I don’t read a lot of horror novels. It tends to be juvenile sometimes, even with the better authors. Though when something comes well recommended, I will stick my nose in a book of grue and gore, and Nicholas Pekearo’s The Wolfman came with kudos from Andrew Vachss and Joe R. Lansdale, two writers with a lot of cred. I was not disappointed.
The best pulp novels transcend their material. Let’s face it, when we pick up a book called The Wolfman, we know we’re either reading the bio of a famous disc jockey, or about a guy who barks at the moon and likes his steak rare, preferably torn screaming from a human body. The werewolf legend is one of the oldest and touches a place deep in our psyche, the part that sees we are different from wild animals, but knows that is whence we came. The most famous “wolfman” story is of course Lon Chaney Jr. in the movie of the same name, where even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright. It gave us the tortured tale of the man cursed with an affliction that makes him prey on his fellow men, for which death by silver is the only cure.
Nicholas Pekearo plays off of this classic tale by bringing it home and making it real. Instead of Lawrence Talbot, our protagonist is Marlowe Higgins- a foul-mouthed long-haired bum who slings hash at a local greasy spoon in a backwater Midwestern town. Marlowe seems as common as dirt, but once a month he becomes a voracious creature whose bloodthirst cannot be denied; while he remembers nothing of these late-night snacks, he has learned to guide the meat-seeking missile by leaving scents and clues around him before he transforms, and sends the beast after bad people.
The character is reminiscent of “Dexter” from the Showtime series based on the books by Jeff Lindsay in that way only- he is a creature of our nightmares who hunts other predators. In tone and style it is completely different; Dexter is a psychopath programmed to kill other killers, and while the show is terribly entertaining, in the end it is all fantasy. Dexter would never care about people if he was what he purports to be. The werewolf on the other hand, is a tragic hero as ancient as the berzerker, or Jekyll & Hyde. The problem has always been that Jekyll is boring compared to Hyde.
Pekearo’s choice to have Marlow Higgins take a bite out of crime is a clever one, but he drives it all home by making Marlowe Higgins even more interesting than his Wolfman side. At first he’s just a smart-ass slob in a small town, with a cop named Pearce as his only friend– the only one able to see through his shell and find the good man beneath. We learn the secrets of his past in pieces, as a serial murderer called the Rose Killer winds his way to his little town. Of course he sets the wolf loose on the killer, but things go awry; and Marlowe has to figure out what went wrong before the next full moon.
The story is a bit unpolished; Marlowe himself is complex, realistic, and fun to follow, but there are a few times when you can see what’s coming. But you can hardly blame Nicholas Pekearo. He was a member of NYPD’s Auxiliary, and was tragically murdered by a gunman robbing a Greenwich Village pizzeria. He had handed his latest draft of the novel to his editor not long before. It is his only published novel, though he had written a few others, that were in the editing process. The Wolfman would have been the first of a great series, and not only did a criminal rob us of a heroic officer, but also a nascent storyteller whose raw talent is evident in this novel.
If you enjoy “Dexter,” or just a good murder yarn that romps through backwoods and honkytonks, Nicholas Pekearo might not have yet had the edge of more experienced writer like James Lee Burke, or Andrew Vachss. But he had the spirit, and he manages to give his character great depth. The book itself has a more satisfactory end; it feels like an introduction to a great character I’d like to spend more time following. Sadly, this one story is all we’ll have.