I grew up amidst the fields and forests of central Pennsylvania. I grew up obsessed with werewolves. It may not come as a shock, then, that I took an interest in a werewolf novel set in the acne-riddled T-zone of the state’s face known as Pennsyltucky.
That I just described Tristan Egolf’s Kornwolf as a “werewolf novel” is telling as to the state that particular bugbear has fallen into where contemporary media is concerned. Werewolves are surpassed only by the vampire in the monstrous oversaturation department, with the result being a glut of toothless, predictable film-and-literary iterations of the tortured, beastly soul. I have less time for guilty pleasures than I used to, and so only the setting and Egolf’s reputation as a badass of note inspired me to give Kornwolf a look. I was delighted to discover that unlike recent titles by Glen Duncan and Anne Rice, here at last was a work better described as a unique and weird wonder than deservedly pigeonholed as yet another werewolf novel.
Kornwolf begins with a hyper-saturated lycanthrope smell-o-vision prologue that is exactly what one might expect from a werewolf novel, albeit a beautifully evocative example of its type:
Gulping of air / equilibrium reeling as pounding inside, as of inner combustion…
…a sharp edge of sassafras borne on the wind — and of chimney smoke, rising from miles in the distance — and rosemary, slash pine, chicory, hemlock — replete with a tang of synthetic emissions…And traces of crimson in putrefaction…Of hunger awakened to ravenous burning…Responding — by light of the moon, with intent now — through corn-cockle, snakeroot and billowing milkweed to wax-myrtle, buckthorn and snapping of aster — then out to a rolling expanse of stubble…
Immediately after, however, the prose shifts into a sneering, nose-thumbing rebuke of small town America, as Egolf shamelessly shows off his chops in an extended single-sentence, multiple-page take-down of growing up in Stepford, the novel’s stand-in for Lancaster, Pennstytucky (“…where nothing quite passed for sublime or dismal, discreet or brash, even fair to midland — just solid, implacable, unbroken gray…”). Egolf’s filter for this breathless I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-ass-if-you-stop-reading ramble is the novel’s reporter character Owen Brynmor (who serves his obligatory discover-the-secret-of-the-werewolf role with aplomb), and concludes with the brilliantly blunt punchline: “Owen had grown up dreaming of nuking it. Stepford could render such impulses rational.”
Rather than calming down after this jab and cross opening, Egolf continues to bounce around the ring, and every time you think you’ve got your bearings he uppercuts you into the ropes. It’s a thrilling spectacle, but it’s also a down-and-dirty mess — as large a component to the text as boxing is, the novel is closer to a brutal street fight in its loose structure and creative interpretation of what constitutes fairplay. Therein lies the novel’s charm, or what will be a decided lack thereof for certain readers — you either take what Egolf is throwing at you, reckless, half-baked, and wart-speckled as his tangents, sudden shifts in perspective, and languid pacing occasionally are, or you toss in the towel.
Clumsy boxing metaphors aside, what’s it about? Earlier I did a little pretentious song-and-dance about how this wasn’t a werewolf novel despite being a novel about a werewolf. (I’ll pretend I never acted the ass so long as you do the same, cool? Cool.) So it’s about this guy Owen, a reporter who escaped Pennsyltucky only to return home for a job. Yet Owen’s investigation into the strange creature terrorizing the countryside during the lead-up to Halloween (a refreshing and fun approach to the stock why-don’t-any-of-these-idiots-realize-it’s-a-werewolf chestnut of even the best lycanthrope tale) is only a fraction of the novel. Plenty of space is devoted to a Jack, a boxing coach with mysterious ties to the local “Plain Folk” community, Grizelda, a strong-willed, progressive member of said community with secrets of her own, and her nephew, Ephraim, a mute Amish teenager whose catalyst for terrible personal changes is the discovery of Slayer’s Reign in Blood album — said changes being obvious from the outset, though our Mennonite wolfman inexplicably bares more of a resemblance to Richard Nixon than Lon Chaney, Jr.
The transformation of Ephraim Bontrager from put-upon youth, whose rebellious streak doesn’t extend much wider than flipping the bird at gawking tourists or listening to country crooner George Jones on a contraband jambox, into an unholy beast of the night doesn’t follow the stock horror trajectory. Raised by his abusive preacher father and harboring a doomed attraction for his cousin, the mute Ephraim should not, according to the conventions of the genre, have a snowball’s chance in hell of resisting the bloodthirsty impulses of his “blight.” Rather than struggling to control his inner kornwolf only to kill, kill, and kill again, however, Ephraim somewhat gleefully embraces the ability to raise hell with complete anonymity, content to terrorize a local crooked cop, crash a bar in pursuit of liquor and sex, and generally shake up the quiet, quaint countryside. Furry anonymity cannot last long in the world of the werewolf, of course, but instead of dead giveaways such as eyebrows that meet in the middle, long ring fingers, or other conventional signs, Ephraim begins to emit a stench powerful enough to disrupt a church service:
…the caustic odor intensified, reaching a pungency hitherto unimagined — wafting of vomit and toxic bile, so thick and restrictive, so utterly rank, as to choke many cries in mid-sustain. The uproar cut to an agonized choir of sneezing, coughing, retching and heaving. A wave of shame overcame the assembly. How it could generate such an execrably hellish odor was beyond comprehension. Only one thing was clear: this service was over. Already gone to the chao, as it were: with the horseman of pestilence galloping through, the rest of the morning would have to be cut.
That’s plot talk, though, and you don’t read Kornwolf for the plot (another commonality it shares with more generic werewolf novels, where the formulaic content is more akin to comfort food than to exotic cuisine). You read this text for Egolf’s writing, for his wit, and for his devotion to telling the story the way it needs to be told — it’s almost hard to reconcile the respectful and meticulously detailed minutiae of Mennonite devotional practices with the punk kid we glimpsed behind the prose from the onset, but then Owen will comment on how the locals’ accents cause them to purse their lips in the distinctive “Stepford anus” shape and it all makes sense. Considering how casually Egolf renders a local Amish population into a fascinating microcosm of humanity, small wonder his equally deft ruminations on boxing and the history of the werewolf legend captivate in their broader scope even as they tie into the details of the story.
And what a deranged story it is. I know, I know, I said you don’t read this novel for plot, but when you get right down to it, the plot is pretty damn fun. Not to mention dark and filthy, with the metaphorically incestuous nature of insular religious societies set against literal family affairs. The themes of homecoming and the traditional ties of family are nicely contrasted with the pigheaded folly of youth and the importance of Rumspringa, when Amish teenagers are turned loose to sow what oats they can before deciding for themselves whether to join their local Anabaptist community as responsible adults. That the majority of the local Amish youths are drawn to and inspired by Ephraim’s violence and vandalism rather than repelled by it drives home the text’s weird spin on the werewolf formula, where destructive like attracts rebellious like — here we have the lycanthrope as pimply, short-sighted, hormone-maddened teenager rather than tortured hero or monstrous killer. Yet this is no Teen Wolf or Twilight, but a novel that perfectly captures the desperate, sometimes-selfish, sometimes-selfless revolutions of youth without ever giving into romantic fantasy or jaded demonization. If Egolf sometimes seems skeptical if family bonds are of genuine worth or are a destructive sham, if he implies that a redemptive homecoming is not only dangerous but maybe impossible, if he seems torn between sympathy and contempt for his cast of misfits and miscreants, well, that’s all part of the novel’s swaggery charm.
For all its cheek and attitude and humor, there’s genuine emotion balled up like a fist in this strange, one-of-a-kind work, and that Egolf took his own life upon completing it renders the experience even more vexed — Egolf’s father also committed suicide, and that disturbing parallel with the novel’s heavy theme of sons repeating the mistakes of their fathers casts a grim pallor on the work. I won’t run Egolf down by saying he merely had promise, because he possessed much more than that — he had, at only three novels in, a distinct and glorious skill to match his who-gives-a-shit-if-I-play-by-the-rules attitude, and if the haymakers of his prose occasionally miss the mark, we can hardly fault him for swinging in the first place. He’s deeply missed, and I didn’t even know it until I picked up Kornwolf.
But as Egolf concludes his novel, unwilling to toe the line even just this once, “This story never ends…”
Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and the forthcoming The Folly of the World. His short fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.