Oftentimes, horror gets under the reader’s skin, playing a psychological game with them, realising the stuff of nightmares in a bone-chilling tale that will terrify. Other times, horror is schlocky, bringing the reader along for a ride designed, at its core, to entertain more than it horrifies. Wolf at the Door, a novella by Joel McKay about the Deerborn family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner before a werewolf attacks, sits firmly in the latter category. Taking its cues from B-grade horror movies, it chronicles the Deerborns’ fight for survival with a wink and a nod to the reader.
Through its 129 pages (both in paperback, and its estimated pages in Kindle), Wolf at the Door is broken into seven parts, each comprising a number of chapters: “Before Dinner,” “Cocktails,” “The Dinner,” “Dessert,” “Second Helpings,” “Late-Night Snack” and “Leftovers.” Each of these titles is suited to a tale about a Thanksgiving dinner, while each also lends itself to the horror story that lies within its pages. These names aren’t entirely subtle, nor are they supposed to be. This is an in-your-face horror story that weaves a humorous tale, designed to have you chucking with—and at—both the various acts of violence contained within its pages and its cast of characters.
And what a cast of characters this book has. There’s Charlotte (or Char) Dearborn, who the blurb mentions, her husband, Doug, their children, Charlotte Jr, and Tommy. Also in attendance are Char’s friends, Mike and Marleen, and Char’s parents, Judy and Owen. Doug’s parents, Fred and Mable, brother, Dan, and best friend Randy are also in attendance. That’s twelve characters. Instead of simply providing fodder for the werewolf attack (not that they don’t do that too), in a short amount of space, McKay has created a clearly realised cast of characters, bringing with them their own melodrama, as some characters get along and others don’t. These characters all compete for attention—with each other, and to the reader—resulting in a read that is chaotic. Yet this chaos serves to capture the chaos of the dinner, and the drama these characters both bring, and contribute to.
Aside from some early foreshadowing about the horror threat, the early portions of Wolf at the Door are entirely dedicated to the family melodrama, all written with great wit. Characters bicker with one another, secrets are revealed, and before long, the dinner comes to a hilarious head that anyone who has suffered through meals with a dysfunctional group of family and friends can relate to.
As the party descends into horror, given Wolf at the Door’s genre, it isn’t long until the characters are suddenly experiencing a literal, visceral horror. Anybody who’s familiar with creature horror, slasher movies, or horror stories filled with victims piling up one by one, will know what to expect once the werewolf reveals itself. Wolf at the Door knows the formula and follows it to a tee, moving through all the tropes. While the approach leaves little room for something unique, fans of the genre will appreciate seeing it all play out.
While the horror plot and stylings lack originality, the prose keeps the reader engaged throughout. McKay’s words draw the reader in, writing in a style that is easily digestible but rewarding. Despite the violence throughout, it doesn’t linger on the blood and gore. It is an undeniably violent tale, but one that remembers it’s first and foremost a comedy. It takes more delight in the absurd than it does with grossing the reader out with over the top gore.
As you can imagine from a humour novel about a werewolf attacking a dysfunctional group attending a Thanksgiving dinner, Wolf at the Door’s sense of humour is dark. Not only is this prevalent through the horror it presents, but also, through the family dynamics and the way these are presented. This carries through to the ending, which, while bleak, gives the reader a little something extra to chew on.
The dialogue throughout—and there is quite a lot of it, not only throughout the family melodrama, but also as the characters are fighting for their lives—is fast and snappy. The cast of characters all have unique voices, and their differing points of view are conveyed well. As I’ve mentioned above, there are a lot of characters being explored in this brief story, yet the reader can still get to know every single one of them through their dialogue and how they interact with one another.
While novellas can often not provide enough space to fully explore their ideas, Wolf at the Door is the perfect length for the story being told, even with such a large portion being dedicated to the dynamics at the dinner table. While there is so much dysfunction among the group and they are soon fighting for their lives, at its core, it is a simple story. If the book was much longer, it would start to drag; it instead tells a faced paced story that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a fun tale designed to be read quickly as you chuckle along with it, rather than seeking investment for a long stretch of time.
If you’re a fan of schlock horror, Wolf at the Door is B-grade entertainment at its finest. The character drama gives it a little bit extra while its ending offers a little bit more depth, but it is the wit McKay brings to the book that really makes it shine. It’s a story designed to entertain, and for fans of comedic horror, it accomplishes this mission and then some.
Char took a step toward it. It was the first good look at the monster she had. A part of her still expected to see a black bear or an overgrown wolf, maybe even a giant wolverine. But no, there was no denying it. The six-foot, two-hundred-pound creature in front of them had two man-shaped legs, two man-shaped arms, and a face that was half snout, half human. And the eyes … she thought she recognized the eyes.
Tommy was right. She was looking at a werewolf.Wolf at the Door, Part VI: “Late-Night Snack,” “Char Takes Control”
Wolf at the Door was provided by the author for the purpose of an honest review.
Wolf at the Door is available in both physical and Kindle forms, exclusive to Amazon.
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