Cycle of the Werewolf
Land of Enchantment Press • 1983 • 128 pages
A Novel Critique
In 1979, Chris Zavisa of Land of Enchantment Press approached Stephen King with an unusual prospect: a calendar featuring 500-word vignettes written by King, with accompanying pictures by Bernie Wrightson (who had previously worked with King on Creepshow). King readily agreed, but found the imposed word count limited him. Giving in to his desire to flesh out the story, the vignettes turned into chapters, and the chapters turned into a book. In late 1983, Land of Enchantment published Cycle of the Werewolf as an oversized limited edition book. Two years later, New American Library made King's short novel available to the mass market, publishing a trade paperback edition of the book under their Signet imprint and retaining Wrightson's illustrations. It was the first time King would allow a limited-edition book to be reprinted for the mass market, a situation which would later repeat itself with the Dark Tower novels, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Plant, and Blockade Billy.
The trade paperback was a success, reaching #5 on the paperback charts. A later film titled based on the book would inspire a new reprint, including the entire screenplay and pages of film photos as well as King's original text and Wrightson's illustrations. Both the film and the resultant tie-in book would be titled Silver Bullet - in the context of the screenplay, the title has multiple meanings, shifting the focus of the story from the werewolf and its cycle to the boy who ultimately destroys him ... and the method with which he does it.
Cycle of the Werewolf is one of King's simpler books, its chapters consisting mainly of the werewolf's lethal monthly appearances in the town of Tarker's Mills. As with The Running Man, the chapters in Cycle are episodic, initially on the werewolf's victims and ending in a violent climax. King, often known for his outsized brand of storytelling, is remarkably thrifty with his words here; it's as if he is obeying the spirit of the calendar vignette concept, if not the letter. Adding to the swiftness of the story is King's unusual decision to tell it in the present tense: "And suddenly there is a scratching at the window," "the wolf is running toward him," "it staggers toward Marty, growling..." This choice lends immediacy and excitement to Cycle, unspooling in the constant present.
Only halfway through the book are we introduced to the boy who will become the werewolf's greatest threat, and even then he doesn't discover the werewolf's true identity until the October chapter. Even given the brevity of the chapters, King manages to sketch believable characters, particularly in the case of Marty Coslaw, who first discovers the werewolf's identity. In just a few simple sketches, we understand Marty's life and motives, his complicated relationships with his family, and his eventual decision to kill the werewolf. Marty, then, becomes one of King's many children pitted against monsters, putting him in line with Mark Petrie of 'Salem's Lot, the Loser's Club in It, and even Brian Rusk of Needful Things.
Unlike with his treatment of vampires in 'Salem's Lot, King seems to have no interest in werewolf lore. The werewolf appears without origin; the person who becomes the wolf is as much at a loss for explanation as the reader. Only the basics of werewolf myth - full moons and silver bullets - are utilized here. (A more involved treatment of werewolves would appear in King and Peter Straub's collaboration, The Talisman - yet even there, the presence of werewolves is merely asserted, rather than explained.) Additionally, there seems to be no moral context to the werewolf's string of murders. Good people as well as bad are slaughtered. In It, King would explore this issue more deeply, having his characters posit whether the murder of innocents by monsters is part of an inexplicable - but natural - order. Though Cycle avoids these deeper questions, it is ultimately to its benefit; King's intention here is a swift, violent story, told economically.
Bernie Wrightson's contributions to the book are invaluable. Working at the peak of his talents, Wrightson introduces each chapter with breathtaking two-page black and white spreads suggesting the months of the year. In general, there is nothing violent or horrific in these depictions, serving only to set mood and tone. The full-color illustrations at the center of each chapter recall the more gruesome sequences of Creepshow, with each capturing either the act or aftermath of the werewolf's brutality. (It is telling that the color illustration accompanying the October chapter is the most sedate of the twelve, absent entirely of blood, gore, and the werewolf itself. Consequently, the spread at the beginning of the chapter includes the only horrific image in these otherwise tranquil scenes: a large animal's skeleton by a stone wall.) At the end of each chapter, a single black and white image appears, functioning as a period or an exclamation point, underscoring the text. Other than Creepshow (and perhaps the volumes of the Dark Tower series), no other book in King's canon is so closely tied with its illustrations, illuminating and supporting King's words without overpowering them.
While Cycle of the Werewolf is a relatively minor Stephen King work, we find him experimenting and taking risks he might not have with a more significant book. An achievement of tense and tone, Cycle is also remarkably well paced, allowing for sturdy characters to emerge out of its sparse text. Though not necessarily integral to the larger canon of werewolf literature (as, say, 'Salem's Lot is to vampire mythos), Cycle is an unusual and welcome addition to King's own body of work, succeeding on its own terms.