FEBRUARY 18, 2017
MONGRELS IS STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES’S first werewolf novel. Even though it follows in a long series of genre publications (from zombie novels to slasher stories), it nevertheless rejects the idea that we should already know what kind of narrative to expect from a horror writer. In addition to offering a story about how cool it is to shapeshift into a powerful monster, Mongrels is also a reflection on the ever-present theme of belonging that appears throughout many of Jones’s other works.
Mongrels tells the story of a boy attempting to piece himself together through continuous reinvention: with every new chapter, we see a different facet of his identity as he explores the roles of a delinquent, a superhero, a Halloween enthusiast, a star-crossed lover, a nephew, and a son. We follow this unnamed narrator from the age of seven to the age of 17, and he’s constantly changing and maturing. Like many of Jones’s characters, the boy is driven by the desperate wish to belong.
Like Pidgin in Jones’s debut novel, The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong (2000), the narrator of Mongrels is haunted by the absence of his dead mother. And, like Pidgin, he’s also mystified by the absence of his father. Dalimpere, the white Indian Agent in Jones’s Ledfeather (2008), experiences trauma on the reservation and becomes more and more immersed in natives’ lives; similarly, the narrator of Mongrels keeps wondering just how much it will take for him to really become one of them. In Dalimpere’s case, one of them means becoming an Indian, a Piegan Blackfeet. In the case of our teenage narrator in Mongrels, becoming one of them means becoming a werewolf, like his aunt, uncle, and grandfather.
The difficulty, however, is that the narrator of Mongrels struggles with having the blood and looks without actually being a true werewolf. He longs for the shift, for his first transformation, for a moment when he will finally see the world the way the other werewolves see it — because he knows that for them, it’s a different world. The narrator’s problem is not unlike the challenge faced by LP Deal in Jones’s The Bird is Gone: A Monograph Manifesto (2003): LP feels like an impostor because he is a Native American of the generation “after.” His experience of his heritage is tainted by a sense of arriving in the aftermath of centuries of genocide, after reeducation, and after the loss of his native language.
The way the young narrator of Mongrels deals with the large, incomprehensible world around him is by watching everything closely and writing his experiences down. Jones often draws our attention to characters who become writers as a way of assuming power over their own stories: In Ledfeather, for example, Dalimpere studies the Piegan Blackfeet and documents what he understands. Many of Jones’s horror stories follow serial killers studying (and writing about) their victims, and in The Bird is Gone, LP writes his manifesto to respond to the horrors of history. In Mongrels, the narrator similarly reinvents the world (and his own role in it) by writing his story down. Desperate to commit every detail of werewolf existence to his memory in order to prepare for the day of his own transformation, he writes his own werewolf handbook based on observations of his family. He pays attention to key details: always pee before you shift because werewolf bladders are smaller than human ones. Always take out the trash because “[w]hen we first open our eyes as werewolves, the trash is so fragrant, so perfect, so right there. Except. There’s things in there you can’t digest.” The werewolves of Mongrels will devour anything, but when they become human again, a soup can or chicken bone might puncture their bowels and kill them.
Mongrels does not stray from Jones’s earlier engagement with explicit Native American topics; common themes of belonging, coming of age, hereditary trauma, survivance (active survival through creative resistance), colonialism, and the import of history continue to appear throughout his narrative fabric. The world of Mongrels is the same fascinating, crazy universe Jones has been describing for years; now, however, he is granting us easier and faster access by using simple language, precise images, and playful intertextual references. His jokes about anthropologists and wildlife biologists from The Bird is Gone, for instance, are taken to a new level in Mongrels, where such figures become cryptozoologists, crazy fanatics who stalk werewolf families and meticulously examine their scat. Similarly, when the narrator of Mongrels tells us about “some book I’d read on my own, not for class, [in which] this old guy down on the Texas border had been described as having decades of sun folded into his face,” he is referring to a powerful and haunting image from Jones’s own novel Growing Up Dead in Texas (2012).
Furthermore, the narrator in Mongrels is fascinated with the fact that his aunt Libby is his dead mother’s identical twin, as if she somehow carried his mother’s presence in her DNA. This preoccupation typifies Jones’s recurring engagement with something that resembles the Derridean trace: a mark that signifies the absence of a deeply desired presence, or in this case, a character whose resemblance to another lost character invokes a strange yearning for a person who is no longer there. This thematic preoccupation is observable in many of Jones’s works; in Ledfeather, for example, Dalimpere tries to conjure up his dead wife Claire through speaking and writing her name. In The Fast Red Road, Pidgin’s lost father was an identical twin with Pidgin’s useless uncle, and in The Bird is Gone, basketball players’ identical looks are weaponized by their coach. Finally, in Jones’s horror stories, lookalikes became truly uncanny, the stuff of nightmares.
Jones deals playfully with a consistent set of themes and tropes across his oeuvre, making his own ideas shift from story to story. Literal predators in Jones’s slasher stories transform into metaphorical ones, such as the colonial predators and corrupt federal officials in Ledfeather, only to be literalized again with the werewolves of Mongrels. With each transformation, a whole new world opens up — a world that is suspenseful and enticing in its own right — but made even richer through its place in Jones’s larger story universe. We might even claim that Jones — who is Texan but also Native American Blackfoot — perceives his own creativity in a similar way: his ideas are conceptual werewolves, shifting and transforming again, uncomfortably trapped between the labels of Native American fiction and genre fiction. As Mongrels teaches us, this condition is meaningful because it encapsulates the incredible power to inhabit two worlds and see through different eyes. This is a condition Jones’s stories habitually offer to their readers: “Being a werewolf isn’t just teeth and claws,” his stories suggest, “it’s inside. It’s how you look at the world. It’s how the world looks back at you.”
Many reviewers have remarked that by adding to the rules commonly accepted by werewolf fandoms, Jones has masterfully created his own lore: werewolves can’t cry, werewolf pee is a powerful pesticide, and werewolves never wear tights (you don’t want to know). More importantly, however, Jones further develops his habit of re- and disappropriating oppressive colonial concepts, such as the Lone Ranger with his silver bullets, with a trickster wink. As the novel explains, “the Lone Ranger was a werewolf […] who hunted down other werewolves […] too weak to just start with himself.” Once you’ve become familiar with how the narrator of Mongrels sees the world, Jones’s words conjure powerful images you may not have understood or appreciated before. As a prime example, the narrator declares near the end of his story that “When I am a werewolf, I will wear jeans shorts”: a simple sentence that will have you on the verge of tears once you’ve read and experienced Mongrels.
A reference that should not go unmentioned is the book’s very title: Mongrels. The term evokes Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor’s notion of half-breeds and genetic hybrids. In this sense, the term can signify people who are part-white and part-Native American, and it functions as both a subversive gesture toward an obsession with pure Native American blood and a compassionate embrace of multiple conditions of being. In appropriating Vizenor’s term, Jones has created his own powerful metaphor; when Darren tells the narrator, “[w]e’re all bastards […] Mutts, mongrels,” this imbues his werewolf story with cultural undertones, permitting us to replace “werewolf” with “Indian” at times, while still suspending our disbelief in werewolves and participating in the pleasure of reading horror stories for their own sake. The dual valence proves the possibility of merging genre fiction with culturally relevant material, thus creating an unlikely mongrel — one that will sneak up on you in the dark, bare its fangs, and, if you don’t look sharp, tear your throat out in one swift movement.
So, dig your claws into Mongrels, but don’t stop there. Go on to Jones’s other works, to The Last Final Girl (2012), to Growing Up Dead in Texas, and to The Least of My Scars (2013). Not because you don’t want to stop, but because you can’t.
Jones’s swift-paced narration has scratched you: you’re infected, haunted, cursed. You’re one of them now — a mongrel, a werewolf, and just like them, you’ll always be ravenous, on the edge of starvation, going through the trash for that three-day-old, worm-infested meat for sustenance. You’ll be tearing through the shelves for his new books. And soon, you’ll start going back in time, understanding Ledfeather, The Bird is Gone, and then The Fast Red Road. You will be like the narrator of Mongrels, who does not narrate his story in chronological order. The chapters are arranged in the order they would make most sense to readers. Hence a short and seemingly insignificant episode entitled “Here There Be Werewolves,” in which the nine-year-old narrator shares an ice cream cone with his uncle, transforms into the central chapter of the book through its particular place in the narrative logic. Following immediately after the narrator’s traumatic first teenage love experience, this childhood memory becomes a reflection on what it means to be a werewolf in our contemporary world.
Mongrels serves as a key to reading Jones’s other fictions and to understanding the anachronisms and bizarre images in his works: characters dreaming the world into being, colonial traumas, and a desperate yearning to reverse history. And, of course, his book also exemplifies the longing to belong, always to belong. So, go ahead. Take the key, read Mongrels. Unlock Jones.
But take this as a warning, too. When you peel away page after page to get behind those dark secrets of werewolf existence, it won’t be pretty. You’ll do it anyway. Just make sure that you’re prepared.
As harmless as those letters might seem, as smoothed over and polished as every chapter in Mongrels might appear in comparison to the wild, chaotic scenes in some of Jones’s earlier works, they’re still sharp around the edges, and they still contain truths that are hard to stomach and others that are altogether indigestible. If you’re not careful, they might just get stuck in your throat or gut and rip you open from the inside. They might reverse that worldview you felt was so stable, and reasonable, and safe. But it’s already too late.
You’re already transforming.