Revisiting Cycle of the Werewolf by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
Cycle of the Werewolf was yet another Carol’s Used Bookstore find for me. I had somehow completely missed the spring 1985 release, so when I stumbled upon a used copy of the Signet trade paperback on the crowded shelves at Carol’s it was a total surprise to me – and what a wonderful surprise it turned out to be!
I had recently wrapped up my sophomore year in college and was heading to the beach the next day to decompress. I’d just been named to the All-America team for lacrosse and was looking forward to a much-needed week of rest and celebration. I stopped at Carol’s the evening before my departure for some beach reading, and there was Cycle of the Werewolf, crammed high on a dusty shelf, just waiting for me.
Clocking in at a mere 127 pages, Cycle was a slender volume, especially compared to my earlier Stephen King reads. That was my first impression, and I remember feeling mild disappointment because it was so short. But then I opened the glossy, black cover and flipped a couple pages, and that feeling went away pretty darn fast.
There was artwork inside – both color and black-and-white illustrations – and so much of it! In fact, I couldn’t turn more than a page or two without being confronted with yet another magnificent, visual feast. Full-page paintings, two-page spreads, even spot art! I flipped back to the cover and saw that the illustrator was a guy named Bernie Wrightson. I made a mental note to remember his name (not realizing at the time that I already knew his amazing work from many previous comic book excursions).
And then there was the story…boy, what a fun, old-fashioned story. I couldn’t even remember the last werewolf novel I had read, much less one presented in such a unique manner.
Imaginatively told in twelve short chapters – one for each month of the year – King gathers us around a blazing campfire, sits us down, and tells us the story of Tarker’s Mills, a small New England town besieged by mysterious killings. All committed under the glow of a rising full moon. And while the title might give away the kind of monster that is prowling Tarker’s Mills streets, King manages to cleverly keep the killer’s identity a secret until the later fourth of the book. Throw in a brave, young hero in a wheelchair with a bossy older sister (keep in mind, I had three bossy older sisters growing up) and a very cool Uncle Al (I also had one of those; I miss you Uncle Teddy!), and I was hooked.
Suffice to say, my copy of Cycle of the Werewolf never made it to the beach that long ago summer. I devoured it in one sitting the same evening I brought it home. To my delight, there were plenty of scares and buckets of bloodshed to be found, but truthfully I wouldn’t have even cared if there were no werewolf or monster of any kind.
Like so many other Stephen King creations, Cycle of the Werewolf was, for me, a triumph of characterization and atmosphere. As much about the dark secrets and daily goings-on of small town life (Tarker’s Mills, like the town of ‘Salem’s Lot, was home to a lot of interesting folks; some good, some not-so-good) as it was an adventure story about a young boy’s coming of age, Cycle of the Werewolf hit all the right buttons for me.
A creepy and interesting story? Check.
Atmosphere so finely-layered that I could feel the January sleet pelting my face? Hear the April wind whispering high in the trees that border the Tarker’s Mills park? See the orange tint of moonglow on my arms from a fat full moon rising in the October sky? Check, check, and check.
And the people of Tarker’s Mills…where do I even start?
Of course, I adored Marty Coslow and his black-sheep Uncle Al, but once again I found myself just as fascinated by King’s grand cast of minor characters; townsfolk such as Stella Randolph and town librarian (and occasional wife-beater), Milt Sturmfuller; barmaid Elise Fournier and Constable Neary; kite-flying Brady Kincaid and the Reverend Lester Lowe; the Chat ‘n Chew’s owner, Alfie Knopfler and Tarker’s Mills barber, Stan Pelky.
There are dozens of others – how King can paint such a vivid picture of an entire town and its inhabitants in so few words is an enduring mystery to me – and I remember them all.
Cycle of the Werewolf is their story, after all.
Tarker’s Mill is their home.
I was just visiting.
THIS IS NOW…
Revisiting Cycle of the Werewolf after all these years, I’m struck by how much has changed in my life since that initial reading – and how much has remained the same.
Back then, I had no idea that Cycle was originally written as a longish story to be featured in a calendar – hence the twelve monthly chapters and the abundance of artwork. Or that the calendar concept eventually mutated into an even cooler idea, a nifty, oversized, illustrated limited edition from The Land of Enchantment Press. It’s still one of the most beautiful editions in my library.
And as for the artist – that Bernie Wrightson fellow – I certainly had not an inkling that I would one day become friends with Bernie or that I would hire him to illustrate my own horror magazine and my very own Stephen King limited edition of From A Buick 8 or for goodness sake, that my writing buddy, John Schaech, and I would share a long and laughter-filled evening with Bernie and mutual friend Frank Darabont at a Beverly Hills restaurant.
I mean, c’mon, folks, I was a dreamer…but I didn’t dream that big!
Reading Cycle of the Werewolf now, I can understand why some critics dismiss it as a minor entry in Stephen King’s legendary canon – it’s certainly a short and simplistic tale – but it will always hold a special place in my heart.
It was one of the first Stephen King books I gave my oldest son, Billy, to read – and he adored it. The film version of Cycle of the Werewolf was both of my sons’ first R-rated movie – watched on a long ago New Year’s Eve, snuggled in front of a roaring fire, with plenty of snacks, and the lights off. The ideal setting to watch an old-fashioned, campfire tale.
And, for me, that’s the charm of Cycle of the Werewolf. It’s not pretentious storytelling; it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s just a creepy, solidly-told story of small town life in New England…with a werewolf thrown in for fun. It’s told swiftly and with great economy and affection, and I’ve learned a lot from it as a writer. I’m still learning from it.
My sole regret when it comes to Cycle of the Werewolf…I wish I owned some of the original Bernie Wrightson artwork from the book and it was hanging on my office wall.
* * *
There are a number of creepy scenes that follow in Cycle of the Werewolf – the kite-flying scene with Brady Kincaid, the Fourth of July attack on Marty, and the Halloween night reveal of the killer all rush to mind – but, for me, the most frightening occurs right at the opening of the book:
Outside the wind rises to a shrill scream. Westrum raises his head uneasily, and then looks back down at his game again. It is only the wind, after all…
But the wind doesn’t scratch at doors…and whine to be let in.
He gets up, a tall, lanky man in a wool jacket and railroad coveralls, a Camel cigarette jutting from one corner of his mouth, his seamed New England face lit in soft orange tones by the kerosene lantern which hangs on the wall.
The scratching comes again. Someone’s dog, he thinks, lost and wanting to be let in. That’s all it is…but still, he pauses. It would be inhuman to leave it out there in the cold, he thinks – but still he hesitates. A cold finger of fear is probing just below his heart. This has been a bad season in Tarker’s Mills; there have been omens of evil on the land. Arnie has his father’s Welsh blood strong in his veins, and he doesn’t like the feel of things.
Before he can decide what to do about his visitor, the low-pitched whining rises to a snarl. There is a thud as something incredibly heavy hits the door…draws back…hits again. The door trembles in its frame, and a puff of snow billows in from the top.
Arnie Westrum stares around, looking for something to shore it up with, but before he can do more than reach for the flimsy chair he has been sitting in, the snarling thing strikes the door again with incredible force, splintering it from top to bottom.
It holds for a moment longer, bowed in on a vertical line, and lodged in it, kicking and lunging, its snout wrinkled back in a snarl, its yellow eyes blazing, is the biggest wolf Arnie has ever seen…
And its snarls sound terribly like human words.
The door splinters, groans, gives. In a moment the thing will be inside.
Suspenseful and scary as heck – how can you not keep turning the pages?!
Easy pick for me – the scene where Uncle Al saves Marty’s Fourth of July celebration by sneaking him a cellophane package full of fireworks. What little kid doesn’t love fireworks? I know I sure did.
I’m going to cheat on this one, and I’m going to cheat something fierce. Too many favorite lines, and while most of them are fairly simplistic, they do a wonderful job of setting the tone, painting a picture, and creating atmosphere. Here’s a favorite line from each of the twelve chapters, courtesy of your big, fat cheater:
January – But the wind doesn’t scratch at doors…and whine to be let in.
February – Love is like dying.
March – The town keeps its secrets.
April – The wolf is running toward him, running on two legs, its shaggy pelt painted orange with moonfire, its eyes glaring green lamps, and in one paw – a paw with human fingers and claws where the nails should be – is Brady’s Vulture kite.
May – Spring has come back again – and this year, the Beast has come with it.
June – Moonlight is the last thing Alfie sees.
July – And while his parents stewed and wondered about his psyche, and if he would have complexes from the experience, Marty Coslaw came to believe in his heart that it had been the best Fourth of all.
August – So the town holds its breath, waiting.
September – Then the clouds grow thicker, and the moon disappears…yet it is there; the tides twenty miles out of Tarker’s Mills feel its pull and so, closer to home, does the beast.
October – He sleeps the deep, dreamless sleep of the very young, while outside the river of wind blows over Tarker’s Mills, washing out October and bringing in cold, star-shot November, autumn’s iron mouth.
November – And what happens later that night might be a judgment from God, or a jest of those older gods that men worshipped from the safety of stone circles on moonlit nights – oh, it’s funny all right, pretty funny, because Lowe has gone all the way to Portland to become the Beast, and the man he ends up ripping open on that snowy November night is Milt Sturmfuller, a lifelong resident of Tarker’s Mills…and perhaps God is just after all, because if there is a first-class grade-A shit in Tarker’s Mills, it is Milt Sturmfuller.
December – Magically, the beast’s other eye blows out like a candle in a stormwind!
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Another easy one for me – pretty much the entire February chapter focusing on lonely virgin Stella Randolph. In what could otherwise be safely marketed as a young adult book, the tragic story of Stella Randolph’s sad, solitary life – marked by jokes and sniggers behind her back, her failing Set ‘n Sew shop, and her mailing of twenty Valentines to herself (including those from Paul Newman and John Travolta) – broke my heart into pieces. Only her death is more tragic than her life, and the final sentence of the chapter is devastating.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
I’m tempted to say Uncle Al, because Al is one cool dude and I’m sure he got up to something interesting and scandalous…but of course I have to go for Marty Coslaw. Marty is pretty darn cool himself.
START DATE – October 31, 2015
FINISH DATE – October 31, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.