The HowlingBy Gary Brandner (Fawcett Gold Medal; 1977)

You likely know this late-seventies paperback best as the source for the famous 1980 movie of the same name. That Joe Dante directed film remains popular with horror mavens the world over, yet I’ve never been all that impressed. Despite a few great moments, I find the flick overblown, self-conscious and far too clever for its own good.

This novel, it turns out, differs from the film in many respects (like quite a few others, I didn’t get around to reading it until long after seeing the movie). Unlike Dante, Gary Brandner keeps things simple with his tight, focused account of Karyn, a young woman recovering from a vicious rape (in the movie the gal’s a newscaster who lures a serial killer into a porno theater–and then is actually shocked when the guy attacks her). In an effort to put the assault behind her, Karyn travels with her husband to a secluded California village (a new age retreat in the flick) which turns out to be infested with werewolves.

That essentially sums up this novel, an eminently readable chunk of commercial fiction. Gary Brandner made his horror debut with this book; he’s written better ones since, including WALKERS, HELLBORN and a HOWLING II and III (which incidentally have nothing to do with the HOWLING movie sequels), yet seems destined to be forever known as Author of THE HOWLING. It’s not “terrible” (as Dante has opined), but nor do I feel it’s “the best book I’ve ever read” (as an Amazon reviewer claims).

Yet the novel has much to recommend. In contrast to the film, it lavishes more energy on storytelling than on being clever. It also moves fast and doesn’t futz around with unnecessary detours or subplots. The page count is a brief 223, which seems an entirely appropriate length. Obviously writers back in 1977 operated under different rules than today’s scribes, who seem contractually bound to deliver a minimum 350 pages (whether their books actually need all those pages or not).

Other points of recommendation include two surprisingly intense sex scenes, as Karyn’s hubbie becomes unwittingly involved with a werewolf woman (at least one of these bits was lifted intact for the movie). We also learn, in a lengthy climactic episode, just how difficult it is to get silver bullets made these days.

Is this novel great? Nope. Should you go out of your way to track it down? Probably not. But those wanting a diverting read that can easily be completed over the course of a weekend are advised to take note.