It’s the last Liver Beware! of the year, so it’s time to send the year out with style! Which means, of course, with werewolves and incredibly bad science! Are you ready? Just let me introduce my drink of choice today—Hop Freak, a particularly appropriate Double IPA from MKE Brewing. It comes in a tall can and is delicious and the picture of the Hop Freak is this giant hop monster with the most unimpressed/grumpy expression it is perfect, just perfect. So yeah, with that out of the way, to the story!
It doesn’t escape me that when Stine sticks to writing boy characters, he often sidesteps a lot of the misogyny built right into horror tropes. After a few very dire books, this is the second in a row that steers well clear of most “girl issues” and instead tackles one of the most, er, “classic” of chapter book standards, the boy-and-his-dog story. But with werewolves. And hermits. Not that Stine seems able to resist getting a few weird moments in, thanks in large part to the main character, Grady, having an older sister. Which once again goes to show that Stine is obsessed with younger brothers. I’m sure we’ll get there eventually but I don’t think there’s been a younger sister yet. Every single time where there’s been a sibling relationship the younger sibling is always a brother. The only time one might argue this is not the case is with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DUMMY, which features twin sisters, but as they’re twins, I’m not counting either of them as younger. Otherwise, always a younger brother. I’m still waiting for an explanation of why this is. Probably because younger brothers are seen as okay being annoying/devilish but younger sisters exist only to be In Danger and needing to be saved? This is what my doctoral thesis shall be on, surely. Anyway, I’m digressing already. Back on topic!
Grady has just moved with his family to Fever Swamp (the tourism brochures must be top notch). And yes, it’s another story about moving, which once again plays with the idea that any deviation from the status quo is dangerous and fraught. What’s more, it’s a story about people moving from what’s probably a suburban setting and into a swamp, which does capture a lot of the feelings that those living in the suburbs have about the “uncivilized” lands. It’s not even a rural community that the family moves to, but one that doesn’t seem to have much reason to exist. I can’t really imagine what kind of industry would bring people here, but I suppose there are plenty of towns where people just are because they have always been there. Here, the reason for the move is that Grady’s parents are legit scientists and their legit science involves taking swamp deer from South America and letting them loose into the Florida swamps for...kicks? Really, to see if they survive or not, but that has got to be one of the worst science experiments to run. Is this a real field, where scientists just take animals that might have a chance of living and letting them go...for kicks? I’ve heard of Pleistocene rewilding and things like that but typically projects like that aim to introduce animals that used to occupy an important ecological niche and...swamp deer just seem like...they’re doing to quickly get out of hand. Like normal deer. But whatever, forward science I guess.
Grady’s not too thrilled about the move, and his older sister, Emily, isn’t either. But their parents are enthusiastic about those deer, and about the swamp in general, and encourage the children to go out and explore. Which seems...a bad idea. Which the children prove by immediately getting lost and then getting chased by a swamp hermit. Which, okay, I guess this book has a swamp hermit. Totally normal. Anyway, the kids get chased and find their way home and it’s nervous laughter all around as their parents tell them about the completely harmless hermit and the strange and inexplicable and probably-nothing-to-worry-about fever that supposedly afflicts people who go out into the swamp. O...kay. I’m getting all the bad feelings about this.
But hey, Grady meets some kids his age! There’s Will, the boy, who is sort of a jerk but in that bumbling sort of way. And there’s Cassie, the girl, who is obsessed with werewolves. Who is certain that there are werewolves in the swamp. And, of course, who the boys do their best to ignore. Even with these additions, the book really doesn’t find its feet until the last character shows up. The dog! For no reason whatever a big dog shows up, and Grady, having the boundless imagination of youth, names the dog Wolf. The two are instant buds, and Wolf seems rather intelligent and oddly protective of Grady. Which, score, dog friends are the best friends! Except that there’s an awful lot of howling going on at night, and Wolf gets blamed. And then there’s the corpses. Rabbit, at first, but as the full moon waxes the kills become more elaborate. It’s almost as if keeping a small herd of tasty, tasty deer on the edge of a swamp is attracting predators. SO WEIRD!!! Oh, and Grady has the dreaded Swamp Fever. It...really doesn’t do much, but he definitely has it, and it seems to give him some weird dreams and little else. This has, as far as I can tell, nothing to do with anything, other than the name of this place is Fever Swamp, so there must be a Swamp Fever, but as we’ll discover, it’s not like the fever does...much.
Anyway, Grady is convinced that Wolf is not a dangerous deer-murderer, and that the true culprit is...a werewolf! But not just any werewolf...the swamp hermit! Gasps all around here, really, but of course the parents are rather certain that the killer is Wolf. Or that’s what they say. And they’re getting ready to take him in to have him put down, because reasons. Grady intervenes, lets Wolf escape into the swamp, and then under cover of darkness goes out alone to confront the swamp hermit and presumably...you know what, he really has no plan at this point. I’m guessing he wants to...capture(?) the hermit in order to prove that he’s a werewolf, but that seems pretty...not smart. Because even if he _sees_ this werewolf, what’s to make anyone believe him? But whatever whatever, onward.
While he’s out, though, he comes across Will, also out for a midnight stalk of the swamp, and the two decide to walk together. Okay, so Grady might not be the brightest bulb in the drawer. Also, this book is just rubbish with werewolf lore. Like, real bad. This is the third or fourth night in a row where there’s a “full moon.” I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how full moons work. Like, I thought the whole point was that they didn’t happen every day. But okay okay, they go out into the swamp, looking for this hermit. Only you’ll never guess—Will is the werewolf! He transforms right there and totally mauls the eff out of Grady, going so far as to bite him on the shoulder before Wolf shows up and chases him off.
Okay though quick digression, because I watched the special 2-part TV show of this one, and it has some of the largest departures from any of the stories I’ve experienced both ways. First, Cassie isn’t even present. Wolf’s name is, for some reason, Bandit. The Swamp Hermit in the show has some sort of blood oath against the werewolf. And Grady is never bitten by the werewolf. Instead, er, Bandit shows up and makes the werewolf trip into what’s essentially quicksand and he just fucking dies. The End, I guess? I mean, the differences between book and show here are, imo, just weird.
Which brings me to the twist! Which, okay, isn’t a twist at all because he GOT BITTEN BY A WEREWOLF. It’s not really a _surprise_ when, at the next full moon, he wolfs out and goes hunting with Wolf. I mean, it’s a rather sweet ending, where the two are allowed to be buds and go hunting in the swamp together. But Will doesn’t die—he just sort of runs off. Turns out he didn’t even have a family. Which sort of makes one wonder how he got by when he wasn’t a wolf (for all ~25 days a lunar month). But best not to think of these things. Instead, let’s think of how the hell any of this makes sense. Because I have some thoughts on that.
Oh yeah you know it’s CONSPIRACY TIME!!!
This all comes back to the parents, for me. Who are “legit scientists” who are doing a study where they basically release deer into a swamp and...observe? Uh huh. Sure. No, I think they’re cryptozoologists who are desperate to study werewolves, and they know exactly where to go looking. Further, they go prepared, with a herd of deer that will lure any raging wolf-man-beast to them. And, as the final piece, with two vulnerable kids to offer up for werewolf attack. That’s right, I’m certain that their goal all along was to get one or both of their kids bitten, so that they could better study the creatures and the disease. Why else would they send their kids out into the swamp alone and unprepared? Why else remain even while their son got sick with a mysterious ailment? Unless that, too, was part of what they were studying. Even their worry about Wolf can be explained away by them knowing that he wasn’t a werewolf, and so posed a threat to their research, as the dog was one of the thing protecting Grady from being bitten. IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!!!
And really, it’s mission accomplished if that was there goal, and it seems way more plausible than real scientists just shoving invasive deer into the Florida swamps without a care for what they might do when they got there. No, the deer were never meant to leave their pen...alive. The real horror here is that of parents who so blatantly offer up their kids to the dangers of Fever Swamp hoping that they’ll bring home some sweet lycanthropy for to study. Unethical science—the true horror.
But okay, that’s my theory. How does this book do by the numbers?
Fanfiction: 4/5 (Werewolves make for some easy fanfic fodder, and there’s just enough lore and world-building to make me want to dig into a bit. I mean, it would be pretty cool to just follow wolf-Grady and Wolf around as they roam the swamp, but I fear that might get pretty boring. I’m more interested in knowing what “really happened” with the hermit and what’s with the fever and what it all means, and what might happen if Will were to return. Is there a larger werewolf population around Fever Swamp? Is there going to be some battles for territory? And what else might be lurking just out of sight? Really, this does a good job of giving more I would want to explore)
Objective: 2/5 (oh glob the plot holes in this book are pretty intense and it just drops like half it’s threads without offering up any sort ofo payoff. What’s with the fever? Or the hermit? Why does Will just sort of scamper away into the night? It’s also just...neither very scary not very exciting. For all that there’s the threat of werewolves lurking right outside, there’s not a whole lot that actually happens. I mean, I like Wolf just fine. Wolf’s really keeping this book from being lower. But it is not, imo, a successful fusion of science and supernatural elements. It just sort of bounces around and then splats down on the ending, which is fun but not really unexpected. A bit of a mess, though a fairly inoffensive mess)
But it’s Goosebumps: 3/5 (Middle of the road achieved! It’s not so bad as many of the others, but it’s not really doing itself any favors. The plot is a mess that gets distracted at every opportunity. I suppose it’s trying to be a mystery with its “who’s the werewolf” angle, but it’s really weak and the reveal was not shocking. Really, it would have been more shocking if the hermit really was the werewolf. Or if it was Grady’s mom or something. As it is, it gets points for a fairly interesting setting and some adorable dog and deer, but it’s not weird enough for my tastes and the science if pretty strictly science-science and not evil-magic-science, so I feel the book only manages to get to middle of the pack. Still, not bad)
And there it is! Stop back in next month, IF YOU DARE!!!