In Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones tears down and rebuilds the werewolf mythos. No longer held sway by the cycles of the moon, his creatures are shapeshifters in complete control of their transformations—though their bastard offspring aren’t so lucky. He uses the outsider status of these second-generation lycanthropes to tell the story of a family living on the fringes of society, and the young man who must decide where he truly belongs. The result is a fascinating, wrenching, and at times grotesque story about a dysfunctional family that must survive in a world where all its members can rely on is each other, and the wolf within.
The story plays out in a series of vignettes narrated by an unnamed young half-human, alternating between past and present day. The orphaned narrator, his aunt Libby, and his uncle Darren live their lives on the road and under the radar, moving from cheap rental to cheap rental, taking jobs when they can, always with one foot out the door. It’s better that way. Too long in one place, and they face the inevitable close call with a hunter, or the law. As the protagonists travel through the American south, the calls seem to keep getting closer and the past keeps catching up with them. With the narrator’s 16th birthday (and possibly his first transformation) approaching, he must decide whether to continue life on the run, or give in to his human side and attempt to live among those they consider prey.
Mongrels reinvents the werewolf mythos—they aren’t just a breed of monster, but an entire culture. Jones gives them their own customs, rules, and laws, their own ideas about how a wolf is supposed to act. They even have their own lore—stories they share, knowledge about how to survive (including their pathological hatred of the Lone Ranger). They’re represented as outsiders, a race of people that long predates modern “civilization” that forces them out because who and what they are . There’s even a kind of resentment towards those who forsake their wolfish identities and instead try to live “among the sheep,” an admonition that eventually their wolf nature will catch up with them, and drive them into the night to hunt and howl at the moon. For Jones, werewolf nature is a stand-in for an entire cultural identity, a source of friction that propels the narrative and sheds light on his damaged characters.
The book’s greatest, and most unexpected, strength is its sense of family. While it’s clear Darren and Libby are damaged individuals, it’s clear they care deeply about their nephew, in their own way. Darren may be a violent, loudmouthed criminal,—more of a lone wolf—but he always provides for his sister and nephew. Libby may be prone to explosive bursts of animalism, but she tries hard to keep the family crawling under the radar; she’s not above unleashing a gruesome bloodbath if it means saving her nephew’s life. While the characters have their own roles and selfish motivations, their pack bond goes deeper than blood.
Mongrels has its moments of darkness, but it’s strongest when it focuses on the bonds at its core. Darren, Libby, and the narrator are compelling characters, and the bleak world they inhabit in is fascinating because they make it come alive, and give it real stakes. Rebuilding the werewolf from very human foundations, Stephen Graham Jones gives old tropes a silver bullet shot in the arm, and you may never see the monster in quite the same light again.