by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Bantam, pb, 449 pages, $5.99
ISBN: 0-553-29924-7

The title characters of this book reminded me of a close friend. At twenty-five, he has walked away from five car accidents and two motorcycle accidents (both without a helmet). He took a vacation in Germany one summer, leaving the airport immediately before it was blown up by terrorists. He has been engaged three times, married once (at eighteen, to a girl he'd known for about six weeks), and in between has enjoyed a string of relationships that would astonish the editors of Penthouse Letters. He's never killed a man, but he's come close (the person in question, an attempted rapist, still must undergo regular physical therapy sessions). I wouldn't trade places with him, but there are times when I can't help feeling that he is getting more out of life than I do, that his experience of life is much more intense and primal than mine.

He is not, to the best of my knowledge, a werewolf.

Neither is Syd, when the novel opens. He is a semi-lovable loser, living in a decaying Pennsylvania steel town. He has recently lost both wife and home in a bitter divorce, and is in the process of losing what little self-respect he has left. He barely survives on the income from a dead-end job cannibalizing closed steel mills, but has lost any inertia that might have compelled him to leave.

His downward spiral is abruptly disturbed by the entrance into his life of Nora, a mysterious woman who is, to paraphrase the authors, at the top of the sexual food chain. She exudes danger, sexuality, and raw animal power.

After a remarkable weekend of violent, graphic sex (everything in this book is violent and graphic), it becomes clear to Syd that there is more to Nora's animal nature than meets the eye. There is a wild, visceral side to her personality which dominates her behavior. She is utterly baffled by Syd's morés and taboos, when she isn't belittling them ("I don't fuck tame animals," she tells him, with more truth than he knows, "I eat them."). Even more disconcerting to Syd is his realization that the same sort of animal nature is awakening in him, as if some utterly feral creature within him is just waiting for him to let down his guard so it can emerge. But at the same time, he feels more alive than he has in years, maybe more alive than he ever has.

Up until this point-about halfway through the novel-Animals is gripping. The second half of the book is much weaker. The real tension in Animals is in the dangerous relationship between Syd and Nora, and in Syd's struggle between his basically good nature and the newly emerging dark, savage side of him which has re-energized his heretofore numb life.

In the second half of the book the violence level escalates dramatically-Nora has an even-more-savage ex-boyfriend who enjoys killing her new lovers, among other things-but the interplay between characters declines and the plot transforms into a predictable werewolf story. Nora is removed from the main plot thread, and stripped of the wildness that made her so dangerously seductive. Syd is robbed of the awful choice he was on the verge of being forced to make, and with it much of the tautness of the plot disappears. The (literal) emergence of the beast side of Syd's personality is allowed to become more tame, as the possibility of him literally losing control of his body to the trapped creature within him is lessened. On the whole, Animals is a good read, and will probably make a terrific film (I believe it's already in pre-production), but it doesn't live up to its early promise.

For what it's worth, the friend who I described here loved the review, and immediately disappeared with my copy of the book, which he apparently passed on to everyone he knew. He has since settled down-more or less-with a woman who's just as faster-than-the-rest-of-us as he is. I actually introduced the two of them, in perhaps my only successful matchmaking attempt.

The phrase, "He is not, to the best of my knowledge, a werewolf" took on a life of its own, and was probably the first "signature phrase" I had as a writing professional.

As far as I know, the film never came out.

First appeared in Horror magazine, February 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman