered an audiobook version of it from Encyclopocalypse Publications, and this may have also contributed to how differently The Howling now affects me as a reader. It is ably narrated by Stephen Caffrey who does minimal, though effective, “voices” with the characters that add depth. There was one point in the book where Roy mimics Karyn’s voice, and this moment was one that quite impressed me. Caffrey cleverly managed to mimic himself mimicking a female character, which is no mean feat.

There were a few flubs that had slipped through the edit, and occasionally the sound quality was a little uneven, perhaps when a new recording had been started or words had been “dropped” into the edit. In spite of these slight production errors Stephen Caffrey does a good job, and I’m certain if he is called upon to record the remaining books – and I certainly hope he is – he’ll do an equally good job, perhaps even a better one, with them.

Encyclopocalypse Publications release of Gary Brandner’s The Howling (as narrated by Stephen Caffrey) is a very good way to experience a classic horror novel that has bred many imitators. I certainly hope the remaining books in the series will find their way to a complementary release, and I thank them for the opportunity to listen and review this audiobook.

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