First released in 1989, Robert McCammon's The Wolf's Hour became a bestseller and was, just last year, reissued in a deluxe edition by Subterranean Press. This year, it continues with the Subterranean Press release of The Hunter from the Woods, a short story collection exploring the back story and continued battles of the novel's hero. So what's it all about? In the prologue to The Wolf's Hour, a werewolf bites a dastardly Nazi's hand off, flees across the North African desert, pursued by armored cars and machine gunners, makes passionate love to a beautiful countess, is awakened by that countess's murder, and kills her assassin in a brutal hand-to-hand battle. In case you were wondering, the killing doesn't slow down much, and neither does the sex. Summing up the adventures of the lycanthropic secret agent Michael Gallatin in one sentence is not hard at all: the novel The Wolf's Hour and the short stories collected in The Hunter from the Woods are about James Bond fighting World War Two, only James Bond turns into a four legged Nazi-killing machine every once in a while.
The Wolf's Hour is divided into two timelines. The earlier of the two shows us Michael, then Mikhail, and the end of his childhood in Russia as the Communist revolution sweeps the land. His family, enemies of the new power, are killed, and he is only spared their fate when a group of werewolves slaughter the attackers, bite Mikhail, and then integrate him into their pack. The following scenes show not only Mikhail becoming a werewolf but also becoming a man, one who struggles with the central question that all of his half-man pack must face: "How did men's God view the lycanthrope?" (p. 120) The main plot thread, meanwhile, picks up some time after the prologue's end and follows the adult Michael's infiltration of Germany and his struggle to destroy the enemy's secret weapon: the Iron Fist. Along the way, he kills many, many Nazis and has far too many close calls to be counted.
McCammon is a rather effective writer of scenes. The Wolf's Hour is divided into longish chapters, each of which is guaranteed a set piece or two at its climax. The most memorable of these is touted by the back cover as "the famous death train scene," a battle of wits which sees Michael pitted against a big game hunter in the service of the Nazis on a private train filled with traps. But the death train scene is also indicative of the failings of these imaginative set pieces, namely that the characters and plot that serve to set them up are often so flawed as to be nearly ludicrous. Why have the Nazis placed their trust in this hunter's skills, again? What purpose do the manhunts he claims to regularly conduct serve that a swift bullet to the head would not? And so on.
Similar questions plague the vast majority of the narrative. This is a novel about characters so much larger than life that there's little room for logic to sneak in amidst their bravery, and the Allied plans seem to generally rely entirely on dumb luck and an intelligence service small enough to share a cab—or at least that's the only possible reason I can think of for why they only send two agents to save the world. Luckily for team freedom, the bad guys are just as incompetent. After using an artist crucial to the project but of suspected loyalty, the Nazis decide not to kill him, because "there had always been the possibility that more work was needed and one artist in on the project was enough" (p. 303). This reasoning, of course, makes no sense at all.
But while the violence probes the border of the absurd, the sex pole-vaults right across. In the course of the novel, Michael sleeps with four different women, each of whom is positive that Michael is the most incredible man they've ever known in some indefinable way, such as the lovely Countess from the prologue who says he reduces her to a "first-grader in the school of love" (p. 18) and a "dewy eyed virgin" (p. 18). The sex scenes that follow are filled with multiple climaxes and some of the most bewilderingly failed sensual language imaginable, including what may well be the least arousing sentence ever uttered in the English language or any other: "The spirit was still willing, but the black haired testicles were drained" (p. 337).
So, moving past the unfortunately mentioned wolf testicles, the women love him, and they're quite eager to show it, but how does Michael feel about them? Well, they do get descriptions that use the word "beautiful," and Michael does the whole swearing revenge thing after the Countess's death, but, aside from that, he seems quite capable of moving on from one earth-shattering love affair to the next. Then again, his lack of emotional attachments—sensational language notwithstanding—is not confined to romance. In the midst of the flashback narrative with his pack, Michael has a child with a female werewolf. At the end of that plot thread, he's forced to abandon the child—who does not appear again in the novel—as Russian soldiers charge into the pack's abode. It's a sad scene, to be sure, but am I alone in thinking that a father who's lost his infant son should, just maybe, look back on this occasion with some approximation of regret, or even just think of it at all? Ever?
Certainly contributing to the general silliness of the narrative is the fact that the Nazis aren't nearly evil enough for McCammon and the war far too complex. The Germans here are, one and all, monsters. There is no other aspect to their personality. In a novel in which Michael spends a fair bit of time impersonating Nazi officers and the like, and talks to a good many, it's telling that, not once, does he have a conversation with a German about anything at all besides the war. These men have no families, no hopes, no dreams, no lives at all outside of killing Brits and Americans (while the Russian front is mentioned, it's certainly never focused upon, and, though we enter a concentration camp at one point and see piles of corpses, we never really glance toward the Jews). But having the Nazis live for nothing but war is not nearly enough to make them truly inspire fear. In addition to the whole global domination and genocide thing they had going, the Nazi brass, it seems, are all members of the Brimstone Club, a group of sadists and sexual deviants that gather to watch live action torture porn. Though we're never shown it, it's safe to assume that each and every one of the villains strangle puppies before bed every night.
Somewhere amidst our reveling in Nazi barbarity, Michael finally comes to the epiphany that he's been searching for through years of strife. The question: "What is the lycanthrope, in the eye of God?" (p. 465) The answer: "The lycanthrope was God's avenger" (ibid). Of course, exactly how much this really answers is quite debatable. Michael is, after all, the first lycanthrope that we know of to fight evil in any fashion; the rest seem to have been quite content out in the woods. But the problems don't end there. In fact, the whole premise—the contrast between the noble beast and the human monster—seems quite suspect. The werewolf, after all, is not a true beast, but is as much man as wolf. Therefore, how exactly can the werewolves' killings be so easily forgiven? They do not only hunt for sustenance but also to perpetuate their pack. When we first meet them, they're slaughtering several Russian soldiers who had nothing to do with them, and they regularly hunt out victims to attack and turn. While I'm sure it would be possible to do a quite interesting comparison between this small scale, near natural violence and the organized, human crimes of the Nazis, that's not what McCammon does at all. He paints the wolves knight-white, the Nazis a half dozen shades darker than black, and ends with a conclusion no more profound than that fangs are more badass than black uniforms.
So, moral revelations reached and place in the universe decided, Michael's ready to move on to the climax, and climax it is. In a solution somewhat similar to that so famously used by Spinal Tap, McCammon resolves the problem of a novel perpetually playing on the highest setting by painting a whole slew of new numbers onto the dial for the ending. Alas, whether things are actually more intense, or just louder, is rather hard to tell. In the final pages, Michael kills an island's worth of Nazis, is wounded and imprisoned (again), and finally saves the free world by managing to climb aboard a doomsday-armed plane on a suicide mission, where he defeats the fearsome Nazi known as Boots. And then, after a brief chat with the Prime Minister and a discrete medal ceremony, it's off to other missions and other stories for the further Nazi-slaughtering adventures of everyone's favorite lycanthrope.
The first two stories in The Hunter from the Woods, "The Great White Way" and "The Man from London," show us the time between the novel's plotlines, after the pack's fall but before Michael's Nazi-munching North African exploits. "The Great White Way," in which Michael is a member of a Russian traveling circus, does not work particularly well. It's short and distant, and all the impact comes from things we know from the novel; little to nothing new is added here. "The Man from London" is a fair bit more successful, showing Michael's recruitment and building up a feeling of dread as Major Vivian approaches his lair, even if we, readers of the novel, know what he'll find within. The final fight scene, in which Michael battles several speeding armored cars mounted with machine guns is a tad much, but does manage to tap into the simple fun of fast cars, big guns, and hairy dudes with teeth.
"Sea Chase" is the best and most focused of the lot, taking place entirely aboard a single ship as it, sheltering a deserting weapons scientist, flees a far superior Nazi warship. The claustrophobic and hopeless atmosphere of the chase is well done, as is the stoic character of the scientist's daughter, but the true heart of the tale is the captain, a bitter and misanthropic man who has surrounded himself with relics of his failure but finds himself pushed into nobility. The climax, in which Michael and the scientist play at being nautical MacGyvers, is likely not too realistic, but the tale is strong enough to leave the final blast quite effective. "The Wolf and the Eagle" takes place in the deserts of North Africa, with Michael and the ace that shot down his transport plane stranded and together. The relationship between the two men is well developed, and the climax, in which Michael quite successfully plays a lupine devil, is perhaps the best of either volume. That being said, there's something rather unsettling about a tale in which the tribes whose lifestyles and lands have been ruined by this great war about them are the villains, and in which the wounded and outcast young tribesman is only given hope when he reaches the British field hospital and can take the place—and even name—of the nurse's dead son.
"The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs," included as both an extra in The Wolf's Hour and in the collection, manages to exacerbate just about every weakness of the novels. In the tale, a female Nazi is seducing the various members of the Allied spy ring in Berlin and sending them off to the Gestapo. The Allied high command decide this needs to be stopped, and so, instead of simply killing the evil seductress, decide it's clearly a better idea to send everyone's favorite werewolf in to seduce her, a tactic one might liken to putting out a fire with an even bigger fire. The result, of course, is sex and lots of it. In the novella's 114 pages, Michael and Franziska manage to make passionate love no less than four times, and, though we're treated to no imagery quite like the lovely description of wolf testicles in the main novel, we do get subtle, realistic, and character-revealing dialogue like: "If you give me one more orgasm," she said into his ear, "you're going to have to take up permanent residence in my pussy" (p. 601, The Wolf's Hour).
Through all this, Michael's been confidently lounging around Berlin with nary a mention of danger from all the Nazis about, but, after the novella's one near successful scene—Michael's killing of Franziska after he's fallen in love with her—the whole World War Two aspect of the equation rears its head, or at least something vaguely approximating it does. By this point, the reader, having presumably finished The Wolf's Hour, is no doubt fully inoculated against any fear of the actual Nazi war machine, so the Gestapo here doesn't even try anything like that. No, they move right into suggesting yet another fantastic super weapon, this time called "the Black Sun," (p. 670, The Wolf's Hour), whose existence they, for some unfathomable reason, reveal to a random prisoner. I should stress here that the doomsday device is not the point of the novella at all, merely a way to reinvigorate Michael after the moral crisis he suffered from killing his love, a means to force him back into the fight. Because, really, it's not like the Nazis committed any real atrocities that could be used for inspirational purposes, now is it?
The last story, "Death of a Hunter," feels rather indicative of the two volumes as a whole, I think. Michael Gallatin is attacked by foes more outrageous than any he's yet faced (in this case "ninja[s] in black" (p. 322)) and is rescued by a character who cares far more about Michael than Michael cares about him, in this case the son that Michael so cavalierly abandoned way back when in Russia. One gets the sense, while reading, that this is supposed to be poignant, but, in the transition from World War Two to far eastern crime gangs, the tone slips from B Movie to parody, something certainly not aided by references to Michael's off screen exploits with the likes of "Dr. Shatterhand and his doxy of death Sabrina Neve" (p. 316), "the drug created assassin known as Chameleon," (p. 318) and "Tragg, the killer with hypnotic eyes and two-tone shoes" (ibid).
There are, I should be clear, a fair few effective moments in these books, and McCammon can write a mean set piece. But the fun of the moment fades as the stakes are raised one too many times, and the overall tale is a monstrosity made of gratuitous sex and silly string, a narrative entirely unable to hold up its own weight. Not long after its opening, The Wolf's Hour manages to gleefully run right past pulpy fun and into the absurd, and McCammon never looks back. Some of the shorts and sections are rather entertaining, but none of it is anywhere near brilliant enough to justify the flaws.