Book Review: Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Mongrels delivers everything you need in a werewolf story, incorporating all the tropes, paying homage while deconstructing with revisionist perfection, transcending genre to provide one of the most entertaining, heartfelt, mind-blowing novels we’ve read this year.

mongrelsAlways on the move, never settling, growing up knowing you might be a werewolf, at once loving and hating your destiny, your fate. Your family is as dysfunctional as anyone else’s, and you always feel like an outsider waiting on something to happen. All your life, you’ve heard nothing but stories, legends, and all the things the movies never really got right, yet… you know there’s more to life. There has to be more, right? And you embrace it all, because it’s all you’ve got, that and family. You want it more than anything else because you’re right there in the thick of it, so close you can smell the blood, and it’s the only thing you can call your own, even if one day it might even kill you.

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones is his love-letter to the werewolf genre. If, by some weird chance, you’ve never heard of Jones, author of Growing Up Dead in Texas, Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl, The Least of My Scars, and many, many more novels and collections, then it’s high time you invested a little time in his stories. If you are a fan of his work, and you, like so many of his fans who have been patiently waiting on Jones to finally write a werewolf novel, well the time has come, and what a glorious time it is. Mongrels delivers everything you need in a werewolf story, incorporating all the tropes, paying homage while deconstructing with revisionist perfection, transcending genre to provide one of the most entertaining, heartfelt, mind-blowing novels we’ve read this year. Usually resigned to the second banana position in most stories, or playing the cursed victim card, this time the werewolf is front and center in a way we’ve never seen before, and the result may very well be the best incarnation of the monster yet.

Raised by his aunt Libby and uncle Darren, the nameless young werewolf of the story travels with them from town to town, forever on the run. Jones takes his time with this story, wringing out the details, and usually finding some clever thing about werewolf lore no one else has ever thought of before. It’s one thing to drop something new and cool into a story, a twist of the cliché to make things fresh, but if you don’t tie it back to the characters, then that’s all it is, just some cool thing sticking out like a sore thumb. Jones weaves these little details into the narratives, into his characters’ lives, often from the little stories Darren would tell his nephew about what separates werewolves from humans, the different kinds of werewolves and how they came about, the do’s and don’ts of the werewolf life. Combined with his grandpa’s tales and Libby’s wisdom, our main character grows up not only knowing he’s a werewolf, but actually looking forward to the change, the transformation. He longs to fit in, for all the right reasons, and even some of the wrong reasons, but nonetheless, it’s this longing that allows us to relate to him on a deeper level, because we’ve all been there in our lives, wanting to just belong to someone.

Jones’ prose is straightforward and easy on the eyes, and his approach of using both 1st person and 3rd person narration allows Jones to stretch his legs a little and let us see the action at a distance, and up-close and personal. In lesser skilled writers, this method would possibly be jarring, but little experiments like this are second nature for Jones, so it fits the story perfectly and naturally. The alternating narratives provide the best of both reading experiences, and is the perfect vehicle for Jones to take the bits and pieces of the werewolf legends and folklore and incorporate them into his story. As for what parts of the folklore Jones uses, it’s quite easy to say he was inspired by all of it, and somehow manages to squeeze it into the novel in such a way that’s natural, and it flows with the narrative, in the blood of the story, and there are really not many writers that can pull that kind of feat and make it look so easy.

Many will try to compare Mongrels to other werewolf novels and films, but if such a comparison is made, then perhaps the novel best compares to Kathryn Bigelow’s Vampire/Western Near Dark. It’s safe to say that what Jones has actually accomplished here is akin to a Tangerine Dream fever of the tortures and ecstasies of teenage life, the coming-of-age story of Homer, as raised by Jesse and Diamondback, only now their names are Darren and Libby, and they are not vampires, but werewolves, always on the run, and always looking for those wide open spaces to just run, and run. Among the many thanks Jones lists in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book, Near Dark is one of the first films listed, and of course later on you find The Howling listed there as well. Surely you’ll find Dog Soldiers, and An American Werewolf in London, and Paris, and you’d find a Curse of the Werewolf, as well as A Company of Wolves, Ginger Snaps, and even a Brotherhood of the Wolf sliced open and bleeding on the pages. Jones used it all, embraced the clichés, made it all his own, and with that, has probably written one of the best werewolf novels ever, and at the very least, one of the best books we’ve read this year so far.


Publisher: William Morrow
Paperback (320pp)
Release Date: 10 May 2016

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