In early 2017, a bridge collapsed to the north and mudslides wiped out the highway to the south. Big Sur was a temporary island. This real sequence of events forms the backdrop for a new novel by Joshua Converse, a professor of literature at Monterey Peninsula College. In the universe Converse built, Big Sur doesn’t get to have a pleasant return to the idyllic village life of a bygone era. Instead, the void left by the lack of tourists is filled instantly with death and a werewolf.
The author’s debut work is called The Diana Strain, which, like every chapter within, can be parsed for elegant juxtapositions of cultural references. “Diana,” the Roman goddess of the moon, points to the celestial mechanism that transforms human into wolf-beast once a month. The word “strain” evokes the transmission of werewolfism from person to person across time – the novel opens in contemporary Big Sur but flashes back to an ancient Scandinavia populated by Vikings – and also nods at the science fiction classic The Andromeda Strain.
Converse is blessed with an encyclopedic recall for nerdy arcana and canonical literature. The topic of his master’s thesis was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and at MPC his work inspired the founding of the Great Books Program. But it’s not an alienating posture. Converse invites you to partake in a longstanding intellectual conversation by showing you that you’re already part of it, even without having realized.
“All of this is very cerebral, but on some level, it’s also just a fun werewolf story,” he says.
Much of the thrill comes from following a diverse set of characters as they respond to gruesome slaughter. In short and punchy chapters, Converse hops among characters unspooling their converging plotlines. There’s the old-school detective Frank leading the novel’s whodunnit strain as the devoured human bodies pile up. Soon after, the book introduces Father Giovanni Santa Ana, a member of a secret order within the Catholic Church sworn to hunt werewolves. Another important character is Nob, a mysterious immigrant from Scandinavia who runs an occult bookstore. Nob would seem to be based on the real-life Magnus Toren, the eccentric Swedish-born director of the Henry Miller Library, but Converse says it’s just a coincidence.
Then there’s Billy, the werewolf himself. We meet him as he wakes up gasping for air. He doesn’t yet know what happened to him: “He checked himself for cuts but found none, not even a scratch from wandering naked in the brambles or an errant bruise. Whose blood, then? He had the powerful urge to lick the black blood congealed on his hands and under his fingertips but slapped it down, horrified.”
Can the better angels of our nature beat the forces of brutality? When Nob tracks Billy down, he seems to think so. “You learn to control it,” he tells Billy. “You don’t infect others. You chain yourself up on nights you have to change. You buy raw meat wholesale. You don’t, under any circumstances, murder anyone else.”
Nob is inevitably wrong. Sometimes, bad things happen and there’s no controlling them. If he were right, the book could conclude right there on page 80: And Billy happily contained his primal urge to kill. The End.
Traditionally, werewolves have served as proxies. Or as Converse puts it, “The monsters that we have tell us a lot about ourselves.” Werewolfism might be a proxy for puberty, alternative lifestyles or taboo sexualities. But Converse didn’t want to write a story about learning to accept change. He wanted to disturb our striving for comfort.
“I think of werewolfism as a curse, it destroys everything that it touches,” he says. “You can’t bargain with it. You can’t make friends with it. And it’s not going to be something that you survive. It’s going to destroy you and everything around you sooner or later. And such things happen. Sometimes the world is just bloody unreasonable.”
Pandemic, climate change, nuclear war – take your pick of metaphor. Or just grab a blanket, find a campfire and engross yourself in a new thriller set in a familiar place.