Describing, in any kind of meaningful way, Gary J Shipley’s novel Warewolff! is a difficult task… and one that the book’s blurb fails at spectacularly. The novel, it says, is a “lyric, sick-humoured and immoral morass,” which is “told through reportage from the least-illuminated corners of the human condition.” So far, so intriguing, but for the most part it’s a description that one can only respond to with a polite but puzzled raise of the eyebrows.
Let us, then, attempt a better description of this bizarre but fascinating piece of work. The book consists of ten sections as well as a prologue which frames the narrative. Within each section are a dozen or more blocks of fairly dense, un-paragraphed text, each of which reads as a kind of befuddling stream-of-consciousness. The passages overflow with absurd and surreal imagery, which quite often tends towards the obscene.
This description, of course, runs counter to what a traditional novel might look like on the page – and yet Shipley insists that a novel is exactly what Warewolff! is. An ungenerous reader might well discard it as an anthology of absurd and vulgar nonsense, designed to provoke a laugh or a puzzled frown and not much more. But spend a little time losing yourself in its pages and you’ll see that there is the ghost of a novel-like narrative to be found in Warewolff! To really get it, however, an attentive reading of the prologue is essential.
In it, an unknown narrator (Shipley himself, perhaps, speaking directly to the reader) hints towards the existence of some malign entity – a creature that can be traced only through the effects it has in the world. Traces of it can be found in blog posts and on online forums – in the dark and dusty corners of the internet. What follows represents the samples this narrator has collected, which together give shape to a monster that seems only able to speak obliquely, through the voices of others.
We track the creature relentlessly, through snatches of text that often seem unconnected to one another. In one we see a zoo in which the animals have all turned savagely upon one another. A few pages later we encounter a passage titled “Farting Homuncules In Reconstructed Burger Joint”. Whether lewd or violent, however, there’s a lingering presence in each and every piece; a sense of menace and dirt, unease and violence, which only solidifies as the novel goes on. The creature that defines this presence – a kind of memetic demon – speaks with more and more terrible clarity with each passing page.
Observing the slow growth of the thing is about as far as the narrative goes. Shipley doesn’t offer us a resolution or a respite from the horror. Instead he simply catalogues it, leaving the bulk of the story to be formed, ghost-like, in the reader’s mind. It’s all delightfully game-like and interesting – in a sense Warewolff! is a novel that writes around its titular subject, leaving the outline there for the reader to discover.
This sideways approach is typical of Shipley’s work. His earlier books have seen him narrate his slow unhinging as he watches a graphic, chaotic horror movie on repeat for two weeks straight (You With Your Memory Are Dead), and throwing a whole bucket of violent, vivid, philosophical imagery at the reader in an open attempt to overwhelm them (Crypt(o)Spasm). He is clearly an adept horror writer with an eye for gory or unsettling imagery, but he’s also very much into experimentation as well.
To be honest, you’ll probably know from reading the descriptions above whether Warewolff! is the novel for you. In case you’re still unsure, however, one more hint – the book opens with a quote from James Joyce. While reading you’ll need a certain amount of the same patience as it might take to get through Ulysses (although Warewolff! is vastly more immediate, shorter, and a lot more relatable). If you think you have the time and the stomach for it, Warewolff! is a blistering read.