Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The strongest emotion we feel—stronger than love, even—is fear, and the greatest fear we have is fear of the unknown. The Irish poet and novelist John F. Deane’s third novel, In the Name of the Wolf, oozes dread, from its first sentence—”She woke out of nightmare, her body wet with perspiration, her breathing difficult”—to the old-fashioned monster hunt that caps it. Whatever’s stalking the island where the book is set (unnamed, somewhere off the coast of western Ireland) is like a shape glimpsed through fog: dark and undefined, something that could be either nothing or anything at all, menacing because its appearance remains obscured. Throughout, Deane’s horror threatens to step from the mist (or the shadows of a cave, or the darkened nave of a church, or out from behind a line of pine trees), but the author knows the power of mood and suggestion and keeps it shrouded—to great effect.
There are hints—fairly obvious ones, in fact, beginning with the novel’s unfortunate, quasi-religious title—of what is killing the island’s sheep and filling its population with unease and terror. Early on, for instance, Deane introduces a silver bullet into his narrative; its inclusion doesn’t take on significance until 150 pages later, when the island’s physician, Dr. Weir, finally speaks the unspeakable. Weir is in the Atlantic Bar, a local pub, describing a walk he and one of the island’s priests, Father Crowe, took in the mountains, where most of the novel’s strangeness occurs:
Canon Crowe and myself climbed up there one day, way back. Years and years ago. We saw nothing, heard nothing. But we knew there was something there. Something evil. Everywhere about us. As if each particle of air contained a piece of it. Werewolf, I remember thinking the word to myself at the time and cursing myself for a fool. I have never said the word aloud until now. Now maybe it’s the time.
That the silver bullet is mentioned, then forgotten, then recalled so abruptly and conveniently after Weir’s pronouncement (“And Tony, you have a bullet, a silver bullet. Remember?” says one of the island’s prominent citizens, Capt. Cyril Thornton O’Higgins) should feel cheap. It doesn’t, though, because Deane has wrapped the bullet up in a story—a beautiful tall tale, actually—prefacing Wolf’s main plot line. The story is like a light snack, a piggy in a blanket, before the main course.
In the thick of World War II, a German gunboat seeking “some moments’ respite from the slaughter” arrives at the island. Three armed sailors from its crew are greeted by Capt. O’Higgins, who escorts them to the Atlantic Bar. The sailors can’t speak English, the captain’s German is appalling (“He told the commander, in fluid German…that the water in the bathroom of my mother is not warm, that the city of Berlin stands not on the Rhine and that the trees in Bavaria are very high”), but somehow common ground is established: “‘Beer!’ shouted the Captain.” The Germans drink up, paying for their stout with “a perfectly shaped silver bullet,” and leave the island and its inhabitants undisturbed. The story’s punch line is lovely: O’Higgins says to the Atlantic’s bartender, “Well, Tony, might have cost us a few shillings but we have saved our country from a mighty invasion!”
Such embedded narratives are woven throughout In the Name of the Wolf, adding texture and color and personality to what is essentially a shaggy-dog horror story. Every character Deane introduces—the usual suspects: the bachelor who lives with his mother, the housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, the delivery man who really delivers—but each one has a story. Ranging in tone from the melancholy to the perverse, the humorous to the eerie, the stories fit into each other easily, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, documenting the daily dramas of island life and transforming Wolf into an Irish-gothic version of Our Town.
Unsurprisingly, the two most effective tales Deane relates are horror stories: O’Higgins’ recollection of how his mother’s ghost saved his life when he was just a boy, and the night Casimir, the butcher’s mother—haunted by visions of that terrible death-caller, the banshee—meets her maker. They are digressions, but spooky as all get-out.
Meanwhile, the novel’s primary narrative arc follows O’Higgins’ daughter, Patty, from her birth through her lupus-afflicted adolescence (Deane’s choice of illness is heavy-handed, but, of course, thematically appropriate), to her incarceration in some kind of hospital (a “ward of blood”), to her fearful journey back home. Deane describes Patty’s pain—her physical pain, worsening as the disease warps her bones over the years, and her emotional pain, compounded by her mother’s depression and premature death—with brutal frankness. When she and her boyfriend, Josh, a schoolteacher, go parking, the poor dear says to him: “I know I’m not the most beautiful woman in the world, not the most full of animation and excitement; you must feel free to leave me, whenever you wish.” Later, she asks him, “I will have a normal life, won’t I, Josh? Won’t I?” These utterances would be funny if they weren’t so desperate.
Somehow related to Patty, although the connection is never made clear (indeed, this is the novel’s most serious shortcoming), is the unseen creature that starts to terrorize the island’s inhabitants just before the girl’s birth. A chemist and a merchant, following a mountain trail, are almost trampled by a terrified mountain goat. What, one wonders, could have scared the beast? One morning, the delivery man discovers his van—not coincidentally, the same van that Patty will shortly be born in (don’t ask)—vandalized, stinking “of feaces, urine, blood,” its tires ripped open, its tins of food shredded. Another time, the butcher’s slaughterhouse is ransacked, his sheep—hanging from the ceiling to dry out, their blood draining from their bodies—are stolen, and bits of them are found on the hillside: “There were traces of wool and blood on the trodden earthen floor as if the sheep had been torn into pieces and devoured,” Deane writes. Some kind of animal must be responsible, but what kind of animal could have unlocked the slaughterhouse door? The same animal, perhaps, that would rip a dog’s head off, leaving its carcass behind for its owner to find?
Deane handles the main story line somewhat clumsily, with wooden dialogue (“Sounds almost human,” one islander says to another upon hearing the mystery animal’s howl) and ponderous ideology straight out of a Universal horror movie (“We are all werewolves, all of us, when we know the wickedness that grows and festers deep within and when we can yet walk and live with one another,” Josh tells his students.). But the clunkiness is intentional, I think, and strangely comforting. You’re hearing a story, dear listener—one you’ve heard or seen before, Deane seems to be suggesting. And it’s a story that might scare you a little bit, but don’t forget: It’s only a story. At the very least, the author is clearly having fun here, what with the “sheepish sun” that hangs above the island, and the delivery man, Pat Larry, “grinn[ing] sheepishly” when the woman he fancies compliments him.
Deane has an ease with imagery and, when he chooses, with poetic language—words are spoken in the dark and then vanish, “skittering away…like startled beetles,” or end abruptly on a handwritten page “the way a river will disappear over a cliff.” He also knows what scares us—everything from disease to dying alone to going through life unloved to, well, disemboweled farm animals. If In the Name of the Wolf’s overarching narrative—basically, a recycling of Stephen King’s wonderful novella Cycle of the Werewolf—lacks urgency, and his attempts to use lycanthropy as a metaphor for otherness (in the form of Patty’s lupus, for starters) are vague, the parts—Deane’s vignettes of horror and love and life, dark flowers worthy of Poe, who is quoted throughout—more than offset the whole. CP