- - Friday, April 27, 2012

By Anne Rice
Knopf, $29.95, 404 pages

Gone are the vampires, as are the angels. Make way for the beast-men. Anne Rice’s new novel, “The Wolf Gift,” combines lust for blood (human and/or animal), Christian theology, European fairytales and American comics in a truly absurd plot. Nevertheless, “The Wolf Gift” is highly entertaining.

Reuben Golding “was a tall man, well over six feet, with brown curly hair and deep-set blue eyes.” He was very handsome. His mother, Grace, was a famous surgeon, his father, Phil, a poet and “burnt out” professor. Reuben’s brother, Jim, is a conflicted Catholic priest, and his girlfriend, Celeste, a brilliant lawyer.

As the story begins, Reuben, a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper, is doing a story on an “elegant older woman named Marchent Nideck” who is showing him her huge old house in Mendocino, a four-hour drive north of San Francisco. The house, “built of rough-faced stone,” has steep gables, a conservatory, a forest of redwood trees and a view of the sea. Reuben is enchanted with the house - and with Marchent - and its contents of ancient objects, including a photograph of the original owner, Felix Nideck, Marchent’s beloved great-uncle, and several of his friends.

By page 40, Reuben has bedded Marchent; Marchent has been murdered by her two evil brothers, who, in turn, are killed by a strange wild beast that attacks and bites Reuben; and Reuben awakens in the hospital to discover that his DNA has changed and Marchent has willed him her house. All in a 24-hour period.

Reuben discovers that he has a strange new power: He can hear voices, especially voices crying for help. When he hears such a cry, he changes into an enormous wolflike beast and rushes to help the victim of crime - be it rape, murder or some other form of terrible abuse. He “felt the violent spasm in his belly and in his chest; the ecstasy moved over the surface of his entire body; the prickling pleasure paralyzed him.”

Then “he felt the hairs erupting from every pore, when the pleasure was one volcanic wave after another …. The mane was thick and heavy over his shoulders, his hands transformed into claws. The fur was thickening into a ruff around his neck and between his legs. His muscles were singing with the power, his arms expanding, his legs pulled upwards as if by unseen hands.”

He had paws and claws and lethal fangs. Spider-Man was stung by aradioactive spider that gave him the power to swing from place to place on silken threads. Reuben was bitten by a man-beast and could race on all fours through the forest, up trees and over rooftops on his own power, a kind of Clark Kent-turned-Superman, but without the need of a telephone booth for his transformation. Not exactly the werewolf of folk tales, he still could walk on two hind legs, speak in gentle tones and retain his beautiful blue eyes.

Reuben pounces on perpetrators, crunches their skulls with his fangs, breaks their backbones and, when they are dead, consumes their flesh and drinks their blood with relish. Naturally, these exploits terrorize San Francisco, bringing about a manhunt for the creature.

Confused by his metamorphosis, Reuben the beast wanders through Muir Woods among the redwood trees. He comes upon a little house at the edge of the forest where a beautiful young woman stands in her doorway, clad in what turns out to be one of a countless number of white flannel nightgowns. Laura - no Red Riding Hood she - immediately invites the beast into her house and takes him into her bed. Children sometimes wonder where the noses go when grown-ups kiss. The reader may well wonder where Reuben’s supersharp fangs go when he kisses Laura “all over.”

Reuben abandons Celeste, and Laura becomes his lover, constant companion and confidante - the only person aside from brother Jim who knows the whole story. They move into the big house in Mendocino, from whence Reuben goes on nightly forays to destroy evil, but sometimes only into the woods to kill animal prey and feast on flesh and blood. He seems little troubled by his killing of criminals without due process. Unlike beauty with the beast (or the princess and the frog), Laura seems to prefer Reuben in his animal form.

Laura makes huge salads for the human Reuben. Together, they try to unravel the mystery of what he has become and why. From a stranger, who turns out to be a man-beast like himself, whom Reuben kills in mortal combat, Reuben discovers that he has the Chrism - “the gift, the power” -and that he is a Morphenkind.

Miraculously, Felix and the men in the photograph arrive at the house. They explain some of the mysteries of Reuben’s new condition. He learns to control his beast nature and call upon it at will. With his new friends - all of whom are highly intelligent, apparently immortal and kindly - he spends happy days in philosophical conversation and nights in ferocious hunting and feasting on animals. “[B]oth the brutal world and the spiritual world are sources of truth,” he is told. “[T]he truth resides in the viscera of all those who struggle as well as in the souls of those who would transcend the struggle.”

There are secret passages, tunnels and hidden rooms, evil doctors, betrayals, mysterious tablets with cuneiform writing, panic in the streetsand vivid descriptions of California’s magnificent redwood forests, as well as a highly imaginative theory on the origin of the human species. By the novel’s conclusion, we have learned some of the mysteries surrounding the existence of the wolf-men, but there’s plenty of room for a sequel. How does Reuben use his “gift”? What happens to Laura in the realm of the Chrism? Are there Morphenkinder who roam the world? Ms. Rice plays it close to the vest. Stay tuned.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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