If we're searching for someone to share the blame for Anne Rice's disappointing new werewolf novel, The Wolf Gift, we might have to take a hard look at Stephenie Meyer.
It was the author of the Twilight series, after all, who divided the world into Team Edward and Team Jacob. Perhaps it was inevitable that Rice — who completed Interview With the Vampire the same year Meyer was born — would be tempted to outdo her literary daughter. But many fans who cut their teeth on the vampire Lestat will be wishing she'd had the strength to resist joining the pack.
In The Wolf Gift, Rice offers the intoxicating promise of a reinvented, re-energized Gothic horror story. She gives us Reuben Golding, a young reporter researching an article about the impending sale of a magnificent mansion on the Northern California coast.
Soon he's bitten by an unseen man-animal, and before long, Reuben is sprouting lupine fur and fangs. He's one sexy beast, though — no protracted snout, more Chewbacca than Big Bad Wolf — and oh so caring. He hears the voices of people under duress and can smell the evil of their violent attackers, which provides him with the moral certainty he needs before slashing them into bloody shreds. Being a "man wolf," as Reuben insists on calling himself, is not a curse but a gift.
A werewolf folk hero? Why not?
Quickly, though, the book bogs down in aimless plotting, sluggish pace and a tendency to philosophize when it ought to be building suspense. There's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to its themes and story elements — Catholic mysticism and theology, the ethics of vigilante justice and genetic research, even gay rights — as Rice tries to invest her hoary source material with contemporary relevance. As it turns out, you can't really teach an old wolf new tricks. No amount of references to iPhones, Wi-Fi and Facebook can throw us off this story's fairy-tale, pulp-fiction scent.
The book's most fundamental problem is its odd lack of dramatic tension. There are occasional obstacles blocking Reuben's path, but he leads a charmed life in more ways than one. (He loves the old mansion? It's deeded to him. He's lonely? A hot and understanding girlfriend appears out of nowhere.)
There also are a few stock-figure villains — a rogue werewolf, a sinister pair of Russian researchers nearly as cartoonish as Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle. But they are developed so sketchily, and dispatched so summarily, that they feel like afterthoughts.
And we can't blame Meyer for that.