Friday, 1 April 2016

Undertaker’s Moon (Moon of the Werewolf) by Ronald Kelly (1991), Part 2

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Greetings and welcome!

As promised, here is the second part of the article about Ronald Kelly’s werewolf novel Undertaker’s Moon. If my rambling piques your curiosity and you decide you would like to read the book yourself, you can find a direct link to Amazon’s Kindle e-store to the side. In this second (and last) part, I would like to first talk about the portrayal of werewolves in the novel; afterwards, I will say a few words about how different characters in the book view lycanthropy, and, finally, I will end with my general impressions and evaluation of the book. That said, let’s get down to business, because there is quite a lot to talk about.

Werewolves in Undertaker’s Moon

As I’ve mentioned before, in this section I’d like to talk a bit about the way werewolves are presented in the novel. There is a lot that can be said on the subject, so without further ado, let’s get started with what we can glean from the text.

The first thing to be said about the werewolves in Undertaker’s Moon is that they are immortal. They don’t suffer from diseases that are fatal to humans and are resistant to physical damage in the sense that inflicted wounds, even those seemingly severe, merely inconvenience them. They possess extremely fast regenerative powers, which let them heal any damage they suffer practically instantly. Needless to say, they can virtually live forever and do not seem to age physically past their prime – although Devin and Rosie became werewolves as small children, they still kept growing, while McManus, being at this point over a millennium old, had not seemed to have changed since his prime back in the 8th century.

The werewolves’ only weaknesses seem to be: silver, which causes an acute allergic reaction, other werewolves, and the two mysterious Celtic amulets owned by Ian Danaher. The amulets and the gems embedded in them have the power to weaken any nearby werewolf, draining them of their powers. The origin of said amulets is never fully explained, apart from the fact they were kept secret by the Irish monks who lived in the Kells monastery in the 8th century. We can only speculate about their genesis and the reason why they possess their supernatural properties. Since the source of the Silver Beast’s curse is a pact with the devil, the crosses may work as they do due to being holy relics. Unlike silver and werewolf-inflicted injuries, the amulets themselves aren’t lethal to werewolves. They simply diminish their powers, even as far as quenching their hunger for flesh and preventing transformation altogether if worn, as it is in the case of Ian Danaher.

As for ways of getting rid of werewolves permanently in the novel’s universe, it is stated that the only way they can be killed is either if another werewolf kills them or they are killed with the use of silver (bullets, knives, swords, daggers, and the like). Both contact with silver and being injured by another werewolf cause sizzling wounds as if one was burned by a very hot object.

Werewolves here are able to transform at will, but the process isn’t instantaneous – it takes a while for them to assume their werewolf forms and the act of shapeshifting seems to be quite painful, since their bodies basically rebuild themselves. However, it does seem that the more accustomed one is to their curse, the faster this process will be. Moreover, they are also able to only partially transform, as shown when Rosie defends Brian from Mickey by slashing the latter with claws, as well as later on when Devin threatens Jake and confronts Brian about his sister. Even in their human form, the werewolves possess superhuman strength, agility, reflexes, and heightened senses.

Once transformed, their werewolf forms are those of bipedal, seven-foot (or more) tall human-wolf hybrids. There are some traits that the werewolves retain from their human selves – their human body build is reflected, while their fur is the same colour as their human hair colour; also, their eye colour remains the same. The werewolves can communicate with each other in what the author calls ‘the snarling tongue of the wolf’ (Chapter 12, loc. 1658), but it is unclear whether this form of communication is intelligible only among the werewolves or not, because there’s no instance where any werewolf successfully communicates using this method with a human. As I see it, any dialogue between the lycanthropes (which, nota bene, is written in italics) is limited to them only and cannot be understood by humans, to whom any utterances of the kind simply sound like lupine growls and barks.

As far as the process of becoming a werewolf is concerned, it is a little bizarre here. As shown numerous times throughout the novel, people becomes werewolves similarly to what was shown in the movie Underworld: Evolution in the case of werewolves created by the elder werewolf William. Here, same as there, in order for one to become a werewolf, one must be killed by another werewolf. And yes, by that I don’t mean being brought to the brink of death – I mean they actually have to die, after which they come back to life, their injuries healed, as werewolves. According to Ian Danaher, there is a magical element in the process of being infected through a bite (it seems like it’s not possible to be infected through means other than a bite in this universe) – this is possibly because of the fact that the roots of the curse are supernatural, since McManus first became a werewolf with the help of the devil. Upon healing their injuries, characteristic white scar tissue covers those parts of the body of the new-born werewolf that were damaged by the other werewolf. This scar tissue is also a kind of a mark binding the infected to the curse, because when they are killed, these white patches are healed and disappear.

A defining feature that drives the whole plot of the novel is the werewolves’ craving for human flesh that increases as the moon gets closer to being full. This irresistible, burning hunger is the underlying cause for the novel’s premise – the whole reason why McManus lives with the O’Shea family and helps them maintain the undertaking business is to be able to sate that hunger with as little risk of discovery as possible. As he himself admits at one point, hunting humans became too risky as the world developed over the course of the centuries – it was no longer as easy to kill human beings without being hunted down as in the past. That’s why, in order to survive, McManus and his unwilling lackeys were forced to resort to scavenging. Migrating from town to town depending on where the fatality rate is highest, the werewolves use the undertaking business as a cover for their monthly feasts on dead, but still human, flesh. Their attitudes towards this practice differs, but up until the events in Old Hickory, they all accept it as a necessity for their survival.

Although the source of the werewolf curse is supernatural in nature and it’s stated at one point in the novel that there is a ‘magical’ element to the bite and the infection process, it doesn’t seem to only be limited to humans, as we find out at the end of the novel when it is revealed that one of Devin’s victim’s pet dog named Popeye has survived his struggle with the werewolf Booker brothers… and is now a werewolf-dog. This topic isn’t elaborated on, obviously, since it just serves as a cliff-hanger ending to the story, but it does seem like even a small creature like Popeye transforms into a large enough beast to carry a grown pig with ease. Whether this creature is different from the werewolves our human characters turned into remains unknown.

Finally, one more thing I wanted to mention here are werewolf babies. Yes, you read it right. In Undertaker’s Moon there are two instances where the subject of werewolf babies is brought up. First, during the novel proper, we learn of the possibility of a human becoming pregnant with a werewolf baby when Devin reveals his diabolical plan of populating the earth with his progeny to his lover, much to her horror. We learn that, apparently, the conception of such a child is not as easy as one would have thought, because, according to Devin, he had failed to actually make a human woman pregnant in the past. Another instance where we meet with the mention of a natural-born werewolf is in the novella The Spawn of Arget Bethir and this time we learn a little more about it. During his fateful visit to his hometown, Brother Ian learns the truth about his mother’s passing from his older sister. It is then revealed that Ian’s mother had fallen victim to McManus’s lust and had become pregnant with a werewolf baby. As we learn, this pregnancy did not have a happy ending – close to the time of birth, when the child was big enough, the full moon caused the foetus to transform inside its mother’s belly. Shortly after, the werewolf infant tore its way out of its mother’s belly, causing her death. Whether this would have been the fate of Devin’s lover had she not committed suicide is unknown, but there is a big chance that she would have shared the same fate as Ian’s mother.

The Characters’ Differing Attitudes Towards Lycanthropy

As I’ve mentioned before, each character in the novel has a slightly different stance on their condition. Some view it as a curse, others a blessing, while others yet see it as a natural part of their existence. In this section, I’ll try to outline how each major (werewolf) character sees lycanthropy. As an afterthought, I’ve additionally included one non-werewolf character due to his ties to werewolves even if he isn’t one himself.

Squire Crom McManus

The Squire is portrayed as the source of lycanthropy in the novel’s universe. A charismatic man that once lived in the early centuries A.D. Ireland, he struck a deal with the devil who granted him power and riches, but with a catch – although he would be able to shapeshift into a great wolf-like beast at will, every full moon he would suffer from insatiable hunger for human flesh that would force him to feed on the living. This, however, did not bother McManus in the least. Using his brand-new gift, he would quickly become a figure of legends among the Irish folk, recruiting more and more werewolves into his ranks, devouring whole villages at a time where his pack appeared. Needless to say, during that time, McManus openly defied every authority and boasted about his superiority to man every chance he got, relishing in the hunt. His attitude gradually changes with the passing of time. As human civilisation develops, he and his followers are no longer able to enjoy the same freedom as in the days of old. From hunters they become the hunted and are forced into the shadows of the underworld. McManus himself is forced to leave his native Ireland and he travels around the world, trying to survive, if not flourish, in a different place. Come twenty-first century, he admits to himself that he has grown old – mentally, if not physically – and remarks during the climax of the novel that although he is forced to live the life he lives out of the necessity of survival, he longs for the hunts of old and misses the time when everyone trembled at the sound of his name.

Patrick and Mary O’Shea

Patrick and Mary O’Shea were a happy couple with two young children before Squire Crom McManus crossed their path. They died by his hand and subsequently were forced into his service through the curse of werewolfism. They have memories of their lives before they became werewolves and because of that, they resent lycanthropy and the one who bestowed it upon them. Lacking the strength to oppose their master, Patrick and Mary are forced to be a part of his scheme. They view werewolfism solely as a curse that binds them in an unholy way to McManus and are themselves appalled at their deeds during the full moon. And yet, they are unable to end their lives by their own hand, choosing to continue living a life that is, for them, full of deeply hidden sorrow. It comes as no surprise, then, that they welcome their killers when they raid their house at the end of the book.

Rosie O’Shea

Rosie, the youngest of the O’Shea family, was still a toddler when she was made a werewolf. Hence, she does not know any other life than that of a shapeshifter forced to feed on human corpses every full moon. Due to this fact, her attitude towards lycanthropy is very different to that of her parents. Contrary to them, Rosie views werewolfism as a special gift that should be cherished. Despite that, she knows that it’s not something she can brag about openly. She does, however, make use of her abilities when her back is forced against the wall, especially if dear to her is in danger, partially transforming to fend off whatever danger looms ahead. She tries to live as normal a life as a teenager whose family is on the move every few years can live, her wolf side being just a natural state of things that she has to cope with, the Feasts of the Moon being to her like an old family tradition that one cannot free oneself from. Shortly after arriving in Old Hickory, Rosie falls in love with Brian – a teenager living next door – and is grief-stricken when the boy comes to her house to murder her because she’s a werewolf. She is angered at the fact that her secret became known and even suggests that Brian become a werewolf like her, so that they can be together, but she is met with refusal.

Devin O’Shea

Rosie’s brother Devin, who also became a werewolf when he was a young child, developed a vastly different attitude towards lycanthropy from that of his sister. He is not only the stereotypical upstart of the pack who refuses to comply with the rules set by his alpha, but he takes it a step further. He oftentimes clashes with McManus, pointing out to him that he has become too meek and that by leading a life of a scavenger he brings shame to any werewolf out there. Devin knows, however, that he on his own isn’t strong enough to overthrow McManus, so he resorts to plotting behind his back. To carry out his coup, the teenager plans to establish his own pack of werewolves, which he gradually starts doing over the course of the novel. He refuses to continue feasting on human remains, to which McManus orders him to hunt animals if he must, but forbids him from killing live humans – which Devin, of course, ignores. Additionally, Devin is fascinated by Hitler’s Nazi ideology of the master race – a fascination that his family dismisses as a phase that he will get over, eventually. However, Devin uses Hitler’s ideology as a basis for his own – in his mind, werewolves are the master race, while ordinary humans are to them merely prey, or slaves. Even as a human, he looks down on people around him and likes to humiliate others using his superhuman abilities. His obsession with the idea of werewolf superiority doesn’t end there. He embarks on a personal crusade to not only fill the world with werewolves he creates with his bite, but also to establish his line of werewolves born from human mothers. To this end, he seduces girls at school and tries to impregnate them, his good looks making it all the easier for him to do so. Because he feels invincible thanks to his powers, he doesn’t shy from partially transforming in front of people he wants to harass and even admits he is a werewolf and blackmails another boy, who witnessed him killing another boy during the full moon. He likes taking advantage of people’s disbelief in the supernatural, certain that even if he reveals his identity to other teenagers, no-one will believe them if they tell any adults about it. In the end, Devin’s ideology and his reckless campaign prove to be the cause of his family’s downfall (and McManus’s as well, subsequently).

The Booker Brothers

Billy and Bobby Booker are Old Hickory’s liaison with the underworld. As such, they are said to be able to procure anything illegal the local teenagers would ask of them, for an appropriate price, of course. It comes as no surprise then that being made into werewolves turns out to be right up their alley (well, except for the part where they first have to die by Devin O’Shea’s hand). Initially not fully aware what they’re getting themselves into, the brothers agree to become Devin’s lackeys in exchanged for the promise of immortality. In exchange for the curse, Devin orders them to supply him with living humans every full moon, so that he can feast on them instead of on corpses or wild animals. The Bookers are fiercely loyal to Devin and are prepared to take risks in order to destroy any evidence that could endanger him. They also serve as Devin’s henchmen, threatening and harassing whoever he orders him to. Moreover, with their new-found powers, they are not above murder if it is a way to silence those who have begun to discover their secret.

Ian Danaher

Ian Danaher is McManus’s arch nemesis and has been such since the destruction of the monastery he was a brother at in the 8th century Ireland. Ian’s backstory is revealed in the novella The Spawn of Arget Bethir, found after the end of the novel proper. Deeply religious, Ian is nearly driven insane by the strange premonitions of him becoming a werewolf. Trying to find peace of mind, he is given leave to go back to his home village to his sister, the last of his kin. There, not only does he find his birthplace ravaged by the werewolf pack, but learns that his sister has become a werewolf herself. Having put her out of her misery, Ian goes back to the monastery, where he comes across the Silver Beast and his pack. Nearly killed by McManus, as a last ditch effort the man throws himself off a cliff to deny the werewolf the satisfaction of the kill. However, he survives the fall and wakes up on the shore, now a werewolf himself. Actually, keeping in mind the way werewolves are created in this universe, it’s more probable that he actually died from the fall and came back to life as a lycanthrope. Ever since, he treats his werewolfism as a means of conquering the evil that is the Silver Beast. Wearing his holy Celtic amulet allows him to keep the beast within at bay, preventing his transformations.

Brian Reece

While not a werewolf himself, Brian has some peculiar ties to lycanthropy. When we first meet him, we learn that he’s an avid fan of everything horror and likes to write monster-related fiction. However, subconsciously Brian despises werewolves, so in his whole gallery of horrors one would be hard-pressed to find anything much about The Wolf Man. And, as it is explained (kind of) later, there is a good reason behind it. Faced with the possibility of the O’Sheas being genuine werewolves, the teenager starts reminiscing about his late father and recalls an instance where he arrived home one morning naked and dirty, for no apparent reason. Also, he experiences a dream (which turns out to be based on his childhood memories) in which he cowers in his bedroom as a small child while a great black wolf-monster tries to reach and devour him, but is then chased away by his mother with the help of a silver-plated mirror. Based on that, as well as a newspaper article describing an accident (which, in fact, was a suicide attempt of his father’s) in the local silver mine, in which his father died. But although Brian realises his father was a werewolf, this plot point doesn’t seem to go anywhere further, apart from serving the purpose of some character development for the boy, I guess. Did this realisation have an impact on Brian’s attitude towards his love, Rosie, once he’d found out she was a werewolf? Could the mutual feeling between the two even be called love if it didn’t matter in the end?

Impressions and Evaluation

While I enjoyed reading Undertaker’s Moon very much, I’ve concluded that I still have mixed feelings towards it as a whole. I enjoyed reading it until the book started heading towards the conclusion, at which point my enjoyment began to decrease. It’s kind of like when a very expensive and tasty looking meal leaves a bitter aftertaste in your mouth or gives you heartburn.

This is mainly because of one reason. Namely, I was left frustrated with the direction the author decided to take. I’m angered at the one-dimensional approach that has been done so many times and I keep asking myself why the story couldn’t have ended differently. I’m not even going to mention the plot-point of the werewolf dog at the very end, because it’s just plain silly. At the same time, I do acknowledge that picking up this reading I wasn’t expecting anything more than a stereotypical horror story, where all the monsters are eventually slain (or was I?). In this sense, the book has done good by its genre; the rednecks managed to kill all the werewolves (well, except for the werewolf dog), enabling their town to go back to being the boring Southern backside of beyond it had been before.

What I found annoying and deliberate on the author’s part was the portrayal of the werewolves throughout the book. Let me explain. In the first, let’s say, half of the novel, the O’Shea family are presented as friendly, well-mannered folks (except for Devin, of course, and McManus to some extent) willing to be part of the local community despite their nature. The young Rosie even goes as far as establishing a happy romantic relationship with a neighbour teenager. Once the proverbial faeces hit the fan, however, and the human protagonists learn of the O’Sheas being werewolves and feeding on the corpses of the town’s deceased, this approach suddenly ends. In actuality, all portrayal of the characters apart from their portrayal as monsters that have to be destroyed at all costs and regardless of everything stops. From then on, the novel focuses on the human  characters, their investigation into the O’Shea family, and their plan to destroy them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Undertaker’s Moon is an excellent monster horror story for any fan of the genre. It’s well-written and gripping, which makes it a very good read for all fans of the genre. It also has a lot of werewolf references that us fans catch on the fly, e.g. the jukebox in the pub plays Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, while another time a character makes an inside joke about the 1941’s The Wolf Man. However, for me, it became a little one-sided somewhere in the middle and turned into a survival horror with human protagonists towards the end. I just found it lacking; even though during the final confrontation the author tried to give the O’Sheas some dignity, it was still not enough. The line between humanity and bestiality, initially not so fine, becomes a crevice separating the werewolves from the local community. That, I think, is my biggest gripe with Undertaker’s Moon – that, in the end, no matter your intentions, be they good or bad, if you’re a monster, you need to be destroyed. Not even love, be it genuine or an infatuation, seems to make a difference here, which was very disappointing. And this, for me, was the biggest let-down of the novel, which left me dissatisfied after I finished reading it – the horror fan inside me was satisfied, I guess, however the lycanthropologist was definitely not.

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Thus we have come to the end of the second, and last, part of the article, and it’s time we finished up with Ronald Kelly’s Undertaker’s Moon. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and if I’ve sparked an interest in you in the novel, you can always find the link to its Kindle version by clicking on the image of the cover at the top. And if you don’t have a Kindle reading app yet, you can find a link to where you can download it from in the right sidebar (or, alternatively, you can click here). In the meantime, I’m off to watch some more werewolf movies and read some more werewolf books. Remember to follow me on Twitter @werewolftheory for any smaller updates I might post and I will see you soon!



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