Review by Joel Kreissman
Wolves have long fascinated mankind. Variously, they have been seen as menaces, Aesopian mentors, and just free-spirited kin to dogs. SPECIES: Wolves, edited by Thurston Howl, explores these assorted views throughout thirteen stories ranging from Aesop and Ysengrimus to modern stories of disconnected packs and pop-howlers.
We start out with one of Aesop’s lesser-known fables, “The Dog and the Wolf”, concerning a meeting between a starving wolf and one of his better-fed but collared kin.
Next, we move to one of the stories of the folk-hero Reynard the Fox, and his lupine adversary Ysengrimus. Most such stories end with Reynard successfully tricking Ysengrimus, sometimes spelled Ysengrin or Isengrim, but this one details one of the wolf's few victories.
Then, we are brought forward in time from the Middle Ages to the Victorian Era and “The White Wolf”, a story straight from Andrew Lang’s fairy books which starts out following the “princess betrothed to a beast” plot but segues into the “supernatural lover lost” trope. Modern audiences might find the initial premise a bit sexist, but halfway through the characters swap the "pursued" and "pursuer" roles, showing that there are some mutual feelings between the two.
In contrast, George MacDonald’s “The Gray Wolf” is a Victorian horror story whose influence may still be glimpsed in modern werewolf fiction. If you want a straightforward wilderness encounter with a stranger who isn't who she seems, don't skip this one.
The remainder of the anthology collects stories showcasing the present century’s assorted conceptions of wolves.
While many writers have written alternate takes on "Red Riding Hood". Kadrian Blackwolf subverts the classic story in “Graffers” with a unique blend of sex, violence, and betrayal not seen in your standard “twisted fairy tale”. I have to give the author points for originality.
Next, Slip Wolf shows us how the wolf can reflect one’s own darker self in “Glass.” A minimalistic horror that gives the reader just enough information to figure the truth out for themselves.
Whereas in “A Winter’s Work,” Renee Carter Hall presents wolves in their rarely written role as victims of man’s predations, while also anthropomorphizing them to amplify the tug on the reader’s heartstrings. The writer manages to bring across such sympathies that you can't help but share in the wulfen's pain and the trapper's fear.
Kirsten Hubschmid’s “The Winter Wolf” is the first story of this collection set in a “world of anthros” setting where sapient animals replace humans, and the wolves represent a rural population facing encroachment by the big city, whose representative is a domestic dog. It’s pretty apparent from the start that the narrator is the “villain” of the piece--out-of-towners buying a local business usually are--but there’s still one or two surprises in store.
John Kulp’s “Lone” brings us the disconnected solitude of the single office worker through the lens of a lone wolf searching for a new pack in the city. How the secondary problem, that of money, gets resolved isn't particularly clear, but overall it might not matter much as he is starting to feel like he has someplace he belongs.
Now, “Stealing the Show”, by Jaden Drackus, plays on some common stereotypes and misnomers about wolves with a lupine professional wrestler who acts like an “alpha” and a “lone wolf” in the ring, but is anything but once he steps outside. The contrasts between the characters' "stage personas" and their "real" selves can be confusing at times, but it fits in with the setting of the wrestling arena.
“The Needle and the Departed”, by Weasel, showcases some of the difficulties faced by gay people as a result of discrimination, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t have much to do with wolves. The main character is a wolf, yes, but the story would be exactly the same if he were a tiger or a hyena. All of the previous stories involve some trait or legend about wolves in the plot, but this one, not so much. It’s just a highly depressing story of humans with fur.
“Wolves That Sing” by Billy Leigh is a WWII story in a world of anthros where a band of wolves howl to inspire the troops, and to save their own lives. You can tell that the author put some thought into how history might have run differently in an alternate world with different species, however slightly.
The final story in the collection is “INSTINCT”, by Faolan, an account of a lupine K-Pop idol pack by the same name as they attempt to maintain group cohesion despite their individual egos and feelings for one another. The characters’ species are about as relevant as they are in “Needle”, and some of the things that come between the band members seem nonsensical (which may be the point). But, compared to the life-or-death struggles of the last few stories, it’s a little relaxing.
As a whole, SPECIES: Wolves is a worthwhile exploration of the wolf in popular culture in all the species’ assorted roles. The free spirit, the predator, the pack mate, the howler, we see them all scattered throughout history. While the stories are presented in order of initial publication, we see little evidence of “evolving” portrayals of the wolf as some folklorists may assert, the wolves of the more modern tales retain the traits they exhibited in the earlier stories. At most, a few of the newer stories anthropomorphize them more than the old tales. Instead of creatures of the woods or hidden monsters, the last six stories in this collection portray wolves as living essentially human lives, all the better for the reader to relate to their struggles.
SPECIES: Wolves holds appeal for not only dedicated furry fans but also for fans of more “classically” formatted stories. There are even a couple stories that would appeal to horror fans. The gradually increasing levels of anthropomorphization in the stories would make this book a good introduction to the furry literature for new fans.