by D.A. Watson
378 pages, Wild Wolf Publishing
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Although zombies and vampires continue to get more page and screen time in the horror genre, the myth of the werewolf remains undeniably popular. Booksquawk favourite Guy N. Smith’s werewolf trilogy (“Werewolf by Moonlight”, “Return of the Werewolf”, and “Son of the Werewolf”) is utterly dreadful but also bloody good fun. Many moons ago, I looked at Glen Duncan’s fantastic “The Last Werewolf” and the anthology of werewolf stories “The Werewolf Pack”, but it has been while since I dipped into some werewolf fiction. A recent return to Neil Marshall’s wonderful “Dog Soldiers” on DVD reminded me how much I enjoyed stories about furry flesh-eating beasties, so I fired up my Kindle and downloaded this little beauty.
D.A. Watson’s “The Wolves of Langabhat” can best be summarised in two words: Viking werewolves. If you’re like me, your inner-geek is probably punching the air and wondering why nobody hit upon this concept sooner. Werewolves are awesome. Vikings are awesome. The synergy of werewolves and Vikings still sends me a little bit giddy with excitement. If, however, you rolled your eyes at the concept of werewolves wearing armour and wielding swords and battle-axes, it’s probably best you go right now. This book is not for you.
Still with us? Good. Because D.A. Watson isn’t content to thrill us with Viking werewolves alone. This novel features immortal monster-slayers fighting Viking werewolves. Not quite bombastic enough? What about if one of the immortal monster slayers is also a rock star with a death wish? The words “high concept” don’t even come close to doing it justice.
What first drew me to “The Wolves of Langabhat” was its setting, the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. I’ve a real soft spot for the location because a) I’ve lived there for seven years and b) I’ve also written a novel set on the island. Those who have ever visited Lewis will know that it is quite a unique place. It is rich in culture and history but also lashed by Atlantic storms and full of wide-open spaces that can feel peculiarly desolate. There aren’t many trees and those that do grow here are relatively young. Local legend tells that the Vikings torched the woodlands on the island and the glow from the fires could be seen at night from the mainland.
Watson’s novel is apparently based on another local legend - the wolf-men of loch Langabhat. I say “apparently” because I had never heard of this legend before reading this book and, being an enormous sponge for local folklore, I was surprised not to have encountered this story before. The veracity of the legend doesn’t really matter, it’s a cool concept that is skillfully brought to life in the novel. The book is split into two main narrative threads. The first is set in the early eleventh century and tells the story of an attack on the island by the marauding Viking werewolves and the efforts of the local people to fight back against the beasts. The other half of the novel details the return of the wolf-men to modern day Lewis and the carnage that ensues. Watson does a good job of juggling the two narratives, hopping back and forth in time but never allowing the transition to be jarring or unwelcome. Both stories are equally enjoyable and Watson brings the two narratives together at the close of the novel in a predictable but ultimately satisfying ending.
The titular wolves of the novel are formidable beasts. Towering over their human prey, the wolf-men are vicious, smart and well-organised. Unlike the uncontrolled slavering wolf-beast seen in “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Beast Must Die”, Watson’s wolf-men are tactical hunters and there are a couple of tense moments in the book where the humans realise they have stumbled unwittingly into a trap. As in other werewolf fiction, lycanthropy is a communicable affliction. When a victim is bitten or scratched by one of the werewolves, they are infected with a pseudo-virus which transforms them into a vargulf, a savage dire-wolf the size of a calf. This is a canny move on Watson’s part. There will always be people who favour the all-fours werewolf to the bipedal man-wolf; Watson seems keen to accommodate both.
One of the strengths of the novel is the author’s ability to write convincing, enjoyable action sequences. A few of these are particularly memorable and are worth a mention. In the eleventh-century part of the story, there is a desperate last stand of men versus Viking werewolves as they scramble for control of the higher ground in a bloody pitched battle. The melee combat is extremely well-realised and reminded me of the visceral, brutal action seen in the works of the late David Gemmell. However, it isn’t all swinging swords and axes. Watson seems equally comfortable describing action involving high-calibre automatic weapons. Another sequence sees the modern-day heroes sprinting through a forest, harried by a horde of vargulf wolves that spring from the darkness. Watson paces these sequences perfectly. There aren’t too many that the reader grows numb from the relentless action, nor do they overstay their welcome.
Another strength of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is the snappy, punchy dialogue. Watson’s got a keen ear for the Scots dialect and isn’t afraid to scatter f-bombs aplenty. The banter between the main characters is both endearing and amusing, and helps to anchor the often-fantastical story in the real world. Watson’s own narrative voice is equally full of character and shows a sly awareness of the pulpy ridiculousness of the whole situation. It never descends into broad comedy, but Watson is a smart enough writer not to take the more outlandish aspects of the narrative too seriously.
My one criticism of “The Wolves of Langabhat” is that Watson’s Isle of Lewis seldom feels like the real place. This is a difficulty when using real locations in books, the locals will always pick up on the details you get wrong. Small, but important cultural details are missing, such as the strong influence of Gaelic language or the fact that most locals’ surnames are Macleod or Morrison. Likewise, locations appear in the novel that don’t bear any resemblance to the real place. My enjoyment of Watson’s novel was not drastically affected by the differences between his fictional Lewis and the real place. This is, after all, a work of fiction about Viking werewolves, not a detailed cultural appraisal of the Outer Hebrides. However, there were a few moments where my inner pedant made it hard to maintain my suspension of disbelief. Given that most readers will not have visited the Isle of Lewis (or if they have, they won’t be such sticklers for detail) this is a problem that will be unlikely to affect many readers’ enjoyment of the book.
This quibble aside, I had a blast reading “The Wolves of Langabhat”. It’s an exhilarating, wild, violent read and one that will undoubtedly thrill anyone looking for some pulpy lycanthropic action.
Hereward L.M. Proops
Read the author interview here.
Read the author interview here.