Have you ever read one of those novels that makes you angry? I mean, angry in the sense of decrying the utter waste involved; the waste of a good idea at the hands of an inept author, the waste of a publisher’s time and effort in cultivating such a novel through to publication (to say nothing of the opportunity wasted by selecting this novel for publication instead of another), the waste of trees and fuel used to print the novel and cart it to bookstores, and last but not least, the waste of your time in reading a novel like Ravenous, by Ray Garton.
The sad part, I think, is the way the good idea at the core of the novel is utterly wasted. There is a good novel to be written with the idea of lycanthropy as a sexually-transmitted disease, and its spread through a small California town. The subtext of the hypocrisy and deceit involved in people’s sex lives, combined with the potent symbolism of the werewolf as the unrestrained id, has the potential to make for a good novel in the hands of a good author. But Garton can’t think of anything, anything at all interesting to do with the idea. His werewolves are mindless raping/killing machines, lumbering through the endlessly repetitive novel with as much interest as a boulder rolling down a hill. Anything that gets in their way is in trouble, characters either escape them or don’t, but they have no personality to speak of.
They share this trait, unfortunately, with the human characters in the novel, who seem to have one of three roles: 1) Get eaten, 2) become a werewolf, or 3) some combination of 1 & 2. The author is clearly trying to do a novel along the lines of “Salem’s Lot with werewolves” (and sadly, I suspect that was exactly what he sold to the publisher as his outline) but reading Ravenous illustrates why Stephen King is a multi-millionaire best-selling critically-acclaimed author, while Ray Garton will be forever trapped in mid-list horror potboiler hell: This shit be hard. Creating an interesting small town, investing its population with life and personality and conveying that to the reader, it’s not easy. It takes a lot of insight into human nature, and a genuine sympathy for the characters you’re writing about, even the unpleasant and unlikeable ones. As opposed to a mindset of, “‘Werewolves come into town and rape and kill everybody’ is about 64,991 words too short for a paperback novel. I need to pad this out a little.”
That’s really the worst thing about Garton’s characterization. As you might have noticed from my frequent use of the word “rape” in this review, there’s plenty of rape involved in the novel. I’d be tempted to call it misogynist, but I really believe that it’s more an example of the rote, stimulus/response approach to characterization in the book. Garton doesn’t have the skill, or more relevantly the energy to invest his werewolf chow with real personalities. So he relies on the short-hand manipulation of brutality; the character with an abusive husband has to be sympathetic, because she gets beat up. The husband, by contrast, has to be unsympathetic, because he’s a rapist. As far as Garton seems to be concerned, the question is settled; why bother giving them personalities after that? The world of Ravenous is divided up into victims and monsters, and that’s about as much effort as the author puts into it.
The novel does develop a bit of momentum around the middle, as the author finishes with the dull “slice of life” section and you begin to suspect that there might be a plot waiting in the wings, preparing to make its appearance, but ultimately this is a novel in which the red herring is the idea that something might happen other than the obvious. As you’re reading it, various ideas might occur to you for the direction the plot might take, but I guarantee you, you’re putting too much effort into it. Just think of the most predictable conclusion to a novel that’s nothing more than an exercise in pointless sadism, and you’ll have it right there.
Um, in case I’m not clear here, I’m not recommending the book.