Genre: Anthology (favoring Comedy)
Author: Various (edited by Esther Friesner)
"Alas, poor werewolves," writes Esther Friesner in the introduction to Strip Mauled. "Forever doomed to be Avis to the vampire's unassailable fang-hold on Hertz, Pepsi to their Coke, Burger King to their McDonalds!" To which LupLun replies, "Where you been? Antarctica?"
I shouldn't be mean. Strip Mauled was published in 2009, meaning that said intro was probably penned in 2008. At which point, yes, the bloodsuckers did rule the roost. But, the wheel turns. Over the past two years, we've seen two debuting werewolf series' make the bestseller lists, a number of more established series being rediscovered, and lest we forget Team Jacob was trouncing Team Edward pretty soundly until the latter started firing the canon. The vamps remain on top, but they're slipping. You're as likely to see parodies of vampire romances than straight examples on the bookshelves these days. Clearly, brooding immortals with cold skin and neck fetishes don't do it for the modern fangirl. She wants someone who romances her, as Trent Reznor put it, "like an animal." So, an anthology with a stated goal being "helping our long-suffering lycanthropic brethren to lay claim to their rightful bite of the American Dream" seems almost quaint these days. Our moon, after all, is already waxing.
Still, a good story is a good story. So let's see what the 20 shorts Ms. Friesner has assembled around the general theme of werewolves in suburbia have to offer.
Howl! (Jody Lynn Nye): Fortysomething bureaucrat gets lycanthropy, uses it to deal with a midlife crisis. Feels like a crash course in new-school werewolves for readers who are familiar with the old, monstrous version. Hits all the bullet points of the mystique-- wildness, freedom, energy, and the ability to leave your wife "limp and satisfied". Main problem: it feels rushed, like a novella cut down to short story size. Protagonist wolfs out and is first confused, then horrified, then excited, but the transition is far from smooth. "Shifts gears with an audible clunk", as Ben Croshaw once said. Likewise, the wife is a bit too eager upon discovering that her husband now has a hairy alter-ego. Not bad, but deserved to be fleshed out more.
Special Needs (K.D. Wentworth): The den mother of an unusual group of Cub Scouts has to deal with a human boy that's been shoved into her pack by his bossy mother. Not my favorite. Too much setup and not enough payoff, plus fairly one-dimensional characters. Liked the ending, though.
Fish Story (Tracy S. Morris): A reporter with arcane powers and her werewolf friend investigate an aquatic monster rampaging in a lake in the Ozarks. Also kinda rushed, but the leads have great chemistry and the action scenes are well-written. Loved it the first time through, but it had been knocked down a rung by the time I finished the whole anthology. Still a good read, though. Feels like it might be an excerpt from a full novel. If so, I hope a good publisher picks it up-- there's definite potential here.
Blame it on the Moonlight (Tim Waggoner): Drowning his sorrows at a small bar, a morose werewolf catches the eye of a mysterious woman, and one thing starts leading to another. The big reveal is really, really stupid-- so much so that it's impossible to take it seriously. However, the writing is solid, the characters are surprisingly well-developed for the short length, and the ending is sweet, so I'll give it a thumbs-up.
Imaginary Fiend (Lucienne Diver): Werewolf cop and his pixie companion spot some weird goings-on at the mall and investigate. A fun little romp, but rushed. There are two unrelated villains, neither of which have especially clear motivation. The story jumps from investigation to magical shootout in a logically plausible but dramatically weak manner. A simpler finale would have helped. Still, a worthwhile read overall, with some likeable characters and ideas.
Neighborhood Bark-B-Q (Daniel M. Hoyt): New guy in town turns out to be the only non-werewolf in town, takes the entire story to figure it out. Plays like one of the lighter episodes of The Twilight Zone, and true to that style is really about something more prosaic: moving in next to weird neighbors. More concerned with fish-out-of-water gags than deeper themes, though. The reader knows the truth well before the protagonist, thanks to the townspeople's ridiculously obvious names: "Rose Hood", "Lou Pines", and "Boomer Sheepskin", to name a few. (Plus, you know, the fact that it's in a werewolf-themed anthology.) Amusingly, they call the human's name-- "Bryan Wolff", by total coincidence-- "bold", despite the fact that it's nowhere near as blatant. Plot progresses smoothly up until the climax, then kinda rushes things to the wrap-up. Forgettable, but decent.
That Time of the Month (Laura J. Underwood): A bitchy woman tries to get rid of a disgusting and obnoxious family of hillbilly weres. Reads like some kind of revenge fantasy, with nasty stereotypes and toilet humor thrown in. The title makes no sense since the lunar cycle doesn't affect this particular world's lycanthropes. Mean-spirited and obnoxious. Worst story in the book.
Pack Intern (Berry Kercheval): A
Support Your Local Werewolf (Kate Everson): A college-age were visits a friend's house for Thanksgiving, meets the neighbors, and then gets forced to do some amateur crime-fighting. This one is definitely an excerpt, according to the author's bio. Which explains some bits of clumsily-placed exposition. And the fact that I didn't know the narrator was a woman until halfway through. Other than that, though, this is exemplary work. Strong characterizations and witty writing shore up a plot that's mainly world-and-character building. The villainous scheme that our heroine thwarts is pretty dumb, but an interesting ending twist makes up for it. All in all, an effective teaser. Looking forward to the full version.
Isn't That Special (Esther Friesner): Upper-class twit gets a werewolf boy expelled from her daughter's kindergarten, then has to deal with the fallout. Reminds me of the Malveria plotlines of the Kalix MacRiannalch books, but with a completely unsympathetic protagonist. Which is intentional, by the way-- the point of the story is to watch her earn her comeuppance. Friesner goes for broke on the writing, which entertains but is also occasionally disruptive. Sample: "Ms. Randolph launched the gratuitous psychobabble javelin straight at Donna's heart and kept a beautifully straight face when the overbearing shrew cringed." In bits, these kind of verbal acrobatics are amusing, but used repeatedly they grate. Still a decent read, all things considered. Well paced, too.
Prowling for Love (Linda L. Donahue): Reluctant werewolf seeks romance at a furry convention. Likely to be accused of slinging around stereotypes. I'm not in a position to say whether that's true or not, but the story has bigger problems anyway. It's hard to like the main couple-- The love interest has little personality, the protagonist herself comes off as somewhat whiny, and there's no spark. The ending is predictable. The protagonist being attacked by a gang of angry poodles may make up for it, though.
Lighter Than Were (Robert Hoyt): Were working in mall maintenance invents a florescent bulb that simulates moonlight, but complications prevent testing it out. Third story to take place in a mall, indicating that some writers took the anthology title a bit too seriously. Amusing writing and some fairly awful puns. Good world-building, too, but the story is pretty unremarkable. The entire plot hinges on the main character being dumb enough to not keep blueprints for his invention, which weakens the story. It's also rushed. Fun, but feels like a wasted idea.
Enforcement Claws (Steven Piziks): Werewolf in a hoity-toity gated community runs into trouble with the neighbors and her own prejudices when her teenage son turns out to be
Where-Wolf (Selina Rosen): Teenager staffs a suicide-prevention hotline to impress a girl, winds up trying to talk down a werewolf instead. Decent idea and good writing, but doesn't really know where to go with it. However, the main character is sympathetic and the ending is amusing. Bland, but relatively inoffensive.
Overnight Moon (David D. Levine): Thirteen-year old
Wolfy Ladies (Dave Freer): Four-foot-six, thousand-year-old private eye is hired by a were to track down her antilycanthropic potion dealer. Knew this was going to be a weird one when the PI starts his investigation by bringing a sapient gargoyle a pigeon to molest. Gets weirder and sillier from there. Probably the best story on display here, and definitely the funniest-- I was laughing nearly from start to finish. Very well structured, too. The conclusion is surprising, but makes total sense if you've been paying attention to all the world-building.
Frijoles for Fenris (Kevin Andrew Murphy): A Wicked Magician (his actual character class, it seems) has to deal with the consequences when his muggle roommate eats some Yggdrasil seeds and winds up in touch with Fenris Wulf. Very entertaining, but unfocused. Something of a Wiki-walk plotline: we go from a trippin' roommate to a werewolf frat to a vision quest to see Hel. Difficult to cheer for a protagonist that sees hastening the end of the world as no big deal. Entertaining anyway.
The Case of the Driving Poodle (Sarah A. Hoyt): Paranormal private investigator and his muggle assistant investigate a missing-persons case. An annoying mystery because everything's obvious from the fact that it's in a werewolf anthology. The one thing that isn't obvious relies on an explanation that we only get after the plot is resolved. Shenanigans! The perspective character playing Dr. Watson takes too long to figure out what's going on. Yes, yes, she's not the detective, and she doesn't know she's in a werewolf story. But if you're in the paranormal investigations business, and you don't at least have a wild guess when you hear "silver bullets", you need to find a new line of work. Decent, but unremarkable.
Meet the Harrys (Robin Wayne Bailey): Sitcom family of weres deals with an average morning that takes some unpleasant twists. Not a bad idea, but fumbled seriously. The sitcom plot is just getting interesting when a gang of bank robbers show up and render the whole thing stupid on arrival. I understand this is supposed to be a parody, but family-sitcom crooks are just too far into the realm of the idiotic, and even before that it wasn't getting the most out of the premise.
The Creature in Your Neighborhood (Jim C. Hines): Life on Sesame Street (or a serial-numbers-filed-off version, anyway) gets ugly when a werewolf shows up and starts killing, which leads to a lot of paranoid puppets. Funny, but it's very, very dark humor. The kind that makes you feel dirty for laughing at it. A rather discordantly macabre note to end the anthology on. Still, if you've ever wanted to read a story where a bootleg Elmo shoots his room up with a .45, this is the place.
Overall view? Well, I loved more stories than I outright hated, and the remainder were at least serviceable. One word you might note used repeatedly above is "rushed." The stories average around 20 pages apiece, and there's 24 lines on a page-- merely 2/3 that of your usual mass-market paperback. Some of the authors are able to tell marvelous stories in that space, but a lot of others have some pacing problems. And while it's not a serious issue, some may be put off by the way the stories tend more to a kind of grown-up Harry Potter then traditional urban fantasy. But these are minor quibbles, and in the end there's far more to like here than there is to dislike. So go ahead and add this to your TBR list if you need some bite-sized suburban fantasy storytelling. It's certainly worth the price of a mass-market paperback.