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WOLF OF SHADOWS
By WHITLEY STRIEBER (Sierra Club/Knopf; 1985)

This erstwhile children’s book by Whitley Strieber followed his nuclear war epic WAR DAY. I say the kids got the better deal, as WOLF OF SHADOWS packs more drama, suspense and sheer horror into its 104 pages than the bloated and self-important WAR DAY managed in over 500.

     In WOLF OF SHADOWS much of America is obliterated by nuclear missiles, whose explosions are witnessed by a wolf pack based in the Minnesota wilderness. The entire tale is told from the point of view of the "Wolf of Shadows," so named because he's condemned to wander apart from his tribe. In this state he gets a far greater understanding of the world than the tribe's other wolves, and so upon witnessing the nuclear blasts recognizes a danger his fellows don't.

     Also afoot are a woman and her young daughter, who head out to the wilderness to escape the nuclear fallout suffusing the cities. These two are first glimpsed toting the charred body of the woman's infant child, which turns out to be the first of many horrors precipitated by an unfolding nuclear winter.

     Countless more corpses are found, many with knives sticking out of their chests and ropes around their necks, along with a dog pack that (unwisely) dares to stand up to the wolves and various animals the ravenous wolf pack kills in a succession of graphically described gorings ("his tongue could detect a huge, throbbing vein...With a toss of his head he cut it completely in two...Blood poured from the wound, hissing in the hot hay").

     Along the way the Wolf of Shadows becomes the leader of the wolf pack, and the two humans, in the novel's most audacious development, actually become part of the pack themselves. The final pages, by which point most of the pack has died off and the protagonists have nearly followed suit, can be viewed as hopeful, I guess, but the whole thing seemed inescapably bleak to me.

     Whitley Strieber is the same guy who wrote COMMUNION, about his alleged anal probing by aliens. The present novel was written before the above "nonfiction" work turned Strieber's career around (and not for the better!). Back in 1985 he was a horror writer with two classics, THE WOLFEN and THE HUNGER, on his resume (as well as the aforementioned WAR DAY, which in my view isn't in the same league). WOLF OF SHADOWS contains most of the things that made those novels memorable, namely a strong and unpretentious descriptive power bolstered by unerringly confident, streamlined prose. It also boasts a convincing delineation of the hierarchy and behavior of a wolf pack; the author bio claims Strieber spent some time studying wolves in Northern Minnesota, which is fully evident in the text.

     

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