Cycle of the Werewolf (1983)

The next book in this ongoing project is something of an oddity. King was approached to create some text for a werewolf-themed calendar, to be illustrated by comics artist Berni Wrightson. The story he came up with was deemed too long for the original format, and was published instead as an illustrated novella, The result, Cycle of the Werewolf, which contains detailed and often beautiful artwork alongside King's plot.

Fairly minor spoilers ahead! The book is divided into calendar months, and each is given its own double page title illustration. King introduces us to the small town of Tarker's Mills in a series of vignettes, each of which take place in successive months - on the night of the full moon, of course. Due to the nature of the form, we know within pages that a werewolf is preying on the local population - starting with a railway worker and continuing, one a month, until the monster comes up against our hero, Marty Coslaw.

An eleven-year-old confined to a wheelchair, Marty first confronts the werewolf during an illicit late-night firework display (the Fourth of July celebrations having been cancelled due to a curfew established by concerned police). The boy manages to blind the creature in one eye, narrowly avoiding becoming the seventh victim. Over the following weeks, Marty works out the identity of the werewolf, plots to unmask him, and arranges a final showdown on New Year's Eve. The conciseness of this central story is filled out by King's ability to sketch in precise details of the secondary characters - even those who are destined to die within a few hundred words of their initial appearance are given just enough background to be distinct from one another. This is especially true of Marty's family - his bitchy sister, overly cheerful father, concerned mother, and understanding Uncle Al - which emerges as a fully realised, functioning unit in remarkably few pages.

Cycle of the Werewolf is written in the present tense, which lends the slim story a sense of urgency it might otherwise lack. In some places, this mirrors the tense, short paragraphs of the denouements of many of King's novels (for example, when the early victims are attacked by the beast); in others, it is simply the precision of the short story writer. The last two months of the year develop this tension: November sees the werewolf justifying his killing spree to himself, while December gives us Marty and Uncle Al preparing for the finale, their gun loaded with silver bullets.

Wrightson's artwork complements King's text perfectly, giving us snapshots of the attacks throughout in highly detailed style. Personally, I slightly take issue with the positioning of some of these full page images, which frequently show the fate of the character in question a page before the text reaches that point - but this is a minor quibble. The black and white "month" title pages manage to be both mournful and menacing in equal measure, despite showing mostly empty pastoral scenes. Cycle of the Werewolf is a slightly strange beast - with a little work, it could have been a strong novel (which I would love to have read), but the limits imposed by the creative processes involved meant that it was always going to be an unusual hybrid - but, on its own terms, the book is successful, and I've always had a soft spot for it.

Editorial note: I'm not sure whether NEL were prepared for the novelty of publishing an illustrated novella, but they certainly did a fairly poor job editorially. There is an inconsistency in the werewolf's eye colour after the first chapter (they change from yellow to green) - considered by some to be a rare King error, although you could also overlook this as an example of imaginative licence. Anyway, perhaps something an editor could have highlighted. Far more annoying in my opinion, however, are the quite obvious typos throughout. I would hope that these have been picked up in the years since my version was printed.

Next: The Talisman.

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