May 11, 2012

Rabid Reads: "Undertaker's Moon" by Ronald Kelly

Undertaker's Moon
originally published by Zebra under the title: Moon of the Werewolf
CrossroadsPress (2011)

When I downloaded this novel from Crossroads Press, I had no idea it was originally published over twenty years ago as a Zebra mass market paperback. So, what I thought was a new release was really a blast from the past, with a brand new editing job and a fresh coat of paint. Which raises the question: how does a twenty-year-old werewolf novel hold up over time?

Most werewolves in fiction these days tend to be like the ones in Twilight, the type that change into actual wolves, but you don't see a whole lot of wolfmen. Well, Ronald Kelly wrote a book that seems much more influenced by Universal Studios than the usual fare these days. Kelly's werewolves are a bit different, both in their Irish heritage and their ferocity. This book feels firmly set in the time in which it was written, which was the late 80s, chock full of archetype characters (i.e., the arrogant jock and the mysterious drifter) and over-the-top violence.

Set in Tennessee, the small town of Old Hickory has inherited a new undertaker after their old one died. The new proprietor is part of a family of five originally from Ireland, though they've spent several years in America working as undertakers. The O' Shea's, led by the eldest Crom McManus, seem normal enough at first, but suspicions grow among a select few of the residents when strange and gruesome deaths start taking place around Old Hickory. Most are unassuming, as the O' Shea's have a certain level of charm and disarming eccentricities. They're Irish after all, perfectly normal ... as long as you don't notice their bursts of feral strength, shimmering predatory eyes--and don't forget the excessive body hair at times.

When one of the local teen boys, Brian Reece, a chubby introvert with an affinity for horror movies, winds up the object of affection for the young Rosie O' Shea, he also finds a new confidence in himself--and the ire of her big brother, Devon. Devon, meanwhile, has grown weary of the traditional werewolf ways as dictated by McManus, which has the family feasting on dead flesh rather than living humans so as to avoid detection. Devon wants fresh meat and figures he can add it as one more vice to quite a list. The story plays out with readers getting a view from both the good guys and bad guys, which isn't so clear cut as the story progresses. The O' Shea's aren't a band of mustache-twirling, two-dimensional villains, as the family dynamic and how they came to be werewolves is very well laid out and helps create a lot of sympathy for them. Though, Devon is clearly an unlikable cad and almost seems to be malicious for the sake of being malicious. And as for the heroes, I was just happy to see a chubby guy get a leading role for a change.

The book feels drawn-out in spots and felt less like a cinematic spinetingler and more like a made-for-TV schlockfest at times. There are a lot of entertaining and harrowing moments though, and the interest level always rebounded when the focus honed in on the conflict between Brian's small band of heroes and their lycanthropic adversaries.. The werewolves when they appear are gruesomely depicted and Kelly does a lot to give their existence and their behavior substance in a real world setting. The idea of surviving and laying low by feeding on the recently deceased struck me as particularly inventive. And some of the secondary characters that pop up, and some who pop out, were added treats to this literary popcorn fare.

A masterpiece this is not, but werewolf fans ought to enjoy it, and anyone with an affinity for those horror movies of the 80s and pulpy paperbacks of the same era, could find a weekend of entertainment in this book's pages too. It even includes a brief novella that acts as a prequel of sorts, though reading it first risks spoiling some of the developments in the novel, as forewarned by Kelly in his afterword.


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