Showing posts with label Jack Williamson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Williamson. Show all posts

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Review: Jack Williamson, Darker Than You Think (1948; Gollancz, 2003)

Last year, in one of the discussion sessions at our conference on female werewolves, the keynote speaker (Prof. Peter Hutchings) mentioned a piece of 'classic' werewolf fiction that has been sadly overlooked in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries - Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think. Hutchings' description of the book's content and genre sparked a lot of interest. He mentioned that the book had been out of print for several years, but had recently been reissued. I remember predicting that sales of the new edition would probably go up immediately following the conference - and, though I don't know about any of the other delegates, I certainly went out and immediately bought a copy.

Embarrassingly, despite buying the book last September, I have only just found time to read it. Mea culpa. But I've now read it, and here is my review!

Williamson's novel, first published in 1948, tells the story of Will Barbee, a former student of Dr. Lamarck Mondrick (an anthropologist/palaeontologist/archaeologist, with a background in psychiatry - bear with me on this one!) who is currently working as a journalist. The novel begins with Barbee arriving at an airport to cover the return of Mondrick and his team, who have been researching 'something' in Asia for the past two years. As he waits for the plane to land, he meets a mysterious young woman named April Bell, who is also apparently a journalist.

Immediately intrigued, attracted and frightened by April, Barbee begins to get a feeling of foreboding. As he surveys the families of Mondrick and his team, this feeling grows. Sure enough, when Dr. Mondrick arrives, the professor begins to make a startling announcement about a shocking discovery... and then promptly dies. This begins a series of frightening events, as Barbee becomes more closely involved with April Bell and slowly learns the truth of Mondrick's discoveries. As the title of the book suggests, the truth is "darker than you think".

The first chapter of the novel is entitled "The Girl in White Fur". The first description of April Bell reads as follows:

"She looked as trimly cool and beautiful as a streamlined electric icebox.
She had a million dollars' worth of flame-red hair. White, soft, sweetly
serious, her face confirmed his first dazzled impression - that she was
something very wonderful and rare. She met his eyes, and her rather large
mouth drew into a quick pleasant quirk." (p. 1)

It shouldn't be too difficult for you to guess what sort of creature April Bell is. If I add that dogs growl at her, she has an aversion to the silver jewellery worn by Rowena Mondrick and that she carries a bag with a kitten in it (the second chapter of the book is called "The Kitten Killing"), I don't think there is much room for doubt.

Sure enough, it is soon apparent that April is intent on leading Barbee into the world of "lycanthropy" (or, as is probably more accurate, shapeshifting). Much of the presentation of lycanthropy in Williamson's book will be familiar to fans of werewolf fiction. In 'were' form, Barbee and April speak of being "free", enjoying human blood and hunting, are nocturnal and murderous. Barbee's first transformation is somewhat painful, but it becomes easier and more desirable. As noted, the sexual allure of the female werewolf is made apparent throughout the book.

However, though Williamson's presentation of lycanthropy is (in some ways) a standard one, there are some interesting to note about Darker Than You Think. Firstly, and most obviously, the book is a very early example of this 'standard' representation. We might all know a lot of the tropes Williamson employs, but this is a result of the vast swathes of fiction that has come since (some of which has been influenced by Williamson's book directly, but not all).

Secondly, the novel's genre is quite difficult to define. The opening chapters have a noirish quality, with the hardbitten reporter meeting the femme fatale and getting drawn into a dangerous mystery - it should come as no surprise that Will Barbee drinks way too much whisky! Elsewhere, the book feels more like what is now known as urban fantasy, with episodes that read like science fiction, science fantasy and psychological thriller. For instance, the explanation of the mechanism of lycanthropy draws heavily on theoretical physics - though this may seem somewhat dated for those with a background in science - as well as on more traditional ideas of the animal 'spirit'.

I will confess, some parts of Williamson's novel left me less than enthused. The reason for this was that I felt that too much had been explained too soon. April offers Barbee a fairly lengthy explanation of her own circumstances early in the novel, as well as the 'scientific' explanation of lycanthropy. She tells him about the murders and why they must happen, and (apparently) what the strange box Mondrick has brought from Asia contains. Barbee's attempts to come to terms with this, and his vacillations between his 'human' nature and his murderous lycanthropy take up a large part of the novel.

However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much Williamson holds back until the final chapters of the novel. The final 'reveal' is most definite worth waiting for. Though the novel appears to be about the mystery of who the "Child of Night" actually is - and I must confess, I did work that out - what is really worth waiting for is the final 'tying together' of all the strange threads of the novel - Mondrick's research, his strange wife, the references to palaeontology, archaeology, psychiatry and physics, and the strange box that has returned from the expedition.

And I'll say no more on what that explanation is, as I think the book is well worth reading for that alone. The characters may be a little dated and cliched, and the plot a little far-fetched in places, but the final 'solution' and the novel's ending are certainly unlike most things you will find in a werewolf book. At the risk of sounding a little trite, lycanthropy in Williamson's novel really is "darker than you think".

On the back of the 2003 Gollancz paperback edition, Douglas E. Winter describes Darker Than You Think:

"It is arguably the best, and certainly the best remembered, American novel about lycanthropy."

I'm not sure I necessarily agree with this assessment, but I would certainly suggest that Williamson's novel is a must-read for any fans of werewolf fiction, and April Bell certainly belongs on a list of fascinating female werewolves.