Jay Michaelson || Interview with a werewolf

What got you into werewolves and how old were you when you discovered them?   

To answer the second part first, my initial exposure was at an early age, and came about thanks to the writings on Greek myths (such as those by Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves), who cited Λυκαων (‘Lykaon’, usually Latinized as ‘Lycaon’) as being the ‘first of men’ to be changed into a wolf, though I confess I did not mine that particularly rich vein of lycanthropic (l)ore until many years later.

While noting the above, I would say I didn’t really ‘get into’ werewolves as an item of serious interest until the early 1990s, at which point, I became much more of a fan. This was due, at least in part, to my own researches into Greco-Roman culture, history, and mythology, occultism, psychology, and far too many other areas of research to list.

Much as I would love to say it was something as simple as seeing American Werewolf in London, I wasn’t even in the US when that movie came out in theaters (though rest assured I saw it as soon as I could, which was probably around 1982-83).

Do you share the same love of other types of shapeshifters? 

I do, though for a number of reasons, I’d have to say werewolves themselves shall always hold a special place at the top of that particular hierarchy (not the least of which being I’m a huge sucker for complex esoterica, and werewolf lore has so very much of that, ripe for the taking: the ‘occult’ relationships between canines/cynocephalic beings and death/Psychopomps, the place werewolves occupy in the collective (un)consciousness being both the same as well as the reverse of that of vampires, etcetera).

I find the notion of anything which can change from one given physical form to another absolutely fascinating (how could I not?), and the notion of being capable of transforming into something that flies, can breathe underwater, is stronger, faster, or can do ANYTHING which humans are not natively capable of is, I think, a notion which will continue to fascinate mankind until such a time as these things become a reality (and in the event such things are never technologically feasible, I predict such archetypal creatures and themes will continue to endure in our mythologies, legends, and our fictions).

What do you think it is that attracts you to werewolves?

That is a topic I could easily write an entire book about, so you’ll have to bear with me (and/or edit this down to something reasonable if I’m unable to do so).

To properly answer this, I’ll need to make some explanations, based on what I would say are the dividing lines in the mythology/lore of werewolves over approximately the last two thousand years (and I’ll try to avoid referencing Freud, Jung, and all those guys if at all possible):

There is the notion of the werewolf as being beholden to the moon, lacking control over not merely their transformation, yet what they do during the time they are transformed as well (let us call that the ‘Insensate Beast’ model), being creatures entirely of instinct and ruled by their baser natures during that time, sating their appetites without regard, making them dangerous to all those around them. They are deprived of intellect in any higher human/sapient sense, and from a purely human perspective, deprived of free will as well (as if they are little more than savage animals mentally, the human concept of free will does not apply to them during their transformation: to crib from Kant, by definition, they are not, can not be ‘autonomous moral agents’). Just the last thousand years alone worth of fiction/mythology gives us any number of examples (e.g., Larry Talbot in the movie The Wolf Man, [1941], Harlan Ellison’s character by the same name in his story Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W’ [1974], David Kessler in American Werewolf in London [1981], etcetera).

Samuel Johnson said, ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ – and I think that is a large part of what is so compelling about the Insensate Beast: being blissfully relieved of the burden of higher consciousness, the loss of control, being able to commit acts, terrible or otherwise, in a wanton fashion (which many humans do anyway), and to be relieved of the responsibility for them: if one is not an autonomous moral agent, one cannot, by definition, be truly responsible for one’s actions.

While not the sole reason for attraction to the Insensate Beast model, I think it is certainly a rather large one, and I feel reasonably confident I don’t speak merely for myself in that regard, considering the enduring popularity of that model.

Contrariwise, there is the notion of a lycanthrope as having some or all control, being possessed of human (or better) intelligence during such times as they are transformed (and ANY amount of control or human intelligence automatically exempts them from the Insensate Beast model), and they are generally depicted as stronger, faster, and more durable than humans; perhaps we could call that either the ‘Sapient Beast’ or (more pointedly) the ‘Superman’ model, in the sense these are creatures endowed with human-level intelligence, and super-human abilities, as well. While it is tempting to cite this as being a more recent interpretation in modern fiction (e.g., Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift [2012], the Underworld movies, etcetera), even a small amount of research reveals this NOT to be the case: it is, in fact, perhaps far closer to some of the original mythological conception of them (inasmuch as our written history, recorded mythology, and archeological findings tells us, at any rate).

As for the Superman/Sapient Beast model, I would cite the obvious (which ties into some of the same reasons why superheroes are so enduringly popular, and have been in human mythos/fictions for thousands of years): first, to be More Than Human, to be more durable, less pervious than a mere mortal; who wouldn’t wish to be imbued with super-human abilities and strengths? Notably, this can be dismissed as mere adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy, I am aware…yet, I would argue there is more to it than that: to be able to adopt another physical form, with different abilities/strengths/weaknesses – how could that not be something one would wish to have the ability to do? As a writer, I enjoy stepping into the ‘skin’ of others, so to speak; being able to do so in a concrete physical fashion is something which I think appeals to a great many people, myself among them.

So: given those two diametrically opposed models (which, minor differences aside, vulnerabilities, cross-combinations and some mixing and matching, e.g., Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten etcetera), I can honestly say I find both models compelling at their core for very different reasons, as noted above.

Do you prefer a gory werewolf tale or a more serene, nature loving version? 

Honestly? I prefer both, though for different reasons entirely.

While those I write about undoubtedly fall at least partially under the ‘gory’, violent category (and I do so love horror stories involving werewolves, provided they are done well), I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, so there has to be a solid story to garner my interest, which is why one of my favorite ‘werewolf books’ would be Robert Lester Stallman’s The Orphan [1980], and while that has its share of violence, graphic consumption, sexuality, and the like, it is fundamentally more about the human condition (as seen through the eyes of something that is emphatically NOT human, yet which dwells among us and observes, permitting the reader to view human and bestial alike through what is as close to an unbiased view as any human could ever write).

Then, of course, I can honestly say I enjoyed Gary Brandner’s The Howling [1977], which I’d say was more flat-out violent/gory than anything by Stallman, so…I’m rather catholic in my tastes.

What does the ideal werewolf look like in your opinion? Give some Cinematic examples if you have any.

I can only give partial cinematic examples (as I’m often rather disappointed by cinematic depictions) – which is to say, I have to mix and match a bit 😀

I suppose if one were to take those as shown in the Underworld movies, and correct their feet for proper (bipedal) ambulation, that would come close.

I also think it only fitting that such a creature, being a cross between simian and lupine, would be cynocephalic. Having an elongated face (snout) means more space for a much greater number of olfactory receptor cells (ORCs), which is one – not the only – reason why canines can, as one zoologist put it, effectively ‘smell like [humans] see’; as one of the other main reasons is the dedication of particular parts of the brain specifically to processing ORC information, one also needs the appropriate cranium-space; ergo, a larger (Corben-esque, perhaps…?) cynocephalic creature strikes me as both the most visually appealing, and the most logically reasonable.

My second choice would simply be a larger-than-natural fully wolf/canine form (e.g., American Werewolf in London, Red Riding Hood, etcetera).

What should a werewolf NOT look like in your opinion? 

Besides the hypertrichosis-esque barely-transformed Larry Talbot sorts (e.g., the The Wolf Man [1941] and that ilk), one thing that really makes my back teeth itch are those shown cinematically as being bipedal hominid-shaped sorts who have digitigrade feet yet walk in a plantigrade fashion (e.g., Howl [2015], too many others to list).

Not saying I don’t ‘get’ it: I understand why they are often depicted thusly as it looks like a greater cross between quadruped and biped, and more ‘alien’ – and therefore ‘cooler’ – though from a purely practical standpoint, I find it interferes with the suspension of disbelief which is so necessary for audience engagement with any work of fiction, as in reality, digitigrade feet would be the absolute WORST possible means of locomotion for a biped (albeit an excellent one for a quadruped).

Think of it like walking around in stiletto-high-heels…just without the heels(!).

Perhaps a better analogy would be when one sees a heroine in an action movie hauling (or kicking) ass while wearing high-heels: to me, that is often repugnant to the intellect, and ‘takes me out’ of the art.

Give a cinematic example of a werewolf that didn’t quite meet your expectations.

Too many to list, I’m afraid.

Stepping away from the cinematic side of things, what is your favourite werewolf novel and why?

I would have to say Robert Lester Stallman’s The Orphan [1980] trilogy (The Captive and The Beast are the second and third, respectively, though I think the final book clearly suffered from his death, though that’s another topic for another time).

I find myself drawn to it not merely for the beauty of his prose (and make no mistake, his talent was immense), yet more so in how it explores everything about the human condition: life, love, sex, and death – all from a perspective so alien that despite its age, and the time it was set in (1930s) – it can and will continue to amaze any readers with minds unfettered by repression or preconceived notions.

While it is classified as a ‘werewolf’ story, I myself have often been a vocal proponent of it NOT being categorized as such, though that, too, is another tangent entirely 😉

Back to cinema, what is your favourite werewolf film?

Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children [2012], while not a horror movie in any sense, is one of my favorite movies, period. Oh, yeah, and it features a werewolf (well, three, actually). Stunningly beautiful, poignant, simply an epic cinematic experience all the way around; I cannot possibly recommend it enough.

I don’t have a lot of original picks, I’m afraid: American Werewolf in London, Ginger Snaps (all three), and, most recently, I found Wer enjoyable (though I feel they could have done much more with it, overall, it was an original take, I think). Red Riding Hood and Blood and Chocolate were enjoyable, I should add, though kindly note, I’ve probably forgot more werewolf movies (and books) than some people have ever seen or read.

Please note I tend to be a rather harsh critic of much fiction, whether movies, books, whatever, and I find Sturgeon’s Law is always applicable.

Notably, I don’t take issue with ‘special effects’ being sub-par (there was a time in theater when they would depict blood with red cloth and red streamers, even…then, one gets to Seneca’s version of Medea, where they poured blood all over the place); the story itself is usually what I judge a work by, going in a mostly Aristotelian hierarchy, with plot, characters, and diction being the things I expect to be solid first and foremost.

Do you have any werewolf related songs to recommend?

Beyond the obvious (e.g., Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London), I am not honestly familiar with many.

Do you have a particular favourite werewolf artist, what is it about their art that you love?

Richard Corben is fantastic (not merely for his variety of werewolf comics, but Rowlf as well), though if I’m being honest, I love most everything he’s done. What I love about his style in particular is how he’s able to convey images via an attention to detail (and, more to the point, *lack* of detail in certain areas which draws the eye in a particular way to give a more realistic impression).

What I love about his depictions of werewolves is that (many, though not all of them) are nearly the absolute epitome of what I think a bipedal werewolf should look like (and then some).

There are a great number of immensely talented artists whose works I’ve encountered on the internet which I absolutely love, though making such a list would prove too voluminous (and many, e.g., Wookiee, fall well under the NSFW category – and notably, I can only think of one example of that person’s art which is werewolf-related offhand: much of their work involves other things entirely).

What do you think of the way representation of werewolves has changed over the years? (In both literature and cinema.)

The Werewolf [1913] was (to the best of my knowledge) the first movie to use an actual wolf as part of the transformation scene. Fast-forward to the days of Rick Baker and company, then, further on to the age of CGI’s increasing perfection, and one encounters a variety of types: fully canine forms (Bitten), bipedal forms (Underworld), so from a purely visual perspective, plenty has changed, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

If you meant their representation thematically/characteristically, I would say they’ve gone from almost always being purely tragic characters, subjected to a curse (Insensate Beast) which causes them to kill even those their human selves care about, to being, increasingly, depicted as gifted: they have a power, and use it – for good or ill, depending – which indicates a trend of moving from the purely Insensate Beast to the Sapient Beast, with some amount of crossover in-between.

Tell me something that makes the werewolves in your works unique. What makes them special?

I suppose I ought to be careful what I say here, as I don’t wish to give out spoilers.

In short, all previous recent – as in, over the last thousand years or so – stories about werewolves (whether one wishes to call them myths or tales or fictions makes no difference: they are stories) are based on a set of preconceived notions which have been steadily evolving, with the evolutionary explosion happening in the last century or so with the invention and growth of new media (such as movies) and the ease of publication of older media (such as writings).

They are, almost universally (in some form or another, at least conceptually), based on exoteric mythology as is known and recorded.

Simply put, I went in the other direction.

What are your other passions within the horror genre or out of it?

I have such a broad variety of interests that listing them all would be more time-consuming for the reader than it would be for me to write it down…so, here’s a quick broad-stroke list:

I’m an inveterate and voracious reader, and consume all manner of works, fiction and non, including but not limited to (in no particular order of preference): fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, poetry, erotica, philosophy, history, physics, chemistry, zoology, religious/spiritual/occult texts, etcetera.

In my younger days, I used to lift weights frequently and enjoyed fencing (mostly foil, some épée) though my advanced age and current sedentary lifestyle has left me in terrible physical shape, relatively speaking 😀

An uncle taught me to play Chess when I was seven, and I took to that with some interest, though I mostly abandoned it in favor of Go, which I took up around 1989, and far prefer the latter.

I’ve traveled extensively, having literally been around the world. In a purely chronological sense, I lost two days of my life, and the only way to ‘regain’ them is if I were to fly around the world in the opposite direction. Twice. Kinda doesn’t seem worth the effort (LOL).

That said, I love to travel, and have lived in a number of states in the US, as well as overseas, living a few years in Australia. I’ve spent countless months of my life in other countries, including but not limited to: Iceland, Italy, India, Ceylon…oh, and the UK (just London a few times, and Ipswich). I once forgot it was Christmas during a week in Singapore, though that’s another story for another time.

I am utterly incapable of producing music…yet I positively love it, and agree that ‘life without music would be a mistake’. My tastes in music are so broad it would take pages to detail that alone.

I love museums, and art, and despite my technical knowledge and hands-on experiencing with painting (I can even mix Linseed oil paints, construct/prep/gesso a canvas, and know calligraphy) I have the raw graphical talent of an induction coil.

And, of course, there’s always writing. I love writing as I do few other things.

 Tell me about your most recent werewolf related work.

I’m currently in the process of finishing up revisions for a book I wrote in the 1990s (Lykaon’s Feast); despite having some publishing credits for shorts here and there during the early 1990s, I never actually submitted that particular work for publication anywhere, and simply shelved it.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and…well, the TL;DR is I am now intending on publication, and while independent origination has chipped away at some of the ideas I put forth in it in the intervening years, it still has much which is, I would say, very original, and which – to judge from the feedback I’ve received from a number of people – significantly subverts many of the tropes common to most other ‘werewolf fiction’, and, I hope, will serve as a breath of fresh air in the mythos/fiction of lycanthropy. I do not expect to be finished with the revisions (and subsequent rigmarole which this, to me, new-fangled digital publication entails) for another couple of months, with my absolute deadline there being by/before the end of this year (2017).

I’m rubbish at making a summary of my own works, so…huh. In brief, it is a story about a man and a woman (Jack and Samantha)…and a family composed of the sort of ‘siblings’ which are, from a purely human perspective, the absolute stuff of nightmares, though most assuredly not from the perspective of the aforementioned characters.

At the risk of giving away too much (considering the reliability of the narrator…), I can safely say the core idea is both beyond ancient – to the point where I still don’t grasp why no one else has already written it – and refreshingly new.

In addition, while I was writing Lykaon’s Feast, I excerpted pieces from different chapters, and edited the bits into the short story The Spirit That Denies, which was published in The Beast Within [1994] by Circlet Press, and which was subsequently reprinted in The Best American Erotica 1995 by Simon & Schuster. It would also have been reprinted in the ‘Best of’ Best of American Erotica 2008 edition, save that Susie Bright, the editor, was unable to get in touch with me in time, though not for lack of trying on her part; though it wasn’t her fault, she was very apologetic about it and was kind enough to give me an honorable mention in the back of the 2008 edition, no less.

The Spirit That Denies will be available for purchase on Amazon shortly – I’m aiming for sometime within the next month if not before.

Who is your favourite character within your own work and why?

That’s an incredibly difficult question! 😀

I have a love/hate relationship with Jack (aka Jacques), who is essentially the main character (or the ‘mainest of the main’) of Lykaon’s Feast, and all thoughts of the ‘dark, brooding’ Byronic anti-hero issues aside, he’s far more than that…even in comparison to his ‘peers’, he is very intelligent, erudite, savvy…yet is, fundamentally, a very ‘broken’ person in many ways which become obvious to the reader, despite his abilities to compensate for it…at times.

Samantha, of course, I love as well, though I fear to give away too much were I to explain why. Suffice to say, she is quirky, nothing short of brilliant, and while she, too, is all-too-human, she possesses the capacity to transcend her humanity, though these are all things the reader learns as the story unfolds.

Between Jessica and Ian, I’m hard pressed to pick, though I suppose I’d have to say while I find Ian more relatable, Jessica simply places me in awe: she is the epitome of the actualized female – forget mere ‘empowered woman’, and think ‘that which has overcome’ (though she, too, has her flaws and faults, they are not what one is originally led to believe). She is a formidable person, and her age and interests make for a character unfettered by most conventional bonds of what I generally see ‘female heroes’ depicted as – though make NO mistake: while loved by her peers, she is anything BUT a hero from a human perspective. She’d make a fabulous supervillain, really…if she cared to be one.

I could go on forever on this topic – Violet and Lorenzo, both matchless in their sheer predatory guile and intellect, Alison and Erik…they are all so unique and fascinating…

As I could easily keep going, can I just give my top four as the above? (Jack|Sam), Jessica and Ian? 😀

Do you have any big upcoming plans relating to werewolves? Any new works on the way?

Oh my yes – though honestly, I’m committed to getting Lykaon’s Feast off my plate before starting revisions on the sequel (which I wrote in 1994/1995, and which remains in dire need of revisions before it could be considered even remotely ready for publication).

In addition to the myriad stories which have occurred along the timeline of that entire Family of characters, I also have an ENTIRE other book, all in my head, which I’ve not committed a single word of to print yet (and which I’m DYING to do) which takes places approximately 150 years prior to Lykaon’s Feast, being set in 1847, and is, in a way, a diametric opposite of LF, covering the story of Jessica and Ian.

Updates and information about that and other stories will be announced on my Facebook page as well as the main LF site (links below).

Will you be available to meet other werewolf lovers and fans in the near future, are you doing any outings or signings, or attending any conventions?

While I have no scheduled plans at present for signings or conventions, I’m not averse to them, though will be focusing the lion’s share of my time and energies on getting Lykaon’s Feast published; once that is done, I’ll be entirely open to attending events, and am looking forward to doing so.

I am gregarious by nature, and my hermit-status is self-imposed, as I want to focus solely on getting Lykaon’s Feast off my plate so that I might proceed with those other works. I am not in any way averse to chatting/talking/meeting with others who have similar interests, though at present, I’m trying to keep to a schedule, so am less social than usual.

Do you have any places online where other werewolf fans can contact you to discuss your work or anything lycanthropy related?

Absolutely: I am always reachable via email and invite any and all people who are interested in my writings and/or are just general fans of lycanthropic topics to friend, follow, or otherwise hit me up on Facebook (I’ve set up an author/profile page there, though it’s far from complete) or Twitter:

When I’m neck-deep in revisions, I’m not often on social media…though I do take the occasional breaks, and can be found thereabouts. Just please don’t take a slow response time personally.

The main site where updates about the book and writings or other matters cognate to Lykaon’s Feast will appear is:
Lykaons feast facebook page
Jay Michaelson on facebook
And last but certainly not least, the most reliable way of contacting me is via email.
To reiterate: don’t take a slow response turnaround time personally. I do the best I can, and always try to make the time to reply.

Vampires and zombies have both become seriously popular within the horror genre in movies, do you think that as technology continues to improve werewolves will eventually reach the same kind of status? 

Absolutely. As not everyone is necessarily as tolerant of unrealistic special effects as I am, given our technological leaps, and our CGI approaching a verisimilitude with reality, I have no doubt that will increase appeal to the general populace (and perhaps reinvigorate those who are already fans).

More importantly, as the way lycanthropes are represented has evolved (from mindless to sapient, to note just one point), that has already led to a greater variety in their depictions, and in the stories we tell about them. I expect that trend will only continue, as there are so very many more interesting stories to be told – far more than even I can think of, I am positive…and I’ve got more stories rattling about in my head than I’ll have time to ever write