Wolf at the door

A horror novel by Joel McKay

Wolf at the door, Joel McKay, Birchwood Press, 2022

Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving (or Christmas if you are in Europe), you are a teenager who must spend time with close family and some of their friends, relatives, and a bunch of neighbours that you can’t stand normally, let alone in the confined space of your home. What you really want to do, instead, is spending time with your besties, who are, just like you, going through similar experiences. Knowing that you are not alone cheers you up a bit. So, you put up with it the best you can, and become one with your cell phone – the only way you have to keep sane and in touch with your friends – and brace yourself for what’s to come.

You walk downstairs and there they are, the worse congregation of humans only a mad man could have put together: Char Deerborn, your mum, wearing the necklace your great-grandmother left to her instead of your grandmother, skipping one generation and causing a ruckus in the family; Doug Deerborn, your dad, a weird and weak creature – the only man you know who took his wife’s name instead of the other way round; Tommy, your annoying little brother, going around with that stupid Michael Myers mask you stopped finding funny from moment one; your mother’s best friends MikeandMarleen, just like that, in a single world, because they are considered one single item even if they always look on edge around each other; Randy Richards, the bachelor, mortgage-free, retired neighbour, who’s a weirdo but despite seeing you smoking a spliff didn’t tell your parents; Uncle Danny, your father’s brother, recently released from jail who mistook you for a young cheek to hit on which you find simply disgusting; grandma Mable and grandpa Fred, your father’s parents, who are helping your mother in the kitchen even if she’s not their biggest fan because she thinks they are big-C conservatives who despise how her and your father are raising their family, but is civilised enough to hide it; last but not least there are Craig and Amy, the couple living across the road from you. Wait, they are supposed to be here, but they are not. They must be late as usual, perhaps because Craig, who is a huge videogame player probably lost track of time shooting some of his online friends, now delaying them both.

The bell rings. Here they are, you think, fashionably late. Now that we are all here, that torture adults call dinner can finally begins. On the other side of the door, though, there are grandma Judy and grandpa Owen, who decided to spend Thanksgiving with the rest of the family instead being stuck in traffic for hours due to a bad car accident on the highway. 

As soon as grandma Judy sees your mother’s necklace, it’s a battle of snipes and hasty comments: the house, the kids, the way your father is cutting the turkey, your mother’s dress. When Doug tries to redirect the attention to something else, voicing the fact that MikeandMarleen are talking about divorce, all hell breaks loose.

“So, Mike, Marleen, when are you guys filing papers?” he blurted out.
The dining room erupted. Fred and Mable. Charlotte looked up from her phone for the first time in fifteen minutes, finally more interested in reality than her digital friends. Tommy looked confused. Char’s rage had turned on Doug instead of her mother. Mike’s shoulders slumped. And Dan, well, had a strange little smile.

The only thing that can ruin the show is your little brother insisting he saw a monster. He’s just a child, after all, and right now adults have more important business to attend to. They dismiss him with few words and carry on trying to save what can be saved, but the damage is done and Mike leaves the house, or at least tries to. After six gin and tonics his reflexes are not top notch, and he smashes his car against a wall. While dealing with this new accident, the fold is attacked by a non-better identified animal, probably a bear (or so they’d like to think), but little Tommy insists on it being an Abiku, a demon that attacks the Yoruba people in Africa and eats children, and sometimes adults too.

No one wants to believe him, until the lights go off and the house is under siege, attacked by a mysterious monster with fangs and a thick fur that rapidly kills half of the family, relatives and friends and leaves the surviving ones in a state of petrified stupor and paralysing shock.

Wolf at the door is a short, scary novella that appeals to the most hidden fantasies of human beings. Who wouldn’t be happier to be under attack by a werewolf than spending time with their family at Thanksgiving/Christmas? Don’t lie, many of us are in this situation! The narrative is brilliant and very well built, considering there are 15 characters in total; each one is well rounded, their back story just enough to create conflict with the others and give the reader an accurate picture of the family dynamics. What makes this novella most interesting is the fact that the story arc is built around different parts of the dinner, so we have ‘Before dinner’, ‘Cocktails’, ‘The dinner’ and so on, creating a unique crescendo where events and relationships gradually unfold: we warm up with a cocktail while setting the scene, have the main meal, where we finally tackle the real problems and we end with dessert, where we savour the bitter-sweet success. 

Besides finding this structure very smart, I deeply appreciated the theatrical setting of the story, developed exclusively inside a single house and the surrounding garden: once place is out of the way, the focus can be transferred onto the characters and, most of all, the action, which we have plenty of.

One aspect that perhaps could have done with a little more attention is pace: it’s a horror story, and the best way to build tension is dilating time and enriching the prose with every single, little scary detail of whatever happens. Apart from that, we are not at all surprised this novella won Joel the 2022 Global Book Award gold medal for horror, we can clearly see why!

What creepy, brilliant story will he come up with next? We can only hope it’s soon enough… In the meantime, we will look out for the next full moon, hoping none of our neighbours and close friends are coming for dinner.

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