All right, I’ll admit it, Cycle of the Werewolf is not as bad as I remembered. This is another one I read in college, before I hit Under the Dome and gave my heart and soul to Stephen King. I found Cycle because I love werewolves. I adore legends of a humans becoming beasts. There’s something wonderful in tales of transformation whether the chance occurs by choice through ritual and special enchanted skins or more horrifically, against the human’s will by the power of the moon and magic.
However, I have never been satisfied with a werewolf story.
So even when Stephen King himself takes on the legend of the werewolf, I find myself less than enthusiastic about the final product. Sadly (on my second, less critical, read of the werewolf story) I knew, if anyone else had written this book I don’t think I would have been so disappointed. But because I know what Stephen King is capable of, because I know his skill at crafting a town full of characters, I was let down by the people of Tarker’s Mill.
Part of the problem was King’s experiment. The idea behind Cycle of the Werewolf was to provide a series of vignettes, each about three pages long, taking place one full moon is a time over the course of a year. Due to the restrictions this experiment places on the narrative, the first several months of the year are merely character studies that end in the death of that character.
While the chapters January through July are powerful in their own right, the overall effect is deadening. The deaths happen too fast and seem to occur in a vacuum as if the rest of Tarker’s Mill doesn’t exist. While the future corpses sometimes mention brutal deaths of the victims that precede them, there’s no real sense of a community in panic, as if the mauling death in January has been forgotten by February. In books like The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and Under the Dome, King shows a mastery of creating a well-populated world, chock-full of distinct personalities and various viewpoints. In Cycle Of The Werewolf, he seems to have purposefully distanced himself from the story of a small town in panic that he perfected. I wish he hadn’t.
In addition, because no one survives the first six months of the year (okay, in March we’re not following the drifter when he dies, and May is just a dream of the man who discovers the werewolf’s meal), the later deaths lose their punch. This is an example of tension plateauing, not rising. Because each of the stories is only three pages long, readers don’t get attached to any of the characters before they die, and because there are several of these short stories in a row, by the time we get to the death of Alfie Knopfler café-owner, the werewolf has lost its horror.
When I read this book the second time, while I was able to appreciate the amazing prose in the vignettes (the repetition of “Love is like” in February startled me with its beauty), I also realized King was being evasive on purpose, withholding information, unfairly. This is a trick often employed by mysteries and spy novels and when it’s done well it’s an exciting teaser. However, Stephen King is a terribly honest writer (I think it’s one of his strong suits), so this evasion was not sly enough to tease me successfully and just came across as awkward. When the point-of-view character is looking at someone they know and not referring to them by name, there’s a problem. This also happens in February when Stella sees a man outside her window: “a man she knows, a man she passes on the street everyday. It is-”
And it cuts off. King also does this in June when Alfie is torn to pieces by a man who comes to the café so regularly Alfie finds it odd that he comes in outside his normal hours. And again in August, when Constable Neary thinks, “there was only one townsperson sporting an eyepatch, and it was simply impossible to think of that person, of all persons, being the killer. Neary would have believed his mother the killer before he would have believed that.” This is a missed opportunity for dramatic irony, when the audience could absolutely know the identity of the killer even as the Constable rejects it.
After July, it felt like King abandoned the experiments and just wrote a straight novella about the werewolf in Tarker’s Mill. In July, we suddenly have a whopping ten pages dedicated to the Marty Coslaw, the crippled boy who eventually kills the werewolf. The fact that he survived didn’t surprise me in the slightest on my first read, due to the sudden change in formula. And it’s only then that the deaths started to have meaning again, after the page limits disappear, and the rest of the community shows up in force talking about the werewolf. Suddenly I was reading a Stephen King story and not a series of character sketches.
And I loved that story. I love the character of Marty Coslaw, this crippled boy in the early 80’s whose father who only understands “violently active children” and doesn’t know how to deal with his son, mother who is chronically brusque, the sister who masks her affection with cruelty. I think my favorite part was that at no time did I feel that Marty was trying to prove himself to his family. In spite of his disability, Marty never doubted his own competency; he just needed the tools to defeat the monster. His bravery and calm was awesome.
I wish that King had fleshed out January to July with the kind of detail he uses in his other novels about terror in small town Maine. This was almost the werewolf story I was looking for, but the experiment failed me. Which sucks because it still Stephen King, so you get great characterizations in snippets and phrases like “love would be like wickedness… Love is like… is like… like a scream- love is like dying.”
Stephen King is always experimenting, trying out weird monsters like cellphones, and vehicles, and chattering teeth, and demonically possessed laundry machines. This particular experiment didn’t work for me was as well as some of his others, but I still admire that spirit of experimentation and of course his excellent use of language.
And that’s Reason 923 why Stephen King gets all my money.