Literary Spotlight: Gary Brandner’s ‘The Howling’ Trilogy (1977-1985)

‘The Howling’ is a name that has cemented itself in the horror genre based on two sets of opinions that are at odds with each other: the first is that Joe Dante’s loose adaptation of Gary Brandner’s novel is considered to be one of the greatest Werewolf films of all time – often neck and neck with another insanely popular Werewolf film from the same year, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ – and yet the other opinion is that the name ‘The Howling’ also has a negative connotation with it as the following seven sequels in the eight film series are more often than not regarded as some of the worst films in the genre.

In one hand, a top contender for the best in Werewolf fiction.

In the other, a top contender for one of the worst horror franchises in existence.

But that’s where the topic seems to end, as not too often are Gary Brandner’s trilogy of novels ever really discussed or brought up. Have the low-quality sequels deterred audiences away from Brandner’s works? It’s very possible, especially considering that many of the sequels have stated “Based on the books The Howling I, II, and III by Gary Brandner” in their credit’s sequences – a flat-out lie as only two of the eight movies are actually based on the books, and those two films, ‘The Howling’ (1981) and it’s sequel, ‘The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare’ (1988) are both based on the first book – each of which are loose adaptations, with the latter being slightly more faithful to the source than the former.

However, the second and third books have yet to see any type of visual interpretation, big screen or small, despite the fact that they’re solid stories that could have made great movies. Hell, an argument could be made that the sequel novels are superior to the original. You can quote me on that.

The time has come to shine a spotlight on these over-looked novels, and to add another set of positives to the discussions about a brand named ‘The Howling’.

BOOK 1: ‘The Howling’ (1977)

It was supposed to be a great day for Karyn Beatty and her husband Roy. It was the one-year anniversary of their wedding, and they were going to celebrate with a dinner accompanied by their good friend Chris Halloran and his current lady-friend. More than that, Karyn planned to use the occasion to break the news to Roy that she was three-months pregnant. But what was supposed to be a day of joy and celebration ended with horror for Karyn.

Just after Roy takes off for a last-minute work errand, a vile man named Max Quist invades the Beatty home, violently raping Karyn and giving her a swift punch to the gut, causing her to lose the child. While Max is eventually caught and sent to prison, Karyn struggles with her trauma, which has a seemingly lasting effect in the intimacy department between the couple. At the suggestion of a psychiatrist, the couple seek a temporary break from the city and lease a mountainside home up north in a little town called Drago. There, as their relationship slowly begins to crumble, Karyn is troubled by the sounds of Howling, which have pierced the air outside their new home nightly, while Roy slowly becomes consumed by his lust for the green-eyed local, Marcia Lura. Karyn’s obsession with the Howling grows after the discovery of her dog’s severed head, as well as the sudden disappearances of a couple hikers. Unsatisfied with the “it’s a coyote” answer, and suspicious of the actions of local sheriff Anton Gadak, Karyn seeks out books on Wolves from a neighboring town, which gets the attention of former-Nun Inez Polk, who suspects that Drago has a Werewolf. Karyn is dismissive at first, but after shooting at a Werewolf who has showed up outside of her house, she soon believes. Meanwhile, Roy engages in a fling with Marcia and is attacked by a Werewolf in the woods. The Werewolf, however, does not go for the kill: instead, it bites into his shoulder, turning him into one of them.

Karyn and Inez discover all too late that Drago doesn’t just have a Werewolf: it has a community of them. The Werewolves strike, killing Inez, and nearly killing Karyn – but she’s saved by Roy, who in wolf form jumps to her rescue and kills another Werewolf in the process. Likewise, Karyn saves Roy by preventing Chris from killing him, showing that the two still loved each other despite the circumstances that had torn them apart.  Aided by Chris, who believed Karyn enough to pick up a small supply of silver bullets before rushing to Drago, Karyn nearly escapes with her life after shooting Marcia in the head with a silver bullet, and trapping the community into a barn and setting it on fire. Roy is presumed dead. But even as Karyn and Chris drive away from the blaze at Drago, they can hear it: The Howling.

If you’ve seen either of the two adaptations of this book, this will definitely sound familiar to you. An argument has been made that all of the changes from screenwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, and director Joe Dante helped make the story a bit more cinematic, and it’s hard to argue against that since this is not an action-packed book full of violence and mayhem. Sure, neither is the 1981 film, but the changes made to the story help with the pacing and the entertainment factor. This is a slow-paced book that is first and foremost about the deteriorating relationship, while building on the established lore about the Werewolves and Drago gradually, largely allowing the audience to learn as Karyn does. But this isn’t a boring book by any stretch of the imagination. Brandner does a good job of moving the story and characters forward while building on the mystery and suspense, and the horror at play. Each chapter is short and sweet, never over-staying its welcome at any point.

It’s easy to say that the 1981 film is better than the novel, but I wouldn’t sleep on this book. It’s a strong start to an engaging series.

BOOK 2: ‘The Howling II’ (1978)

Three years have passed since the events at Drago. Survivors Karyn Beatty and Chris Halloran have gone their separate ways as they’ve coped differently over the horrors they have witnessed in the northern California village populated by a community of Werewolves. Karyn now lives in Seattle and has re-married, this time to a 40-something-year-old widower named David Richter, and took his young son on as her own. However, although getting better, she still struggles with Drago, not feeling fully satisfied that it’s over with, and strongly believing that some survived the fire.

But she’s right, as they are indeed not the only survivors; Karyn’s ex-husband Roy Beatty managed to save his lycanthropic lover Marcia Lura and nurse her back into health – but not without a price, as the silver bullet Karyn shot into Marcia’s head left more than just a silver streak through her jet-black hair: Marcia, a natural born Werewolf, cannot feel the complete change as she did before. Because of the bullet, she’ll never be able to assume the form of her other ever again, and instead transitions into a monstrosity that’s not quite Werewolf and not quite human.

Because of this, Marcia wants revenge against Karyn. Roy, however tries to convince his green-eyed lover to leave Karyn alone, but Marcia is hell-bent on revenge and manipulates him into going through with it. At first, they toy with Karyn; giving her the sense of being watched and followed, and then allowing her to see Roy; they deliberately kill the plants Karyn tends to and even scheme to take the child, Joey, but Roy’s mission is blundered by a house-keeper who buys the child enough time to live another day. Knowing that Marcia and Roy are targeting her, and fearing for the lives of her husband and step-child, Karyn flees, heading back to California to temporarily live with her parents, but the wolves know her every move and come calling. Determined to stand her ground and fight, and desperate for help, Karyn tracks down the only person who knows what she’s up against: Chris Halloran. As she travels to Mexico to find him, Roy and Marcia follow, leading to a showdown between the four.

In my opinion this is a great sequel, and I love the choice to continue on with these four main characters. It feels like the natural next step in the story. Brandner really expanded the scope here by having it set in multiple locations rather than just one town, and to have it as a revenge story that features only two Werewolves – making it a reversal of the first story, but also keeping the intensity in place. Sure, Karyn and Chris aren’t up against a whole community of Werewolves like before, but that doesn’t mean things are easy for them: being out of the United States, they face a great struggle with the fact that they won’t be able to easily obtain guns and silver bullets, and to make matters worse, the Gypsies are reluctantly forced to aid the two Werewolves, which at one point causes Chris to be stranded in a dangerous town while Karyn is tricked to travel to a cabin in the mountains alone (under the pretense that Chris has called for her).  Marcia Lura continues to be a great villain, and I like Roy’s reluctance to proceed with her revenge plot.

Overall, I feel like this is a solid revenge story and a great follow up to the first book. In some ways I feel like it is superior to the original novel, and I would love to see this story be adapted to screen.

BOOK 3: ‘The Howling 3: Echoes’ (1985)

Arguably the best book in the series, The Howling 3 doesn’t continue the story of Karyn and Chris, but is rather a companion piece that takes place before the events of the second book, and follows other survivors of the Drago fire. Primarily set in Pinyon, a town south of Drago, the story follows new lead protagonists, La Reina County Sherriff Gavin Ramsay, and local Doctor Holly Lang, whose lives intersect after two deputies discover a badly mangled corpse and a feral teenaged boy named Malcolm in the woods while searching for a pair of drunken locals, Abe Craddock and Curly Vane.

As Gavin attempts to solve the mystery of what happened to the deceased man in the woods, Malcolm is brought to the local hospital where he is put under the care of Dr. Lang, who befriends the boy. We learn afterwards that Malcolm, a survivor of Drago, had escaped the fire and met an off-the-grid hermit named Jones after Malcolm was caught in an illegal bear trap, set by Craddock and Vane. Jones cared for the boy for a bit as his ankle healed, becoming a father figure of sorts, but decided the best course of action was to return the boy to civilization. However, on their trek down to Pinyon from the mountain, the drunk locals mistake Jones for a bear and shoot him in the face. Out of fear for getting caught for their mistake, Abe and Curly chase after Malcolm, intent on killing him as well. But unbeknownst to the drunk scumbags, there was a witness to their crimes: Derak, the former leader of the Drago Werewolves, who also happens to be Malcolm’s father. As Derak kills Curly in his Lycanthropic form, Abe Craddock gets away and attempts to spin the tale in his favor.

As Gavin and Holly begin to bond and form a relationship, the situation escalates as an ambitious-yet-shady colleague of Holly’s, Dr. Wayne Pastory, who knows of the boy’s true-form, has Malcolm secretly transferred to his off-the-books clinic, meanwhile Derak, still in pursuit of his son, arrives at the hospital and savagely kills the hospital administration’s chief of staff, Dr. Qualen, after learning that Malcolm had been transferred. As Malcolm is tortured by Pastory’s sadistic assistant, Holly, Gavin, and Derak each race against time to find the missing boy. As chaos ensues at Pastory’s clinic, Malcolm flees and escapes the clutches of all who pursue him, including his allies, and wanders the country aimless and free. But it is only a matter of time before his pursuers catch up to him, and true intentions are revealed.

Although I’ve described a bit of detail in the summary, I’m trying to avoid major spoilers, particularly from within the last 100 pages of the novel but there is an aspect of this that is also a part of one of the film sequels, even though they’re handled completely different.

I think what works the most about this is that it expands upon the lore of the Werewolves and their ways of life. I also like the idea that this book is primarily about a young Werewolf who hasn’t been indoctrinated into that way of life and Malcolm gets to shape his own destiny by his interactions with those in the world outside of the tribe. I think this book also succeeds at having the most conflict and tension of the trilogy because of the fact that it’s about a boy’s soul at stake, and the dual threats of Pastory and Derak make the series of events that take place all that more threatening.

Overall, I feel like this third, and final, book in the series from author Gary Brandner is the strongest of the bunch, and with its single serving story it would make for a great way to reboot the film franchise.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

This is a trilogy of novels that I very much enjoy and have read multiple times by now, and will read again sometime in the near future. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this writing, I am truly baffled that the second and third books never were adapted into films. I think they both are superior to the majority of the film sequels. I partially understand the second book not being adapted as a sequel to Joe Dante’s movie, since that film changed the story significantly at the tale by killing off Karen, but the third book definitely would have made the ideal sequel.

If you haven’t read these books, do not let the reputation of the film franchise scare you away from seeking them out. These books are worth the read, and I recommend them.

You can read my ranking and reviews of the film franchise here:

The Howling Franchise Ranking and Reviews

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About Seth T. Miller 64 Articles
I am first and foremost a proud father of two daughters who may or may not be possessed by demonic entities/deadites (time will tell on that one, but I am pretty confident that one of them translated the Necronomicon). I am very passionate about writing, and spent a great many years focused on the craft of Screenwriting, but I have recently decided to switch gears and pursue my works as novels instead. While I do enjoy a variety of different genres and sub-genres, I am always and forever a horror film fanatic that loves the genre from the 30’s through the mid-90’s, and some afterward. I am particularly very fond of Werewolf fiction, as well as anything by John Carpenter, Stephen King, and George A. Romero.