Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift conveys the impression that the author is establishing a new series, comparable to her Vampire Chronicles or Mayfair Witch books. When Rice’s lycanthrope protagonist Reuben Golding is transformed into a werewolf, he must come to terms with his new condition. In this regard, he is similar to the protagonist of her novel The Vampire Lestat. Both Lestat and Reuben are turned into supernatural creatures against their wills and are left to learn about their new condition without benefit of a mentor. Alas, Reuben is no Lestat, and The Wolf Gift is no The Vampire Lestat. The plot is all too predictable for those familiar with the author’s work, though someone reading Anne Rice for the first time would also be annoyed by The Wolf Gift as it is full of extraneous story elements that have nothing to do with the novel’s supernatural subject matter. However, I do give Rice credit for creating werewolves that are not lazy imitations of contemporary iterations but are instead grounded in earlier representations of lycanthropy.
The first problem with The Wolf Gift is that many of the events of its plot are wildly improbable. For example, in the first few chapters we learn that Reuben is a twenty-something cub reporter for The San Francisco Observer, who has travelled about four hours outside the city to write a story about a grand old mansion located in the middle of a redwood forest. Almost immediately, Reuben makes up his mind to purchase the property. Luckily for Reuben, he doesn’t have to rely on his meager salary as a print journalist because his parents are wealthy and can finance his whims. But then, a streak of good luck intervenes, and Reuben does not have to buy the house after all. Reuben meets the house’s most recent owner, the lovely, middle-aged Marchant Nidek, who has just inherited the property from her Uncle Felix now that he has finally been declared legally dead after disappearing twenty years earlier. After a few hours of conversation and dinner, Reuben and Marchant spend the night together. As Reuben slumbers, Marchant impulsively updates her will to leave the estate to him. Moments later, Marchant’s angry younger brothers break into the house and murder her for not giving them more money to indulge their drug addictions. Reuben is also attacked by the brothers, but they are unable to murder him as planned because a werewolf suddenly arrives and kills them instead. Before leaving, the werewolf bites Reuben, which turns him into a werewolf shortly thereafter.
The rest of the novel follows Reuben attempting to adjust to his lycanthropy, or what he calls “the wolf gift.” He has no one to mentor him about his awakening abilities or hungers, but he does occasionally find clues in his new home from documents left behind by Uncle Felix. Rice’s depiction of Reuben as a werewolf is unusual since he doesn’t follow the contemporary paradigm for this creature. While Reuben does transform into a hirsute beast who goes on killing sprees, he is not an out-of-control savage such as the one most famously portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr. in the 1941 film The Wolf Man. Instead, Rice’s werewolf draws upon much earlier representations of the creature as more sinned against than sinning. Reuben is similar to the werewolf described in the 12th century by Marie de France in her “Bisclavret” in that he too only attacks evil-doers, a characteristic that makes him similar to Rice’s vampire Lestat in certain phases of his existence. Soon after Reuben realizes that he is a werewolf, he actively seeks to destroy those who harm others — the kidnappers of a school bus full of children, a woman who is horribly abusing her elderly parents, a man who just murdered his wife and is about to dispatch his children. Still, other facets of his characterization as a werewolf adhere to conventions of lycanthropy that readers will be familiar with — Reuben transforms into a humanoid with a bestial appearance, rather than an actual wolf; as a werewolf, he has outsized appetites for sex and violence; and he is also much stronger than either a human or a wolf could be. However, unlike the version of the werewolf made famous by Universal Studios, Reuben can control these urges and channel them for good. Reuben in his wolf form is also capable of great gentleness. When he saves a little girl from being murdered by her father, she pronounces that he is a “gentle wolf” and shows no fear of him in his beastly form. Later, he ravishes a middle-aged woman who lives alone in the woods (apparently Reuben appreciates mature women), and she welcomes his furry embrace.
Sadly, this novel has none of the atmosphere, history, or detailed character development that characterize Rice’s earlier novels such as Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. Instead, the plot and characterization are lazy and disjointed. For example, when werewolf Reuben saves a woman from being raped, the description of her attack is a clichéd tableau of media reprentations of sexual assault. The woman is being brutalized in the proverbial back alley by a stranger, and as Reuben flees the scene after saving her, she is actually clutching her ripped bodice! And the level of violence that Reuben uses to dispatch those who are harming others is also laughable, as when he saves the elderly woman from being abused by her daughter, who for some reason is attempting to force feed her mother fecal matter. Reuben throws the daughter so far out of the window that she lands seventy-five feet from her house. If this were a film, the scene would no doubt be represented with some bad CGI. Also, in a world full of security video and cell phone cameras, Reuben’s fuzzy likeness is never captured by anyone except for Reuben himself, who photographs his own transformation with his iPhone (apparently werewolves can use their paws like human hands). Reuben and his fraught gift have the potential to make interesting reading, but in Rice’s hands, he is just a silly character who goes around saving people from cartoonish representations of evil.