Litstack Recs | Werewolves in Their Youth & A History of What Comes Next

by Lauren Alwan

Werewolves in Their Youth: Stories, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s Werewolves in Their Youth isn’t exactly horror or sci-fi, though Chabon is famously a fan of both genres. And in this collection, published in 1999, there are hauntings, though they are by absent fathers, local drunks, past misdeeds, and guilty consciences. Characters move about in the placid light of day until some triggering event causes a dark side to emerge. The results are the entertaining turns of plot and smart portrayals for which Chabon is well known.

If there is a single idea that runs between stories, it’s not gruesome scenarios of the shadow world or the dead’s pursuit of the living. This is literary fiction after all, and rather than the darkness of beasts and monsters, each stylized glimpse looks at the darkness in relationships: matrimony, divorce, reconciliation, fatherhood, the raising of children, and fraught episodes in a marriage bed—these are the scary scenes at the heart of this collection.

In the title story, two friends escape into fantasy as a hedge against fatherlessness, and from the opening line, the premise connects to the author’s passion for comics, superheroes, pop culture:

“I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far.”

In “Spikes,” an electric guitar maker whose marriage ended after the death of his child takes a troubled eleven-year-old under his wing; in “Green’s Book,” Marty Green, a divorced father, encounters a witchy-looking girl at a party, and a bad feeling of their history comes hurtling back; and in “The Harris Fetko Story,” a down-and-out football star comes to term with his absent father. Here’s Fetko at the mirror:

“He was used from long habit to thinking of his body as having a certain monetary value or as capable of being translated, mysteriously, into money, and if it were somehow possible, he would have paid a handsome sum to purchase himself.”

The collection includes a dip into actual horror with “In the Black Mill,” a long short story of an archaeologist who discovers cannibalism and ritual sacrifice in what is clearly a sinister Pennsylvanian town.

Though stylized, humorous, and consummate passages abound on nearly every page, my favorite story of the collection might be “House Hunting.” Daniel Diamond and Christy Kite are a young and seemingly ideal couple who, of course, possess a dark secret: despite being in their early twenties, blessed with health, wealth (via Christy’s parents), and the kind of comfort only a certain conformity can provide—they’re not getting along—that is to say, they’re not getting it on, as the saying goes, despite concerted efforts, and exhaustive counseling. Working with a therapist, the couple hopes to generate a “nonthreatening sense of physical closeness,” by means of Al Green, candlelight, foot massages, etc., but to no avail. Here’s Daniel:

Although sex was something they both regarded as perilous, marriage had, by contrast, seemed safe—a safe house in a world of danger; the ultimate haven of two solitary, fearful souls. When you were single, this was what everyone who was already married was always telling you. Daniel himself had said it to his unmarried friends. It was, however, a lie.

As the story opens, their real estate agent, Mr. Hogue, a family friend, is about to show them a house, one that seems out of their league. The house-hunting expedition of the story exposes the couple’s marital lie, and yet its darkness turns out to have, well, a silver lining. That’s how it goes with this collection: the landscape is familiar—all the better to employ the creepiness of so many dark undersides (and the author has too a love of obscure locales—Chagrin Harbor, Probity Beach, Chubb Island). Each story mines the characters with a lively prose style that unwittingly pulls the reader into a dark and unknown landscape, and yet, despite the darkness, the characters eventually come to find hope. Thanks to Chabon’s careful observances and the signature stamina of his sentences, the result always gets beneath the beautiful surface of his prose.

Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but for me, the short story is where the author’s talents are sharpest and his prose exacts its clearest effect. When you can describe ideas and things as well as Chabon does, it’s great to have the room to stretch out, but Werewolves in Their Youth is about as perfect as a collection can get: a glittering assembly of dark gems, each of which contains its own small flame of brightness.

—Lauren Alwan

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