Werewolves often disappoint. They aren’t as smooth as vampires or as guttural as zombies. They bring with them too many memories of atrocious transformation scenes and a worrying sense that there are no new stories to be told.
And then along comes Tom Fletcher.
His first novel, The Leaping, is unashamedly about werewolves but is one of the freshest takes on lycanthropes I’ve seen in a very long time – ironic really considering that Tom’s gone back to basics, ignoring the clichés of 20th-Century wolf men. As someone who devours folklore, I was over-the-proverbial moon to discover the ‘Lord of the Forest’ hiding in the shadows, the demonic figure who hands over the powers of a shape-shifter for the price of a human soul. This was what made werewolves the stuff of nightmares in the past – not the fact that they were the uncontrollable, bestial side of the human psyche, but that they weren’t tortured Larry Talbot types. They didn’t beat themselves up when they killed, nor did they revel in the bloodlust – they simply didn’t care. They were truly soulless.
These are the wolves that run in The Leaping. They are the ultimate personification of freedom: freedom from social convention, from responsibility, from the daily grind. They live in a fairytale world that literally suspends reality, where the sun never rises on their responsibilities.
The theme of freedom pervades the central characters. Jack wants to be free of his mindless, soul-sapping job in a Manchester call centre while Jennifer, his beautiful, new girlfriend, wants to be free of the trappings of commercialism and the constraints of monogamy. Francis – the B-movie loving neurotic – longs to be free of his morbid fear of cancer. Even though the actual horror doesn’t kick off until well into the second half of the novel, the oppressive nature of their lives is palpable. None of them are particularly likeable and yet all are compelling. The chapters shift alternately between Jack and Francis’ point of views, with Jennifer acting as a catalyst for the story. They feel real, crippled by self-doubt and revelling in trivia, while all desperately wanting more. That’s what keeps you turning the pages, the sense of doom building all the time.
When the action moves to the Lake District you realise that the group of friends have passed the point of no return. After the bleakness of Manchester, the fells of Cumbria are rich in history and mystery. Here is a place where humans have no right to be, the landscape of legends that have been forgotten – stories of terror from a time when fairytale didn’t automatically mean Walt Disney.
When the wolves finally arrive, the pace becomes relentless, frantic and surreal. The freedom they bring is something to fear, and yet is ultimately seductive. As Jack’s world collapses around him, you realise that you are a long, long way from home.
Disturbing but strangely believable, The Leaping successfully combines physiological and body horror, sinking its teeth into your imagination and dragging you into a nihilistic nightmare that forces you to take a long, hard look at yourself: if you were offered the chance to be truly free, would you take it, no-matter what the cost?