In the early 1980s, Stephen King was at the top of his game. Sure, Carrie had been something of an overnight success, but it wasn’t until the follow-up hits of Salem’s Lot and The Shining, as well as the Brian De Palma adaptation of that first novel, that proved he would be a lasting success. From there, he immediately grew from “success” to pop culture phenomenon. The books were coming out at a rapid pace and the movies almost seemed to beat them to the punch. On bookstore shelves and worldwide cinemas, Stephen King was pretty much unavoidable. 1983, as an author, would prove to be his biggest year up to that point. For the first time, he had three novels released in the span of a year, all of them under his own name. Christine came first, a tribute to George Romero that ironically received a film adaptation from John Carpenter. Then, Pet Sematary, a novel the author found himself almost ashamed of and only released to fulfill a publishing contract with Doubleday, which of course became one of his most iconic works and is now on its second feature adaptation. Finally, there was his shortest novel to date not released as part of a larger collection, an illustrated chiller called Cycle of the Werewolf.
It did not set the world on fire, it’s not the massive best seller of most of his other works, nor does it really have mainstream recognizability. At the end of the day, both it and its film adaptation Silver Bullet have more earned their place as cult classics than anything else. But it’s a terrific little book, low key one of the best pieces of werewolf literature ever written, and remains a favorite among die-hard King fans. It also has one of the strangest origins of any King book ever.
Stephen King has always proven to be something of an experimental writer. As he has always said, “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” That proves most true for the author himself in the way he chooses to tell stories. While he has always had his own style, tropes and thematic connections recurring through his works, he’s also tried to branch out and write in any and all possible mediums. In the ‘90s, he was at the forefront of writing the Online Novel, first with The Plant and then more successfully with Riding the Bullet. He wrote his first original screenplay for Creepshow, as well as its comic book adaptation. He wrote the original TV episode “Sorry, Right Number” for Tales from the Darkside, and original television miniseries in Golden Years, Storm of the Century and Rose Red.
And in 1983, taking into account that his name was already unavoidable and Creepshow had just proven to be a mostly successful experiment, he partnered with Zavista to write a calendar.
The idea was for King to write short vignettes that would be accompanied by artwork by the great Bernie Wrightson, who King had already partnered with on the Creepshow comic book. A legend in his field as the co-creator of Swamp Thing, Wrightson was one of the best monster artists that ever lived, becoming especially well known for a beautiful illustrated edition of Frankenstein that many believe to be the quintessential design for the character.
With the notion in mind for a series of 12 interconnected vignettes, King made the smart decision to craft a loose werewolf story. It only made sense, considering that if one goes by the traditional movie mythology, lycanthropy is a monthly occurrence. According to The Wolf Man, “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, will become a wolf when the wolfs bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” King took the popular full moon trope and embraced it, because that was a large part of the way he operated within the genre, especially in the early days. King’s often been one to lean heavily into classical tropes, to great effect. The vampires in Salem’s Lot are by and large your very traditional vampires and the werewolf in Cycle of the Werewolf is no different.
Of course, King’s also always had a tendency to overwrite—also to often great effect—and the task of essentially only being able to tell a cohesive story in twelve short blurbs proved to be a little too much. King had set out with every intention of writing the calendar that Zavista wanted, but by the time he was finished, he had a novella instead. Understanding that there was no way to fit these chapters onto the calendar that had originally been intended, the whole concept of the illustrated calendar was scrapped and King sought publication for the new novella instead. Luckily, the Bernie Wrightson illustrations remained intact. King also took drastic liberties with the lunar cycle because he wanted each vignette (and later, chapter) to best represent its month by usually taking place on its most associated holiday, which is an obvious impossibility with how the moon works.
One of the most complex sides of this story, though, also ties in to just how successful King was at the time. By 1983, many if not all of King’s stories were being courted for cinematic adaptations before they were even published. Amazingly, that even proved to be the case for King and Wrightson’s then-in-progress calendar. Dino De Laurentiis, who was pretty much running the gamut on King adaptations at the time, sent the artwork and scraps of story to Phantasm director Don Coscarelli in hopes that he could pull together a cohesive film from a half-finished calendar. It’s a daunting (and confusing) task, but at this time Coscarelli had just had a major flop with Beastmaster and a Stephen King project was extremely high profile, no matter the medium in which it was written. Coscarelli did his best to try and piece together a movie, but ultimately just couldn’t make it work, though one of the scenes he envisioned did make it into the finished movie intact: a scene in which hunters attempting to track the beast wind up being stalked and taken out one-by-one in a low-lying fog.
At the time Coscarelli was attached to the project, there was also no screenplay. In the near future, after the director had moved on from the prospect, that too would change. Considering the fact that Cycle of the Werewolf had begun life as an experimental attempt at writing in a new medium, it’s only appropriate that it would mark the author’s second foray into the world of screenwriting. With the new title Silver Bullet, the calendar-turned-novella wound up being written by the King himself.
While King didn’t have the time to commit to writing the project when Coscarelli was on board, he did give some notes on the screen story as it was developing at the time. The director loved them and thought they answered every problem they’d been facing in terms of cracking the narrative, only for De Laurentiis to be wholly unmoved, turning down every one of King’s notes. According to Coscarelli, that was the point at which he left the project. Based on that account, it’s amazing King took it upon himself to write the screenplay at all.
Given the nature of its origin, the structure of Cycle of the Werewolf is unsurprisingly unique. In some ways, it’s almost Stephen King doing Faces of Death with a werewolf. Most of the early chapters are self-contained. Another month, another murder, but each one has something different about it, while in the background the town itself grows more and more afraid with each passing death. Our hero isn’t introduced until relatively late in the book, and everything about the chapter just feels like another death scene, that’s what makes it so great. As soon as we meet Marty, we just assume he’s going to die because that’s what’s happened to everyone who’s encountered the werewolf so far and it seems late in the game to introduce a protagonist.
And instead he shoots the werewolf’s eye out. Marty’s just the boy who happened to survive. This works on another level because, compared to the other people the werewolf had killed by this point in the book, there’s nothing threatening about Marty. It should be an easy target and that’s likely where the werewolf got cocky. Marty’s a young boy, not a full-grown adult who could at least try to fight back, and he’s disabled as well. Cycle of the Werewolf cleverly plays on preconceived notions that the physically handicapped are so often considered to be absolutely helpless. As a protagonist, likely because of the novel’s short length, Marty isn’t usually talked about in the same breath as characters like Jack Torrance or Paul Sheldon, likely due to the novella’s short length.
But he’s an important one, especially considering the template he set up and what he paved the way for. Stephen King was no stranger to having child characters in his works by this point. In fact, he did that right out of the gate with the teenage Carrie White. She and Firestarter’s Charlie McGee were both the protagonist and the monster in their respective novels, in some form or another. In his next two books, horror fan Mark Petrie and young Danny Torrance found themselves plagued by the supernatural, but neither was really the main protagonist of the story. And in Danny’s case, even at such a young age, the monsters were more psychological than anything else. Cycle of the Werewolf builds off of these themes in an organic way, introducing a kid going up against a monster, who is also the only thing close to a protagonist that this book has.
King has noted in the past—and wisely—that children make for great characters in horror, especially in stories about monsters, because those threats feel real to them in a way that they often don’t for an adult. Marty doesn’t have to spend half the book coming to grips with the fact that werewolves exist and he encountered one, he doesn’t question his sanity. He sees a werewolf, he knows what it is, and he knows how to stop it, and that’s that.
Obviously, whether intentional or not, this set the stage for one of King’s most impactful, impressive and long lasting works, IT. Cycle of the Werewolf can absolutely be seen as a precursor to that book despite being absolutely dwarfed by its size. Both books are about kids in small Maine towns who realize that there is a monster among them and that only they know about it, and only they believe enough in it to stop it. Like Marty, each member of the Losers’ Club has an external trait that makes them stand out, or even makes them a subject for ridicule, whether it’s Richie’s glasses, Bill’s stutter or even the extreme example of Mike’s race. These are kids who have friends, but who don’t have it easy by any stretch. In a span of less than 200 pages, there’s only a little bit of time to get into what Marty’s life is actually like, whereas IT would certainly expand on the home lives of its young heroes and how they both countered and paralleled the cosmic horrors unleashed by Pennywise.
Timing wise, King had to have been writing the screenplay for Silver Bullet at around the same time he was working on IT—especially considering the fact that that novel took a couple years to write, given its size—and even though it’s hard to say which, it’s clear that one influenced the other. In the movie, after all, Marty’s the protagonist from the very beginning and there’s much more of a focus on what his life is actually like, which the novella didn’t really have a chance to get into. Marty even forms a makeshift Losers’ Club with his sister and Uncle Red (a slight name change from Uncle Al in the book) and though it’s certainly different from the close-knit friendships of IT, there are similarities in the concept of a boy entrusting a few others—his uncle being something of an outcast as well—to help him solve murder-by-monster in his hometown.
Neither Cycle of the Werewolf nor Silver Bullet tend to make it onto many lists of the best Stephen King books or movies and that’s kind of a shame, because both are great. The novella is worth it for the stunning Bernie Wrightson artwork alone, but it’s also absolutely worth checking out for King’s writing, because it’s so different from almost everything else he’s done. With little more than a hundred pages to work with, Cycle of the Werewolf is incredibly tight. It’s lean and mean, and should be more widely recognized as King’s throwback to Drive-In monster movies—which would also serve as an influence on IT, and even with the appearance of another werewolf.
It has more than earned its cult reputation. Even though the movie is often talked about solely for Gary Busey’s performance (one of his best, for the record) and the occasionally lackluster effects, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other lycanthrope classics of the ‘80s, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. The novella, meanwhile, as short and sweet as it is, still stands as nothing less than one of the greatest werewolf stories ever told.