Werewolves in Their Youth: Stories,
by Michael Chabon
Not all scary stories are for Halloween. Michael Chabon’s, Werewolves in Their Youth isn’t a horror or sci-fi, though Chabon is a fan. The collection, which appeared in 1999, assembles nine stories that feature characters who move about in the placid light of day, and for whom some triggering event causes a dark side to emerge. The results are the entertaining turns of plot and smart portrayals for which Chabon is well known.
If there is a single notion that runs between these stories, it’s not dead’s pursuit of the living. This is literary fiction after all, and in each stylized glimpse, Chabon points to the darkness hidden not within the souls of beast and monsters, but in relationships. Matrimony, divorce, reconciliation, fatherhood, the raising of children, and the fraught episodes in a marriage bed, are the scary scenes at the heart of this collection.
Though it’s tough to choose, my favorite might be “House Hunting.” It’s the story of Daniel Diamond and Christy Kite, a young and seemingly ideal couple who, of course, have a dark secret. Despite being in their early twenties, blessed with health, wealth (via Christy’s parents) and a good real estate agent in Mr. Hogue, the family friend who, as the story opens, has just delivered them to a house that seems out of their league, Daniel and Christy aren’t getting along, or getting it on, as the saying goes, despite concerted efforts to the contrary. Working with a therapist, the couple hopes to generate a “nonthreatening sense of physical closeness,” by means of Al Green, candlelight, foot massages, etc., but to no avail. Here’s Daniel:
Although sex was something they both regarded as perilous, marriage had, by contrast, seemed safe—a safe house in a world of danger; the ultimate haven of two solitary, fearful souls. When you were single, this was what everyone who was already married was always telling you. Daniel himself had said it to his unmarried friends. It was, however, a lie.
The house-hunting expedition of the story exposes the lie, and yet its darkness turns out to have, well, a silver lining. That’s how it goes with this collection: the landscape is familiar, even cozy—all the better to enhance the creepiness of so many dark undersides. And yet despite the darkness that is unveiled, the characters eventually come to find hope. What’s more, each story mines the characters with a thoroughness and style that conducts the reader into a dark and unknown landscape and by story’s end, we’re an expert on its terrain. That, thanks to Chabon’s careful observances and the signature stamina of his sentences, is the result of the stylist’s hand and a willingness to root beneath the beautiful surfaces of his words.
Of course, Chabon is well known for this, having won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. And it’s a great novel. But for me, the short story is where his talents seem more sharp, due to the compression the form demands. When you can describe things as well as Chabon can, it’s great to have the room to stretch out, but Werewolves in Their Youth is about as perfect as a collection can get: a glittering assembly of dark gems, each of which contains its own small flame of brightness.