Another Blood Moon, Another Howling

What a hullaballoo was kicked up for the recent blood moon. You’d think that a total eclipse occurring when the moon passes closest to Earth only happens, say … once every generation. Oh snap! Barely once in a generation.

I’ve been thinking back to the last time I saw such a moon: it was on the deck of my small double-ender boat in Queensway Bay, Long Beach, California. That little motor-sailer, with it’s oak frames and cedar planks was converted from a decommissioned Navy lifeboat into a 30 foot day sailer. I bought it in decrepit condition as it was rotting and sinking in Naples Marina, and had it hauled out onto the dry-dock at Seal Beach Harbor; but that’s a different story! I remember standing on the deck, bobbing in the darkness as the water gently sloshed the hull, and how the mooring lines occasionally twanged when the boat rocked a certain way. It was a mostly clear night. The lights of Los Angeles were far enough so that the huge blood red moon was fully visible overhead. Thin strands of cloud seemed to slither behind and above the grayed out, slightly sinister lunar disk. That vision of the ochre and crimson moon had me completely mesmerized. I was scarcely aware of the chilling breeze over the water, the chiming halyards of the sailboat masts, and of the hours passing. That eerie night, early in the Reagan years, is burned into my mind forever. Thirty-three years ago!

This time around, Sophia and I camped out on our dining room floor, with pillows and beach blankets. I swung open the plastic thermal-pane windows, which have a hinge that lets them tilt freely out of the their frame. This gave us a clear line of sight, unobstructed by glass panes, trees, or clouds, so that we could look directly up at the mighty and mysterious glowing orb. It was just as strange as the first time I’d seen a blood moon, and we couldn’t resist letting out a few wolf howls now and then. Another blood moon, another howling.

Another boost for the eternal popularity of werewolves. Jeez, even Ubuntu has turned into a Wily Werewolf all of a sudden. “What’s a good werewolf yarn?” I thought, rummaging through my overflowing stacks of SF novels. I loved Lycanthia by Tanith Lee, and enjoyed Tim Powers Anubis Gates, but I wanted something I hadn’t read before. Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think was the obvious choice, and I was delighted to discover that this is really the best book I’ve ever read from that stalwart SF author.

Williamson’s characters are always solid, his plots riveting, and his settings believable. What I didn’t expect was the graceful prose and transcendental consciousness of the shape-shifters in Darker Than You Think. Williamson takes his protagonist, a mediocre reporter named Will Barbee, from his self-pitying drunken existence, and runs him up and down the scales of doubt, suspicion, paranoia, fear and terror — and ultimately beyond his own psychic limitations, into a realm of predatory, savage ferocity, even madness!

In fact, I would say that the book Darker Than You Think transcends the run-of-the-mill science fiction thriller genre and verges on higher planes of literary merit, just like the book’s characters, who escape their physical bodies to become wild beasts of the night. It is not so much in the solid and straight-forward narrative that the book shines, but in the weird places that Williamson takes us in the course of this traditional narrative.

When Barbee becomes a wolf, the readers are sent reeling drunkenly through the intensified smells of the night; when he shape-shifts into a snake, our stomach muscles go twitching across the soil and the grass; when he slashes out to kill, we taste the horrible sweetness of human blood! These scenes are so effortlessly knocked out, in his usual pulp style, we can almost relish what a great time Williamson must have had writing this book. In this book, all of Williamson’s inhibitions are cast aside. He gleefully gallops through the woods at midnight, with a gorgeous naked woman clinging to his back. He is goaded onwards to find the darkest, cruelest parts of his mind, turned into a blood-thirsty ravening beast. Another blood moon, another howling!

Weaving together the fantastic images of eroticism and violence, Williamson also provides plenty of plot twists. At one point, the main character checks himself into an insane asylum, trying to stave off his transformation, which he nervously assumes cannot be real and must be a symptom of his troubled mind. _Oh, the reader knows quite clearly that those dreams are perfectly real! _ But the wonderful tension that is drawn out between Barbee, the asylum’s psychologist, and the femme fatale is written with such delight, you can’t help but be aware of the author himself in these scenes, roaring with laughter and banging the keys of the typewriter with maniacal amusement.

Ultimately, Darker Than You Think, lives up to its title. It does not deliver the typical good-guy-punch-in-the-jaw ending, but dashes off into unexpected zones of strangeness. The inescapable conclusion is just as Curt Siodmak said, in his Wolfman script:

Even a man who is pure by heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf

When the wolfbane blooms

and the Autumn Moon is bright.