Stephen Graham Jones on Mongrels, werewolves and storytelling

We talk all things lycanthropic with author Stephen Graham Jones

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We’re huge fans of Stephen Graham Jones’ latest novel Mongrels. It’s the story of a boy growing up on the road with his uncle and aunt as they hop from blue-collar jobs to thievery to back again, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law and keep enough money to keep them moving. Which is important, because this family has an unusual secret: they’re werewolves.

It’s a coming of age story that seamlessly stirs in a rich werewolf mythology to create something really quite special, and Jones took the time to answer some questions for us about inspirations, creating his characters, lycanthropy, sympathising with the monster, and who he’d like to star in his ideal Mongrels movie.

The inevitable first question: was there a specific inspiration for Mongrels

You know that fish medallion sign-thing Philip K. Dick was always talking about, that he said was like a disinhibiting symbol that would start this cascade of kind of collective or cultural memory? It was something you could just get apprehended by in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, and then suddenly you’re navigating a completely different space. Almost like a post-hypnotic cue, I suppose. You never know you’re standing on a precipice until someone sneaks up behind, pushes you off, that kind of thing. Sometimes, on the way down, you write a novel.

That novel for me was Mongrels. My fish, it was a werewolf figurine. I was doing an event in Baltimore, Maryland, and had an hour or two downtime, so this guy Matthew Hobson, he took me to a toy store, of course. He’s really into boomerangs. Me, I was really into this one werewolf figurine, that I wasn’t even sure I could pack into my carry-on without breaking it. But I did. And I set it up right under my monitor at home, so that I saw it all through the day. Not six weeks later, it started looking back at me. Couple weeks after that, I’d written Mongrels.

 I loved the dynamic between the boy, Libby and Darren. Had you always conceived it as a family tale?

The family part of stories always hits me the hardest, I think. Even in high school once, I had to leave a movie me and my friends were all at, because there was this touching family moment on-screen. But, no, I didn’t go into Mongrels thinking I wanted to highlight and celebrate family. I might have messed it all up, with those intentions. All I wanted to do was have an excuse to look at some werewolves, really. It’s a pretty honourable pursuit, near as I know.

But, I mean, I don’t just come from a family, but I pretty much come from the exact family in Mongrels. Libby and Darren, to me, they’re real people. One of them I can call on the phone. One of them I can’t anymore. But I can see them again as werewolves. To me, Mongrels, it’s more Lilo & Stitch than it is anything else. Just with more fangs, more teeth. Some blood.

 Was it difficult to find a new approach to the werewolf story as a coming of age metaphor?

Everybody always says the werewolf is the adolescent monster. And it makes sense. Your body’s changing. There’s different urges. There’s appetites you think you should feel shame for. You wake in strange places, not sure what happened the night before. There’s bodyhair springing up in crazy places. You smell different, more musky, more animal. You start to go nocturnal. You duck authority, you duck society—you howl at the moon every chance you get, and you peel your lips back over your teeth when anybody looks your way too long. That’s all built into the werewolf. So I could just kind of plug it in.

But puberty is physical, and adolescence, that’s more emotional. Coming of age is something different. Kind of cultural, kind of . . . I’m not sure. But another order of development altogether. And that wasn’t something I could sneak in all pre-formed and assumed. Also? I didn’t even mean to do it. It just turned out that the protagonist, he was young, and so when I looked ahead at where he was going, there were all these bridges he was going to have to cross to get to adulthood. All this stuff he was going to have deal with, learn, reject, let slide, incorporate. And it turned out that the werewolf, it was perfectly built to hold all those bridges up while he crossed. I’d have never guessed that. Like I said above, I just wanted to look at some werewolves, pretty much. The story that welled up, it kind of surprised me.

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How important was it to create a werewolf mythology that was entirely yours, as opposed to sticking to the standard Universal Monster Movie lore?

When you’re writing a creature that not only already exists, but that exists in a lot of competing configurations and interpretations, the temptation of course, it’s to jump in, out-compete the rest, and dream up a completely new werewolf. Except—except then what you end up doing, it’s dismissing centuries of lore, generations of monster-building. Campfires go out all through the centuries, right? I couldn’t do that. I love the werewolf too much to pretend I was coming up with it all on my own. But still, I did want to make the werewolf my own, in order to write about them as if they’re real. And, since I’ve been reading werewolf fiction and watching werewolf movies since I was twelve, I already had a pretty good list of characteristics and tropes I was and wasn’t going to use. Coming late to the werewolf game like we all are in this century, I could kind of cherrypick what I considered the best traits, to build a better beast.

For example . . . I knew my werewolves would adhere to conservation of mass. Which I stole from Carrie Vaughn. I knew they would age in dog years, while transformed. Which I stole from Robert McCammon. I knew they would be straggly and flawed. Which I stole from George RR Martin. I knew there would be family wolves and then there would be infected wolves, which is how I read The Wolf Man. I knew they would be fast in the trees, like Robert Howard’s Conan, not bulky and overmuscled, like the movie Conan I grew up with. Silver would work on my werewolves, and the moon, it wouldn’t.

And I refused to let them be rich. I wanted life to be a struggle. When werewolves are rich, then they can just lock the door, hang out with their priceless treasures, their fifty-seven channels on the television. I wanted mine out there mowing lawns and cleaning gutters, and stealing candy bars, and skulking away with roadkill, snapping at every hand that might reach out to them. Those are the people I know, so those are the people I write.

 Was it fun to tell a road narrative that is a lot grittier than some readers might expect, with part time jobs, laundry runs and trailer-living?

It was fun to make real what’s usually distant for a lot of readers, yeah. I mean, reading, as necessary as it is to me, and to a lot of us, it’s also completely a luxury activity, a pastime, a door you open to step into another world for the evening. After your dinner. More people than not, though, they’re working two or three shifts. What comes after dinner, it’s punching in again. And a lot of people—these Mongrels werewolves definitely included—they often go without dinner.

So, yeah, it was and is fun to shine some story light onto a way of living that a lot of readers might not have experienced. Not fun in the way of shocking them or educating them, but fun in the sense that hopefully the next time those readers see that lanky dude in dirty jeans killing time outside the laundry place, they maybe see that the story swirling around inside him and propping him up, it’s just as compelling as anyone’s story. Just as real, just as vital.

That’s what the novel can do, isn’t it? Make us see other people as people, not just objects to walk around, or things to use. If Mongrels works, then—well, the way I’d hope it works, it’s that you pull into a gas station at two in the morning of some cross-country trip, and there’s already a lowslung, heavy car parked a few islands away. All the heads in there, they look your way. Do you get out of your car to fill up, or do you push on, try to make some next clean, well-lit place? It depends. Depends if you think that’s a werewolf car or not. It depends on the story you see swirling through the musty air of that car. And the hunger.

Author Stephen Graham Jones
Author Stephen Graham Jones

Was it ever difficult to balance the elements of realism and family drama with the supernatural, or did they fit together very naturally?

When I first turned the novel in to my agent, then again to my editor, it was kind of clumpy. All the werewolf stuff was falling together in places, and the family stuff was grouping together in the corners. So—with help, and guidance, and some prodding and promises—I was able to kind of get all these wallflowers onto the dance floor together. Then all I had to do was keep the song going long enough for something good to happen. That’s pretty much always been my model for storytelling. You throw a party, you put the food out, you turn up the volume, you get everybody moving, you wait until the characters have forgot they’re made of paper, you wait until the readers are all the way in the room, and then you sneak out as quietly as you can, and you walk away down the hall, the sounds of that party slowly dying away behind you. You’re the writer, right? You don’t belong at the party. Better to go out and walk the streets, stopping here and there to study all these glowing windows, all this life going on.

 Could you tell us about the use of the use of storytelling within the book, how Grandpa’s tall tales have those guilty hidden truths in them, and even the boy himself is spinning a yarn in a way, and how you wove that into the story?

I should say first of all that I completely hijacked these storytelling wolves from Neil Gaiman. But, I mean, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, right? “The Hunt” issue of Sandman, it was my model, and the bar I set myself for Mongrels. The actual storytelling, though—that’s my great-granddad Pop. I grew up with him. My family always has kids super-young—like the werewolves in Mongrels—so my great-granddad was still around when I was young. It was such a gift. And each of his tales, it was taller than the last. But there was one in particular he told me so many times—just me, I think, not any of the other grandkids.

It was about a dog he had to put down during the Depression, when he couldn’t afford a shell for his shotgun. So he had to use a ball-peen hammer. The way he told the story, each time was more hilarious than the last. He’d tell it until there were tears in the corners of his eyes. But at a certain point in the tellings, I started to wonder if he really thought it was funny. I started to think that maybe he was trying to unburden himself of that scene. That it wouldn’t stop barking in his head. I’d laugh with him, but I’d watch him too, as he acted out swinging that hammer, his left hand hooked on the dog’s collar, the dog pulling him all around in circles. I’d laugh, but that was because he wanted me to. Because he needed me to. I was wondering about the dog, though. I was wondering who that dog might have been, why it mattered to him so much. Some stories, they’re a speck of dust you inhale, and then secrete saliva on for twenty or—in my case—nearly forty years, until you finally throw this shiny thing up one day, and hold it in your palm, wonder where that came from. That’s how Mongrels has been, for me.

An American Werewolf In London
An American Werewolf In London

 A lot of the characters in the novel have an element of tragedy in their lives, but the werewolves do particularly. Have you always sympathised with the monsters in horror stories?

Man, when King Kong falls all that way down? When David gets gunned down in that alley in An American Werewolf in London? When ET just wants to go home? When Grendel’s mom comes up to get the men who killed her son? When Jaws gets blown up? If you’re the scary Bigfoot in a story—or the giant crocodile, or whatever—then the story, man, it grinds you to pieces. As it has to. You’re the aberration, you’re the thing the people in the story can’t allow to exist. But we need the monsters, don’t we? We desperately need them. You know that when transporting game fish in big tanks on trucks, that so many of them die? How we’ve learned to keep them alive, it’s by dropping a predator fish or two in there. It keeps the fish swimming. It keeps them alive. Except the ones that get eaten. But more would have died just from not swimming.

Yes, I’ve always sympathized with the monster. Starting, I think, with that mutant bear in Prophecy, from 1979. It didn’t ask to exist. And, sure, it’s killing people, but it’s just doing what it does, too. There’s no malice, no evil intent. I’m always going up the mountain to hunt elk—me and my son and my dad—and what I tell my family is that if a grizzly gets hold of me, makes a meal, then please, do everything you can to protect that bear. Don’t let them shoot it. It’s just doing what it does. I was just rewatching that Yellowstone documentary, about how reintroducing wolves into the ecosystem ended up changing the course of the rivers. Kind of makes me wonder. How would the rivers of the world change, with werewolves? And, thing is, those rivers can change without werewolves actually even being real. They can change if we just all believe in werewolves. That’s a big part of Mongrels, to me.

Were there any inspirations in terms of books and films for this novel? 

Whitley Strieber’s Wolfen is probably the main novel behind Mongrels. The way those wolfen look, and move, and think, that infected me at a very young age. It bit deep, and I’ve never been the same since. The werewolves in Mongrels, they’re Strieber’s wolfen, pretty much. Just, they have a human side, too. There’s a play behind Mongrels too. Peter Shaffer’s Equus. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that, now. What’s always so magic about it, it’s those horse heads the characters wear. Someday I hope to see that on-stage. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s better in my head, these people bodies with animal heads. They’re always running around, terrifying me.

The first werewolf novel I wrote—this is 1999—it was Anubis, My Father. Dog heads on people bodies, they completely terrify me. I think that’s a big part of why I’ve always been drawn to werewolves. And to Beta Ray Bill. As for movies, I want to say The Howling, of course, as that was the first werewolf movie I saw—and I saw it over and over and over—but, really, Near Dark was my guide for Mongrels. Near Dark showed me that vampires didn’t all drape themselves in velvet, and wear high collars. Vampires could live in vans with blacked-out windows, and just limp from town to town, scratching to get by, wearing cast-off clothes. Vampires, they could live like the people I knew, the people I lived with. My family. What that did for me in 1987—really, I probably saw it more like 1988, or 1989—it was show me that monsters, they didn’t have to be in some great “out there.” They didn’t have to be made up. They could be right here, among us. They could be us. It was a kind of thrill that I’ve never shaken off. So, finally, I had to write about it. Just, with werewolves.

Ginger Snaps
Ginger Snaps

What are your favourite werewolf movies or TV shows?

Ginger Snaps, probably. Well, it and The Howling are muzzle and muzzle, always. But Ginger Snaps is finally a more complete story. Maybe less iconic, finally—“I’m gonna give you a piece of my mind”—but Ginger’s descent, and her sister trying to pull her back, willing to do whatever . . . that’s pretty magic. And that moment Ginger goes to the Halloween party, and slow-motion walks through it? That’s pretty much my favorite moment on film. What I’m waiting for, though, it’s for Wolfen to get proper-adapted. I mean, I’m all for practical effects, definitely and always—Late Phases, anyone?—but some werewolves, they require CGI. Professor Lupin, say. That starved-down, painfully hunched werewolf he transforms into, that could only be done with animation, finally. So the wolfen. They’re not just wolves, they’re not just glossy German Shepherds. The wolfen have longer forelegs, slightly prehensile front paws, longer necks, and their ears aren’t in quite the usual canine place, and their faces, there’s something intelligent to them. Something wrong. Something you don’t want to see, as that’ll be the last thing you ever see. Canis lupus sapiens. We should print coins with that stamped on them. Maybe we could use those coins to buy our lives back, when the wolfen come for us. As if we’d have time to even force our hands into our pockets. That’s the movie I’m waiting for. Please.

Best werewolf show I’ve seen on television, that’s easy. Wolfblood. Really? Had I been tuned in to that, I probably would have never written Mongrels. I’d have just been watching that show instead. Wolfblood, it’s got teeth and heart. And, each episode, it’s exploring another facet or aspect of life as a werewolf. It complicates the werewolf instead of reducing it, or letting it be what we already know. That’s what we want from the stories we engage, isn’t it? To be challenged, not pacified. Sure, it’s targeted at a younger demographic, and it’s got a thirty-minute slot, which limits what can be done. But it doesn’t really limit it. Wolfblood does more in its time than most hour-shows do in their whole season. I completely love it. Also, of course, I still carry a torch (not an image werewolves prefer) for that old Fox series Werewolf. I mean, it was pretty much The Incredible Hulk—the one with a misunderstood Bill Bixby wondering the land, transforming once per episode, for justice—but it was even cooler, since there were werewolves.

 Which authors are you most excited about at the moment?

Josh Mallerman’s killing it. His Bird Box took over the world, and his shorter stuff’s just as strong. Excited for whatever he does next. Adam Cesare is always good, too. His horror IQ and just excitement for all things bloody, it’s infectious. I just read earlies of some amazing stuff on the immediate horizon, too. Karen Runge’s Seven Sins story collection unsettled me pretty fundamentally, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock felt true in a way I didn’t want it to be, and John Langan’s The Fisherman has left me looking at all bodies of water in a different way, now. And Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s HEX, man, it had me checking the shadowy places of this hotel room I’ve been in the last few nights. Brian Evenson’s recent collection A Collapse of Horses is still crawling around in my head, too. Crawling around and lifting things, looking under them for uncomfortably long, then settling them back just as they were. Or, mostly as they were. And I just, long after the rest of the world, read John Horner Jacobs’s Southern Gods, which is about as good a novel as the novel can get. Next up, and criminally after the fact—though I inhaled Honky Tonk Samurai months before it hit—is Joe R. Lansdale’s Paradise Sky. Been saving that one for when I really needed a good read. Lansdale is always a good read. Always the best read, really.

Finally, I’d love to see a film of Mongrels (provided it was good, of course!). Do you have anyone in your head who you’d like to play the leads if it ever happened?

Somebody on Twitter the other day said they were seeing Darren as Josh Holloway—Sawyer, from the television show Lost. That seemed pretty right-on to me. Were I ever given any input into casting a Mongrels adaptation, though, mostly what I’d try to work into the call is that we don’t need steamy eyes and cut abs, so much. Sexy werewolves are definitely a thing—True Blood, Bitten, all the way back to Wolf Lake—but they always seem to be a thing in stories where what’s at stake are relationships, love at first sight, whose car’s parked outside whose house, all that. What’s at stake in Mongrels, it’s finding something to eat for dinner. Or someone.

Mongrels is published by HarperVoyager and is out now in hardback. Read our review here.