Tag Archives: Coming of Age

Mongrels

Growing up is hard work, hard enough for the “normal” kids who live in a stalwart house, planted atop a hill or the end of a cul-de-sac. Hard enough for the ones with both parents and them working good jobs that pay plenty of money to pay the bills up and keep the pantry and bellies filled. Hard enough for the ones that are doted upon, loved and lauded.

The kids who have different scenarios to navigate…well, they have it harder. Mongrels is a story about growing up and werewolves. The copy wants you to think it’s about growing up werewolf and maybe it is. But the thick and wooly of it is growing up and out or down and inward. Sometimes both.

Mongrels is about a boy, never named and often known by the profession he thinks he wants to ascend to at that moment. He was born different, into a family of werewolves. After being buoyed by the wild and sometimes frightening tales his grandfather told him, his family loses him. This event leaves a stamp of uncertainty and loss on the boy as he embarks on a series of adventurous disasters living with his Uncle Darren and Aunt Libby, as they bounce from small town to small town, usually in the dead of night, just to survive a few more days. There are those who are after them, some know what they are, others do not. The space they occupy doesn’t often put them in touch with the nicest of people. During it all, he is anxiously awaiting his first shot at transformation. He watches most of the events cloaked in human guise and therefore anchored to both sides of their existence.

Mongrels crawls along, sometimes jumping and running at full feral abandon, its steps are sure and strong. From seedy trailer parks and ramshackle dwellings, part-time jobs and petty theft, werewolf fights and violence, the boy’s world is a world of wonder and heartache, a world of longing and questions. Will he grow to be a werewolf like his family or is he an outcast? All seems to swell and swirl as the running seems to get them closer and closer to nowhere and the change they are hoping for, but will it be the change they all really want and need?

Stephen Graham Jones has a knack for writing honest and with great open feeling. His wonderful prose takes the hobbled hope and prideful innocence of this young boy and allows it to walk all over you. Leave marks for you to pour over as runes. It’s an almost quiet tale a lot of the time, the action is that of a heart cracking to let all the sadness trickle free or a face slipping from smile to sneer and back again. It is recollection draped in oil-stained denim and sweat. It is Springsteen or Marty Robbins drifting on a night breeze from the window of a battered Trans-Am. It can be all of those things and so much more. The story takes you to a place we’ve all been, steps we’ve all made, but also to spaces never seen, never set upon by human or beast. Mongrels is as honest a thing as you’re likely to read. And it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

Mongrels is available through Harper Collins, which means any decent bookstore anywhere ought to have it. So you have no excuse for not buying it.

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There Was Darkness In My Youth: A Duality Review

Growing up, I remember darkness. All right, that’s a lie; I actually had a pretty awesome childhood, with a few truly bad parts before high school. But having read two novels back-to-back recently in which their respective narrators recall coming of age through eerie and mysterious times, I sure feel like I’ve just emerged from a dark past. These novels were Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and John Mantooth’s The Year of the Storm.

In The Bottoms, Harry Crane is recalling his childhood in Depression-era Texas. Now a retired old man, he views the twilight of his life with bitter acceptance and has come to value his youth with a humble nostalgia—even as he describes the twisted events of his adolescence in the 1930’s Texas countryside. Women were being gruesomely murdered, and he and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) caught glimpses of an eerie entity known as the Goat Man in the woods nearby.

In The Year of the Storm, Danny recalls being fourteen when a major storm hit rural Alabama, during which his mother and autistic sister vanished. Almost a year later, a strange man named Walter Pike shows up, who claims to know where they’ve gone. The narrative is split with Walter as he recalls his teen encounters and a strange, bullied boy named Seth Sykes and the mysterious secrets that Seth harbored.

Both novels nicely explore the idea of discovering magic in the mundane, as well as the presence of magic as opposed to the mundane—and how sometimes, it really doesn’t matter one way or another of just what was “really” going on. What matters is that these character did go through their respective adventures and what they took from it all—a sense of finding themselves in the midst of the wild (and at times terrifying) events.

There was so much more than creeping menace and bewildering mystery that got to me in these novels. Lansdale and Mantooth nicely captured the heartbreaking sense of the relative if fragile innocence of childhood and how abruptly and unfairly it can be wrested away by forces and events beyond one’s control. And I’m not just talking about the narrator’s own journeys—I’m talking about nine-year-old Tom having to witness everything from racism and abuse to grisly murder, and teenaged Seth Sykes getting vilified by the ugliness of homophobia and bullying. There is a lot of darkness to be found in these tales, and not nearly all of it stems from the supernatural.

Comparisons of these books are often made to other novels and stories, from Stephen King’s novella The Body (and its 1986 film adaptation, Stand By Me) and Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and on up through recent titles such as Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—but to me, that’s part of the charm of tales such as these. Everybody starts out somewhere; everybody has an innocent adolescence that hardens and thickens into maturity. Many an author (and director, and musician, and other artist) has to capture that sense of coming into her or his own. It’s a time-honored tradition for a person to recall darkness in her or his youth, and in tales such as these, it can be argued that that darkness can be the catalyst to one’s maturity.

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