“Just a story that keeps changing”: Family Curses and Twisted Tales in Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels
Who is the narrator of Stephen Graham Jones’s 2016 werewolf novel Mongrels? It’s a good question for a kid trying to figure himself out. A reporter, a biologist, a mechanic? Moving from state to state throughout his adolescence, he occupies a seemingly unending string of potential identities. He’s pretty sure he’s a werewolf, though. That’s almost certain.
Born into a family of werewolves, the narrator yearns to transform. The young unnamed narrator, who we follow episodically, ages without the barest glint of claws or the hirsute shift. He declares, “I wanted to bare my fangs to the world, wanted to show Darren and Libby and everybody what I had coiled up inside of me. No matter how hard I scratched, though, the wolf wouldn’t surface.” It’s a little disheartening, especially since his aunt and uncle are verifiable lycanthropes. Like many werewolf stories, Mongrels is a bildungsroman that grapples with puberty, identity, and one’s place in the world. But it’s much more than that, too.
In my previous installment of Queer Moon Rising on the film Ginger Snaps, I asserted that werewolves aren’t born werewolves. The human is instead recast as the lycanthrope after an attack, prompting a (sometimes) cyclical transformation. This is mostly true. There are plenty of reasons why. In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy expound rabies’ influence on the development of the Western werewolf and other mythical creatures whose primary mode of conception is bite transference and thus the exchange of bodily fluids. To some degree, monstrosity has always materialized as anxieties for disease and infection. Often, they double as gay panic. Thanks largely to nineteenth-century Gothic literature after the Contagious Diseases Act, a century of infection and sexuality fused to mold the modern (queer) monster. More recently, Hollywood has played no small role in advancing this particular method of conception. By the 1980s, gone were the days of donning wolfskin belts and cloaks. Bites, slashes, and scrapes frontlined werewolf flicks. Even in notable exceptions like Teen Wolf (1985), Scott Howard’s genetic lycanthropy is a pretty obvious metaphor for puberty with lingering questions regarding his sexuality. Amid the AIDS crisis, werewolves implicitly manifested as fears of non-normative sexualities.
Blackfeet author Jones presents an altogether different origin story in Mongrels. In this installment, I want to foremost emphasize the novel’s social commentary through the metaphor of the werewolf. Unlike many werewolf tales whose profundity begins and ends with a general sentiment of outsiderness, Jones’s novel is preoccupied with creation myths and genealogies. Through Jones’s consideration of Indigenous experiences in the United States and familial storytelling, Mongrels problematizes the very notion of origin.
The novel’s title is itself an interwoven analysis of American racism, colonial dispossession, and storytelling. “Mongrels” invokes the racialized manner in which terms like it or “half-breeds” have been historically harnessed as oppressive rhetoric to dehumanize their targets, and have proliferated throughout Gothic and horror media for centuries alongside social uses to dehumanize people non-white, non-heterosexual, disabled persons. Jones’s embrace of the term highlights his shrewd reconfiguration of Native Americans’s role in the global history of werewolf stories. The sticky and often troublesome history of casting Native Americans as werewolves in its modern context goes back to 1913, when the first werewolf film was released. Simply entitled The Werewolf (dir. Henry MacRae), the silent film, whose central roles appear to have been performed by white actors, follows a Navajo woman’s revenge on white settlers and is based on a 1898 short story of the same name by French-Canadian writer and politician Honoré Beaugrand. Then, in the very lupine year of 1981, Wolfen relayed stereotypes of Indigenous peoples’ “wolf spirits,” a concept which was later picked up by Stephenie Meyer in The Twilight Saga (2005–2008). But Mongrels may be the first to present a mainstream werewolf tale from an Indigenous creator’s perspective—and one which converses adeptly with this cultural history.
Jones knows his stuff. Pick up any of his dozens of stories and you’ll find yourself immersed in a fast-paced thrill ride that at once is incredibly versed in its subgenre and reshapes its boundaries. In short, Jones is a master of learning the rules so he can break them. His stardom as a speculative author can in part be attributed to his ability to organically imbue his work about monsters and killers with meticulous intention and meaning. He also tells a pretty damn good story. Mongrels, like his recent works The Only Good Indians and Night of the Mannequins (both published in 2020), present character-driven narratives in worlds much like our own with the exception that grisly horror lurks right around the corner. In the case of Mongrels, werewolves give shape to that horror.
Like any werewolf story worth its salt, however, Mongrels asserts that it is not the slobbering four-legged creature itself that’s the scariest thing about lycanthropy, but their ostracization from society. Jones fundamentally understands the creature’s societal import: “Being a werewolf isn’t just teeth and claws … it’s inside. It’s how you look at the world. It’s how the world looks back at you.” This sentiment is what makes werewolves such pliable figures for metaphors of queerness. Though Mongrels’s primary questions center around the experience of growing up brutally ostracized by one’s country in an Indigenous context, queer readers can assuredly emphathize with the bildungsroman of an outsider—especially regarding family and expectations of identity. The narrator explains, “Everything’s a trade-off when you’re a werewolf. It’s like the world wants us to be monsters. Like it won’t let us live in the way normal citizens do.”
Part of this trade-off is family. In Mongrels, family fractures and sutures. Though the novel might not centralize queer desire or gender fluidity, its resistance to monolithic identities and the conscriptive familial construction of settler colonialism illustrates the unique potential for werewolf stories to resonate across marginalized experiences. Indeed, the narrator’s commentary on his and his family’s position as Indigenous citizens in the United States through the lycanthropic lens demonstrates the werewolf story’s ability to highlight the settler state’s systematic dismantling of “competing indigenous formations” and kinships through its heterosexual, nuclear family paradigm. In Mongrels, the werewolf functions as an analysis of the ways in which family and identity are informed by colonialism.
Early on, we learn that the narrator’s mother died when he was born. Women, you see, don’t usually survive birth when they aren’t werewolves themselves. He likens her death to a family curse—one to which his grandmother also succumbed. Prompted by the death of his grandfather, the narrator’s desire to understand the creation story of werewolves and his own birth haunts the narrative. Like his exploration of identity, these histories are fluid. It doesn’t, however, make them any less significant. In the opening pages, the narrator prepares his reader for an unstable, constantly transformative narrative: “This is the way werewolf stories go. Never any proof. Just a story that keeps changing, like it’s twisting back on itself, biting its own stomach to chew the poison out.” By the end of Mongrels, the narrator garners two divergent origin stories of werewolves. Unsatisfied, he decides to make up his own about star-crossed lovers. “A wolf and a logger’s daughter,” he writes, “meet out in the moonlight night after night, trying to figure out the precise mechanics of their relationship.” The narrator, no doubt pulling from his own familial experience, casts the mother of all werewolves’ story as a tragedy. When the narrator learns the grim truth of his mother’s death, this history folds into the novel’s larger narrative structure in which stories are crossbreeds of fact and fiction.
Mongrels culminates in two moments. In the first, the narrator reacts hazardously to silver, proving that he is indeed a werewolf. The gene didn’t skip a generation. In the second, the woman, Grace-Ellen, who exposed him to silver—and who ends up pregnant with his uncle’s child—reveals that family curses are bunk: by wearing silver earrings, Grace-Ellen can ingest just enough silver to prevent the baby from “wolfing out” during birth. She upheaves family’s entrenched belief in its ultimate annihilation. Survival is possible. Lineages will continue, “mongrel” or not.
In the end, Mongrels isn’t quite invested in origins and genealogies. Instead, it’s devoted to ideas of creation and mythmaking. Survival through storytelling. In a poignant moment, the narrator contemplates, “Had there ever been somebody like me? There had to have been. Werewolves have always been here. Every variation of us, it has to have happened at some point. Just, it’s the remembering that’s tricky.” Mongrels reconstructs the origin myth and, moreover, creates its own. The novel’s origins are varied and unstable. Their constant shifts wonderfully mirror lycanthropy. Jones’s (re)interpretation of Indigenous peoples’ fraught history with werewolf tales likewise demonstrates how changing stories can revitalize a genre. Like the tincture of silver that ensures survival, a little bit of what is harmful can be transformed into a tool of survival in the right hands. Mongrels’s unstable mesh of storytelling and amalgamation of identity demands that we forget purity. Mongrel stories are what will endure.
Join me in the next installment on Teen Wolf (1985).
Marisa Mercurio is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD candidate, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth-century female detective fiction and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror, World Literature Today, and Ghouls Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.