Why werewolves don’t take over the world very often, how classical myth got it wrong, and why it’s never a good idea to make fun of an undercover policeman when researching your story (post written in 2010; taken from my old website)
Towards the end of 2009, pop cultural commentators everywhere seemed to have agreed that werewolves were going to be ‘in’ in 2010. According to all those ‘Next Year Preview’ features I was reading at the time, it was something to do with the continued popularity of Twilight and shows like Being Human and True Blood. Apparently, zombies and vampires were going to be sooooo last season. I’d been gathering ideas for an ‘I Am Legend with werewolves’ story for a couple of years, now it seemed as if everyone was about jump into my seat. Since Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel I Am Legend and George A. Romero’s equally seminal zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead (directly inspired by Matheson’s book) movies and comics have been full of stories in which the world is overrun by vampires or zombies. But no one had ever told a supernatural apocalypse story with werewolves. It seemed such an obvious choice.
Problems with the ‘wolfpocalypse’
The reason why werewolves don’t take over the world very often in books and movies quickly became apparent once 2000 AD’s editor Matt Smith had green-lit the series for development. To put it bluntly, werewolves are rather too good at killing things. If I unleashed a horde of nigh-indestructible lycanthropes on an unsuspecting human world, my entire cast would most likely be dead within a week if I hoped to maintain any semblance of believability.
I was also after something rather more epic than the usual ‘band-of-doomed-survivors-holding-out-against-the-supernatural-hordes’ scenario. Then there was the small matter of how to maintain a full moon long enough for the werewolves to not only overrun humanity but also be prevented from changing back into human form the next day. Imagine a scene in which thousands of naked people wake up on the streets of London with a hangover and a full stomach.
Age Of The Wolf takes place in London 2016. The moon has been mysteriously glowing for over a week. Scientists are baffled and the world is sliding towards mass hysteria. On the ninth night of this so-called ‘perma-moon’ a third of the population inexplicably turn into monstrous wolves. Caught on the London underground in the middle of the outbreak, a young Anglo-Irish woman named Rowan Morrigan flees to safety.
Visited by the ghost of her dead mother, Rowan learns that an ancestor has written her into an ancient Nordic prophecy that singles her out for sacrifice in order to bring about a new world, one in which mankind’s existence is at an end and wilderness rules. However, unlike the sacrificial maidens of myth and fairy tale, Rowan doesn’t feel much like doing as she’s told. She must now find a way to defy the prophecy and escape the monstrous leader of the werewolf pack.
The roots of folklore
I wanted to tell a story that tapped into forgotten werewolf folklore and dramatised exactly why these supernatural icons remain such a vital part of popular culture. I didn’t want the werewolves to end up being merely hairy cannon fodder for the heroine. Despite having grown up on werewolf movies like An American Werewolf In London and The Company Of Wolves (two films with which I was obsessed as a teenager), I didn’t want Age Of The Wolf to turn into yet another game of ‘spot-the-movie-reference’ (although there were times when I just couldn’t help myself). From what I’d read about lycanthrope lore (namely Sabine Baring-Gould’s useful 1865 study The Book Of Werewolves), the concept of the werewolf was a lot more complex and frightening than most modern stories give it credit for.
When someone says ‘werewolf’ you think of the full moon, the infectious bite, the agonising transformation, and the silver bullets. However, these trappings never really coalesced in the public imagination until Curt Siodmak’s script for the 1941 horror movie The Wolfman, in which Lon Chaney Jr tiptoes through the smoke-carpeted forests of the Universal backlot, looking like a furry pubgoer who missed the last bus home. As fondly remembered as the movie is, it’s no classic. Even as a kid, I thought it was odd that a monster as savage and untamed as the Wolfman would choose to strangle his prey. The full moon gave you fangs and claws, dummy. Use ‘em!
Housetraining the werewolf
Rewind several centuries to medieval Europe and werewolves stood for something infinitely more terrifying. The term ‘wer-wolf’ (the word ‘wer’ being Anglo-Saxon for ‘man’) meant ‘outcast’ or ‘godless man’, and was generally applied to perpetrators of the inhuman: murderers, pederasts, cannibals. The werewolf stood for an evil inherent, not inherited.
Today, the idea of transformation, from man to beast and back again, has become central to the werewolf myth. Indeed, it becomes the centrepiece of movies like American Werewolf and The Howling. As critic Peter Nicholls points out in his book Fantastic Cinema, “In modern horror films these metamorphoses – all popping joints, lengthening bones and writhing muscles – become the subject of the film. The central figure is no longer the human, nor the animal he becomes, but the agonised half-and-half thing who belongs to neither world, like a victim of God’s wrath in the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch.”
And yet this idea of duality makes the werewolf ultimately less frightening. It distances us from the terrifying possibility that just about anyone can harbour bestial desires or commit unconscionable acts. Fatalism is common in modern werewolf movies, as Nicholls again points out. “The hollowness of the werewolf story, perhaps, is its fatalistic view that a good chap, through no fault of his own, can become a beast. There is not much dramatic pith in this arbitrary cosmic injustice. The beast-in-man idea is done far more interestingly in [Jacques Tourneur’s 1942] Cat People where the beast stands for something already implicit in the person.”
The Not So Big Bad Wolf
The humble wolf (canis lupus) was a symbol of terror within medieval society for reasons we can barely comprehend today. To the rural communities who relied for their very survival upon vulnerable livestock, the wolf stood for nothing less than the devil incarnate. The animal’s (entirely imaginary) capacity for greed and ruthless evil was immortalised as the Big Bad Wolf of fairy tale. ‘Wolf’ became a byword for malevolence, signifying all forms of ravenous hostility, from famine to grasping landlords.
Today, in more enlightened times, the wolf is an often sentimentalised symbol of nature’s mystery and dignity, an emblem of conservation. The only animal to inspire the same hysterical degree of awe and dread as the wolf did in the Middle Ages is perhaps the Great White Shark, another victim of mankind’s overactive imagination. While wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK by the Anglo-Saxon kings, Great Whites are now protected in several countries, having for decades been the target of trophy hunters. In both cases, there’s acres of difference between the animals themselves and the monsters we have mythologized.
In Age Of The Wolf I tried to stir in wolf iconography from myth and fairy tale, but I also wanted to challenge those classical sources that have provided the foundation for so much western storytelling. We all know how Star Wars was built upon a mythological Jungian template. (Following the movie’s success, Hollywood attempted to distil the works of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell into a recipe book for blockbuster success.) But how many action-adventure stories stop to question the classical foundations upon which they are built?
Take the archetype of the sacrificial victim. You know the sort. She’s the drop-dead gorgeous maiden who has to give herself up to prevent the dragon from laying waste to the town. In the legend of Perseus, for example, the princess Andromeda is offered to the sea monster that threatens to destroy the city of Philistia. In the story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is ‘given’ to the Beast. Given? On who’s say-so? Does Beauty not have anything to say about this? What if the girl refused to go along with what the story wanted? Better still, what if she went out to deal with the monster herself, instead of waiting around for a Perseus or some other princely ponce to come along and do the job for her? And how might she overcome her own preordained destiny? By now, Age Of The Wolf was becoming much less a horror story and much more an earthbound epic fantasy.
Like so it is written…
A siren goes off in my head every time I hear the word ‘destiny’ or ‘prophecy’ in a fantasy story. It usually heralds the sort of narrative iceberg that often sinks fantasy stories. To my mind, the words ‘destiny’ and 'prophecy’ usually amount to dramatic kryptonite. Take the movie The Dark Crystal, in which the hero learns of a prophecy that says he will save
the world, effectively revealing the movie’s climax halfway through the picture!
In trying to avoid pre-empting my own story, I had an idea: what if destiny was something tangible, like words on a page that could be edited, like a story, something you could rewrite or defuse like a bomb? Hence, I worked out the idea of ‘the Wyrd’, infinite patterns within quantum uncertainty that can be picked out and brought into being if you know how. In this case (in keeping with the Norse mythology vibe), by using runes, magical letters that can shape the future if you can learn how to write them and invoke the correct enchantment. I wanted my sacrificial heroine to literally write her own story.
With a terrifyingly short deadline and several other clients suddenly popping up out of the blue and throwing work at me (Where were you guys last month?), I inevitably didn’t have time to read every scrap of research I wanted. Before writing, I managed to get in a research trip to the centre of London, taking photographs to help me visualise the action as I walked the route Rowan takes within the story, from Tottenham Court Road through Soho down Whitehall and along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. I tried to imagine what the place would look like covered in snow and full of hungry werewolves. Given the fact that Londoners practically begin contemplating cannibalism the moment they see so much as a snowflake, the idea of adding werewolves to the mix almost seemed like overkill.
Wandering around Tottenham Court Road underground station (which has changed a bit since they filmed American Werewolf there), snapping away with my camera at 7:30am, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was stopped and questioned by an undercover policeman. I have no idea what to tell people at parties when they ask me what I do for a living, let alone one of Her Majesty’s finest. And it probably wasn’t a very good idea to crack a joke along the lines of “Illegal photography! Thirty years, creep!” Clearly not a fan of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.
The finished script handed in, amended, signed-off and invoiced, I had nothing left to do but fret about what it might look like once it appeared in the comic. The script was passed into the capable of hands of Jon Davis-Hunt, an incredibly talented young artist fresh from drawing Al Ewing’s Tempest for the Judge Dredd Megazine and well-known for his work on Transformers comics for IDW and Titan. Jon’s precision was perfect for detailing the architecture of Rowan’s world, rooting the fantastical action within a recognisable and realistic setting. He’s also a brilliant conceptual designer with a flair for experimentation not unlike Frank Quitely. That gory splash page in episode eight, which everybody loved? That was Jon’s idea. You can find out more about Jon and his work on his official website: www.jondavis-hunt.com
Jon and I created two more series of Age of the Wolf: She Is Legend and Wolfworld. The entire trilogy was collected in trade in 2014, and you can pick it up from Amazon UK, Amazon US and the 2000 AD webstore.
Interview from 2005 with American critic John Kenneth Muir about my movie book
Empires Of The Imagination.
Been thinking about this today while working on a pitch for a fantasy project and going over my accumulated work notes…
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a special effects guy. This was after it had finally sunk in that being an archaeologist did not mean I’d get to watch a Tyrannosaurus fight a Triceratops. So, ‘special effects guy’ it would be. And if I couldn’t be Ray Harryhausen, then I’d settle for being one of those guys with a beard and sneakers tinkering with cool stuff in a cavernous workshop out in the suburbs. I’d seen them at it on those behind-the-scenes documentaries they used to air on bank holiday weekends and always seemed to open with some dashing American voiceover that intoned, ‘WE TAKE YOU BEHIND THE MAGIC…’ But alas, it turned out special effects guys needed to know loads of boring practical stuff like carpentry, electronics, mathematics and wotnot. (I’m pretty sure that my perception of a career in special effects before then was that it might involve test-driving an X-Wing or running around dressed as Predator.) But special effects continue to fascinate me, especially how certain creations seem to generate an eerie post-movie life of their own.
Years ago, I had my heart quietly broken during a visit to a Ray Harryhausen exhibition at the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image. I got to see the stop-motion models that had played some of my favourite movie monsters, the grinning skeleton warriors from Jason And The Argonauts, and six-armed Kali– the animated statue from Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. But it turned out even monsters of legend suffer the pangs of mortality. Their joints were cracked, their limbs crumbled, patches of latex flesh had decayed entirely revealing the metal armatures beneath. I recall the gorilla model Harryhausen used for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young had crumbled into an unrecognisable green stump. It was like watching faerie gold turn to rocks upon contact with the real world.
Now here’s where life as a retired special effect gets a little ‘Toy Story’. If you’re lucky, someone may devote time and money to restoring you. Check out the kind of four-star facelift received by the Skeksis – the vulture-like villains of Jim Henson’s soulful epic fantasy The Dark Crystal…
Or maybe some nostalgic old buff will put you on display in his basement museum. Just look at where ‘Oscar’ – the eponymous lycanthrope from An American Werewolf In London – ended up…
But the fate of such creations is usually far more ignominious. Once the movie’s in the can most special effects can expect to be either cannibalised for spare parts or ruthlessly tossed into a skip. Then again, they may end up decorating a California junkyard, like ‘Bruce’, the famously obstinate mechanical shark from Jaws…
“Jaws terrified me so much as a kid that one important fact didn't immediately occur to me: The shark was fake.
In Hunting Bruce, or, on the trail of the Jaws shark, an article for radio syndicate NPR, journalist Cory Turner describes how his lifelong fascination with the movie’s special effects star led him to the heartbreaking discovery that the three Bruces used in the picture had been left
to rot in the Universal backlot. Or had they…
This article illuminates that weird intersection between screen fantasy and special effects reality much better than this rambling blog post, so check it out.
Weirdly, my discovery of this article and my current nostalgic funk for special effects coincides with the depressing news that major VFX house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy a week before it won an Oscar for its dazzling work on Life Of Pi. Prompted by Rhythm & Hues going bust, many VFX artists protested outside the Oscars venue, trying to draw attention to the fact that their industry currently labours under a unfavourable business model.
Here’s a news piece by Variety that highlights some of the key issues.