Ray Garton's Ravenous


Before reading this novel, I was sure I was going to hate it. Werewolves that pass on their infection through sex? Pscyho-sexual werewolves? What, was Garton trying to sneak a vampire novel in on me? Then I read the first couple of chapters, I was even more sure. After getting that preliminary feel for the characters, most of which seemed to seep right out of the 1970s guidebook to stock character placement, I could tell the fates were sealed: this was going to be a hated book. Chapters fell away, and I kept reading. Kept getting more excited. And, well, about 15 or maybe 16 I realized I was quite enjoying the book.

I used to be a huge werewolf fan, at arguably the worst time and place to be a werewolf fan: 1990s America. The surge of the Vampires was upon all of my horror loving friends. White Wolf had its Vampire out. Movie theaters were loving vampire based movies. Interview with a Vampire was being read by everybody. They are dark and moody and sexual and bloody and a vampire movie could easily slip a couple of large breasted lesbians into it as well as have a hot male lead (see Bram Stroker's Dracula for both of these points). Werewolves, though, were flea-bitten and grungy and uncool and ugly.

And, after a run in the 80s of a dozen or so werewolf movies (I kind of just made that number up, but that seems right) it seemed that America was near saturated with them. There simply wasn't enough demand to keep it going, one nutty kid in lower Alabama aside.

Except werewolves were more the true stuff of horror, and that is one thing I loved about them. Vampires were all about guilt associations, regretting what they were forced to do to survive, and about sexual release. They were American guilt for being a successful country, a meat-eater's guilt for eating animals, a country's answer to being terrified of HIV/AIDs, a primal sexual-fluid thing. A successful vampire is torn between the humanity it loves, and the beast it needs to assuage. They are everyone who has ever thought a dirty thought. Everyone who has wanted to bleed another.

Werewolves, are a different sort of beast. Even when the person does not want to change, they give into it. They delight in their feeding, embrace their Id, and if they push it to the back of their mind in their most human form, they still embrace a sense of frantic urgency. Vampires are about knowing all the rules. Werewolves are about embracing your inner abomination.

This is one of the reasons why I was nervous about Ravenous, so sure that I would detest it. It had werewolves, sure, but that whole sex thing kept staring me in the face. It's not that I don't like sex in my horror novels, sex fits really well in many horror novels, but it's because sex is not a werewolf thing. It can be a werewolf thing (see The Howling for some idea of what I mean). It's just 1) as Thomas C. Foster points out in How to Read Literature like a Professor, sex and vampires are the obvious metaphor and 2) werewolf sex might just be an excuse for strange, bestiality urges.

And sure, the sex here is regular. There is some degree of description of a dozen or more sex scenes, including three rapes. Lycanthropy is no longer transmuted by bite, but is now a sexually transmitted disease (giving this novel a couple of built-in, whether or not intended, allusions). A handful of chapters not about having sex are about thinking about it.

But Garton finds the line between tawdry excess and dark libido and walks it assuredly. Rather than writing a porn with beasties, he writes of beasties with sex as a tool to shape the characters. Taggart's aggressive sexual appetite demonstrates how inhuman he has become. Jason's virginal flirtations are contrasted to Jimmy's violent outburts and Hugh's extramarital shallowness. When Emily, Hugh's wife, gives way to her sudden upshot in libido, it is as much a Garton painting an image of a woman negatively obsessed with her image as a sex scene. And when Andrea talks of orgasming for the first time, it is this book's way of saying she is falling in love.

Yes, the sex is plentiful, and if you don't like that sort of thing don't even try reading this book, but as long as you can take it, and even might like it, then it is done quite well.

Other cliches that Garton wields to his credit would include the stock character syndrome that infects this book. Nosey old neighbor, hot self-centered business woman having an affair to establish control, stranger from out of town who knows secrets, abusive yet diminutive husband, motherly housewife who takes the abuse, overweight bookseller with a knight complex, and old but not quite tired sheriff round out a cast of mostly been-there and probably-done-that characters. Still, each one has some aspect that ends up helping them to breathe a little. Live a little.

For instance, the Nosey Old Neighbor's daughter chides her for her frequent calls to the police station, saying "You can't call everytime you see a black person. Black people are around, Mother..." But Doris isn't a racist overreacting to black youth. We later have a scene where she admits to just wanting to know someone is there, listening, when she feels worried. The dismissal as a racist old white woman instead becomes a critique of her daughter, who is mostly concerned with the dwindling inheritance awaiting her mother's death.

A couple of introductory scenes aside, the book does not get into the actual business of werewolves until about the halfway mark, spending that early half building up character webs and networks. Of the last half, almost all of the intense material happens over 60 pages. Garton uses this time well to set up tension for the ending. We have found ourselves attached to people that we know no good ending can await. We find ourselves hating others, who seem to be coming through with shining colors. We also find ourselves ready for the meat and blood to come to one last climax. Then, at that conclusion of 60 or so pages, which also concludes the book, we find a deft stroke of closing out the story. And though the last couple of pages may come across as a bit cheap, the five or six before that was able to keep everything up in the air until the last possible minute. More than that, he kept that premise that I needed to be there. The werewolves, even those most unwilling to be such a thing, never exactly look back with despair. Confusion, maybe, but they did not bemoan their fate.

The two characters that I enjoyed the most did not make it to the end of the novel, but they died well. Garton handled them superbly up to the end.

This is Good book in a general sense, and a Great book for werewolf fans. Recommended to most.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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