I’m typically a big fan of war/horror hybrid novels (there’ve been more published than you might think), and I’m also often a big fan of werewolf novels… so when I heard that author J.L. Benet had made his novel-length debut with Wolf Hunter (published by Belfire Press), a book that combines WWII, Nazis, and werewolves, I was all, “where do I sign up?” And when it turned out that Benet was, like me, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and that much of the story was set in Ann Arbor, I felt like Wolf Hunter and I were a match made in heaven. But, as college football pundit Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”
I don’t want to imply that the book was a complete disappointment, as it does have some things going for it, beyond just the alluring (to me) subject matter…but there are definitely some rough edges as well. More than anything, Wolf Hunt feels like a modern pulp novel, with an upside of audacious ideas and pell-mell pacing, and a downside of occasional hokey melodrama and awkward dialog.
The book opens with a brief section set during the latter stages of World War II, where Viktor Huelen is one of several subjects of an experiment conducted by a desperate Third Reich. Under the direction of Himmler, they’re attempting to turn the tide in the war by developing super-soldiers in the form of werewolves, using a device bearing the rather clumsy moniker of “Feraliminal Lyncanthropizer.” Despite the fact that the scientists are able to induce the transformations, the experiment fails due to a not-surprising inability to control the creatures post-transformation.
From there, the tale jumps to the present day, where the plot centers on two characters, the first of whom, Jack, is an Ojibwa Indian — and a shapeshifter — residing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His tribe’s shaman elder statesmen have sent him on a mission to dispose of one Albrecht Nachtwandler, another survivor of the Nazi werewolf experiments. The other primary character is Steve Williams, a frustrated, misanthropic loner, seemingly the type of maladjusted kid who might bring a gun to school one day to settle some scores, but in Steve’s case he chooses to immerse himself in werewolf lore:
Always an outcast and he was beginning to come to terms with always being one. His skin was only the outward marking of his difference; he knew it really went much deeper, into his very soul.
Perhaps that’s what drew him to study werewolves. He was already torn between two worlds, why not make the most of it? … The werewolf was not afraid of becoming an outcast, of losing touch with his humanity.
Through his research, Williams learns of Huelen and blackmails him into helping to reconstruct the experiments. In turn, Jack receives further instructions from his elders, this time to kill Williams and Huelen, and prevent the revival of the European-style werewolves (more on that below).
Along the way, Benet offers some interesting variances on traditional werewolf mythos, although sometimes the twists seem to add little, or even border on plot contrivance. Here are a couple examples of the liberties he takes with lycanthropy:
“…if we kill while we are shifted, we would be doomed to walk the North woods forever as an evil wendigo… You will be protected from the evil spirit because of your white man’s blood but you still cannot let the spirit of the shift take control of your soul.”
“A bearwalker is a type of American Indian werewolf. They are evil shaman who put curses on people so they die… The European-style werewolf is much stronger. They can only be harmed by silver bullets, fire, or other werewolves. A bearwalker can be hurt by anything that can harm a man.”
Despite some interesting touches, and a plot filled with forward momentum, I can’t truly recommend Wolf Hunt unless you’re a hard-core fan of werewolf fiction.