MONGRELS BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES 320 pages Harper Voyager (10 May 2016)
Stephen Graham Jones' newest novel, Mongrels, is one of those works of fiction that, when you finish it, you have to take some time and compose your thoughts before writing about it. It's extraordinarily well written, which isn't surprising coming from Jones, and it has all the elements of a great story, also not surprising given the source, but those aren't the things that give you pause when talking about it. What makes it remarkable is that in a genre saturated with werewolves, vampires, and zombies, Stephen Graham Jones still manages to come up with a story that's never been told, and to tell it in a way that no one else has. He's taken on the monster tropes before in his short fiction and shown himself to contain a bottomless well of imagination, but never has he dug so deep, never pulled out a story so poignantly dark and moving as he has with the phenomenon that is Mongrels.
If you’ve been a horror fan for any reasonable length of time, odds are good that you’ve probably read at least one werewolf story, especially recently with the sudden inscrutable rise in popularity that the trope is seeing. So you know the rules, right? Silver will kill a werewolf. The werewolf only transforms under a full moon, and it doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Werewolves have an insatiable and uncontrollable appetite for sex and blood. Those are the rules, never to be broken. Unless you’re Stephen Graham Jones, that is. In the case of Mongrels, you can throw the rule book right out the window and sit back for a long and engrossing lesson in lycanthropy as it is in Jones’ universe. In this universe, those rules are largely myth, and the real ones range from intriguing, to bizarre, to outright hilarious as we learn about things like why it’s a bad idea for a werewolf to get addicted to certain foods, or why some werewolves are referred to, not kindly, as ‘moondogs’.
Mongrels is a story that embraces multiplicity as it follows a young boy being raised by his aunt and uncle in various locales around the South as they try to stay ahead of the scandal and bloodshed that has a tendency to follow any self-respecting family of werewolves. It’s a frequently humorous, action packed coming of age story, a horror story, and a dark literary tale of family and loyalty that embraces emotion in that deeply heartfelt and achingly human way that only Stephen Graham Jones can tell it. The boy, our narrator, switches points of view repeatedly, sometimes speaking in the first person, and sometimes referring to himself in the second person in ways that can turn the disturbing, sometimes horrific scenes, into something also absurd and darkly humorous.
The first thing you’re likely to notice when you start this or any Jones story is voice. He has a knack for ensnaring you and holding you captive right from the first sentence. Before you even know what the story is about you find yourself enamored of it, devouring it as voraciously as a ravenous lycanthrope in a herd of sheep. Jones has a natural, easygoing, and conversational voice that carries his story and his reader along with the fluid quality of a tale told round the campfire, sans simplicity. A story told in such a way as to make you lose yourself for a time, giving in to the narrative and living within as events unfold in vivid color. Jones’ descriptive prowess is unmatched and unchallenged by any other author working today and he uses that ability to its utmost in Mongrels.
The second notable aspect, the thing that will grab you by the throat and rip you right into the story is character. There are many clichés often used to describe character, ones that have been used here and on probably every other review venue on the planet: three dimensional; larger than life; sympathetic and real. You get the picture. But no matter how you approach it, any way you choose to describe the characters in Mongrels is going to fall flat in the face of the reality. Jones characters are so incredibly real and alive that it couldn’t be said that you’ll find yourself loving them or hating them. Nor could it be said that you’ll be happy with them or angry with them, or any other of a plethora of emotions you could apply to an author’s character development. The only honest thing you can say about Jones’ characters is that, like the people you encounter and interact with in daily life, your response to them will change with the given situation. You could love them in one paragraph, only to turn the page and find yourself pissed off at them. They are, in spite of their lycanthropic nature, purely human. Libby is a perfect example of this, being sometimes exasperating with her rigid inflexibility and strictness, and sometimes immensely loveable for her fierce protectiveness and her loyalty to her brother and her nephew. You’ll probably note that the word “human” has been used multiple times here to characterize different aspects of the novel. That’s because it’s something that Jones brings to all his stories and all of the people he creates, and one of the primary reasons his tales are so often enchanting and heartrending. It’s that human quality, masterful storytelling ability, and Jones’ poetic use of language that make Mongrels one of the best, most intelligent and entertaining werewolf stories ever to come along. It’s a story that shows Jones at his absolute, brilliant best, and another perfect example of why his name should be a household commodity. If you’re not reading Stephen Graham Jones, you’re robbing yourself. Mongrels is one of the best books of the year so far and will likely remain so right up to the first of January. If you haven’t read Jones yet, this is without question the place you want to start.