Clichés Fear Not: A Review of Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Words By Ariel Fagiola
Published May 10, 2016 by William Morrow
Every time I try to explain how good Mongrels is, I get overly excited and talk too fast and definitely do not do this book justice. But that’s how much I want to shout at people that they need to read it. I don’t tend to read horror very often—finding a new way to approach the many overused tropes is tough. However, it was clear from the beginning that author Stephen Graham Jones had tapped into a virgin realm of disgust, bad habits, lore, and loyalty that throws away preconceived notions about werewolves, leaving a fresh take on a subject I had largely ignored.
Mongrels is narrated by an unnamed Native American boy who takes the reader on a journey through his childhood and early teen years. Raised by his Aunt Libby, Uncle Darren, and Grandfather, the narrator eagerly awaits his time to shift, fighting a fear that he never will. Through dangerous situations, financial troubles, and lovers’ quarrels, he displays a deep lust for understanding and a masterfully crafted level of thoughtfulness despite his age. He desperately wants to be a part of his pack. I was deeply invested in the wellbeing of this kid, as well as his family, and found myself holding my breath with them frequently.
Scenes evolve from gruesome and gnarly to deeply depressing to out-loud-chuckle-worthy at a rapid pace. I was always engaged, ready to ignore the world around me just to feel a little closer to Jones’ damaged characters. There’s so much detail put into every aspect of the werewolves’ lives; nothing feels like a cop-out. From their appearance to what they won’t wear while shifting to their eating habits, Jones spares nothing when it comes to explaining how werewolves tick, how they feel, and how isolated they are from society. He even goes so far as to include rituals for putting out the nightly trash, when the family must remember to sprinkle poison in the bag to prevent themselves from eating bones or harmful chemicals when they shift. The explanations of the various differences between human and werewolf are so specific, it’s hard to believe they aren’t real. Jones gives great attention to disowning worn-out preconceptions and lore, yet shows others respect. For example, these wolves can shift anytime they’d like, not just during a full moon, but yes, silver can harm them. I forgot for a little while that this wasn’t the way werewolves were always written.
The exploration of the characters and their Native American lineages force absorption of dilemmas and prejudices in a way I haven’t experienced before. Though most of the content is fantasy, by giving an already severely marginalized group yet another isolating trait, Jones adds a rare layer of empathy. Each time the narrator and his family have to move to a new state, they face hardships not only in their physical circumstances, but because of their social status. They must find their small group of allies while avoiding enemies of both werewolves and Native Americans. This creates a sense of exclusion that is impossible to ignore.
Even if you’re not a horror fan, or don’t feel any connection to werewolf lore, I recommend Mongrels wholeheartedly. I was already a huge Stephen Graham Jones fan, but yet again he wowed me into wanting more. The cinematic prose, dark humor, and attention to every little detail form a narrative that leaves little to the imagination in the best way possible.