One of my fondest childhood memories is of repeatedly watching the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. version of The Wolf Man. A scene that particularly stood out for me was when the Gypsy looks at the man’s palm and sees a pentagram appear, then fade again. This imprinted on my developing psyche so strongly that I gave it a nod in an amateur film of my own, Graveyard Shift: A Zomedy of Horrors (to be released on Amazon Prime in 2020).
The idea of werewolves and shapeshifters is far from new, but it easily takes hold of the imagination and unlike in the days of superstitious peoples who once believed in the literal reality of these creatures, they have become a cornerstone of modern fictional entertainment.
I remember thinking as a child that someone who changed into a cat would be fascinating, only to later discover Cat People, a movie based on The Bagheeta, a short story by Val Lewton. It has been re-made twice since the 1942 original. I first saw the 1982 version with Natassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell.
Werewolves in particular have been a popular topic in both literature and movies since these forms of entertainment have existed. The original legends go back before printing, but the demand for werewolf and other shapeshifter stories has developed over the past several decades into a major genre of its own.
In this century, stories have proliferated and covered an interesting array of shifter animals. Werewolves and werecats remain the most popular, but apart from the more predatory animals one might expect shapeshifters to adopt, I’ve seen wereplatypuses, werehamsters and wereducks. Nothing is off-limits. Even the Romance genre has got into the act since Twilight came up with a hunky young werewolf and the indie authors have run with the idea, creating whole societies of were-creatures.
More traditional roles for were-creatures continue to be written. I personally like my werewolves old school, savage beasts as they were meant to be. The best author I’ve seen this century for this is Graeme Reynolds, who wrote the High Moor series. If you like good werewolf stories, read these books!
Other good authors who write shapeshifter fiction include Helen Harper, Nalini Singh and Shanna Lauffey (She-wülf is currently not in print, but the author has promised to re-release it after she finishes her time travel series). Maggie Stievater’s Shiver is one of the most haunting books I’ve found with a young protagonist.
Werewolves work surprisingly well with humour as well. Apart from the movies, An American Werewolf in London and Teen Wolf, several books can be found where the antics of a deadly killer have their humorous moments, like Wolf Hunt by Jeff Strand, about someone who has to transport a werewolf who gets loose and has to be recaptured.
Shapeshifter fiction has endless possibilities. I avoid the books with bare chests on the cover because I’m not a Romance reader, but the creativity of writers tackling this genre in unique ways of their own has provided some brilliant stories in recent years. Not all are good of course. I’m a great believer in reading samples before buying a book from a new (to me) author. Several well-known authors have written werewolf stories that hark back to those ancient legends and the dark fascination we have with them, yet the indies are the ones who break old constraints and move into new concepts of were-creatures. I couldn’t resist giving a character shapeshifting abilities in my own first Dark Fantasy novel, Dance of the Goblins, though it is not the central theme of the story.
What are some of your favourite were-creature/shapeshifter books?