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Darker Than You Think
Jack Williamson
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Tom Matic

The 38th entry in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series is a thrilling novel of lycanthropy from the pen of Jack Williamson, an author better known for science fiction. However, Darker Than You Think enters territory usually unexplored by SF, the realm of witches and werewolves. Not to be limited by the normal conventions of the werewolf subgenre, its lycanthropes can change not only into wolves, but leopards, sabre-toothed tigers and pythons, although they are vulnerable to the traditional scourge of the werewolf: silver.
   The novel opens with an encounter between two journalists, Will Barbee and April Bell. Both are reporting the same story: the return of an expedition led by the anthropologist, Dr Lamarck Mondrick (Where do they get those names?). When Mondrick dies in mysterious circumstances shortly after getting off the plane - and crucially while in the middle of announcing his discoveries - Will is dismayed to realise that April may be responsible. As he gets to know her, he is torn between his powerful attraction to her and his mounting suspicions. At their first date, April spills the beans about her mysterious past, and it isn't long before Will becomes aware of his own latent shape-shifting powers.
   Sometimes the prose borders on the melodramatic and schmaltzy, particularly in the descriptions of the reactions of the expeditions members' families to their return. Character-wise, it is the kinky sexual chemistry between the two main lycanthropes, Barbee and Bell, a sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw Bogart and Bacall, that drives the narrative. As the action is viewed from Will's perspective, we are drawn into his constant dilemma over which side he's on - and which side of his dual nature will prevail. April, in various sinister and alluring guises, urges Will to wipe out former fellow students like Sam Quain. And, although he protests that they are his friends, she is easily able to exploit his resentment at being humiliated by Professor Mondrick, years ago, when Mondrick excluded him from his research team because of his fears about Will's lycanthropy, condemning him to his present existence as an embittered drunken hack, all too susceptible to the lure of evil. For the reader too, it seems the devil has all the best tunes, for it is hard to identify with the joyless group of modern day Witchfinder Generals - like Quain, who wishes the Spanish Inquisition had never been abolished - pitted against the lycanthropes.
   Given Williamson's SF background, it comes as no surprise that the novel's treatment of its supernatural subject matter is often couched in terms of scientific concepts. According to its backstory, homo sapiens emerged as the dominant species after a long and bitter struggle with another species, homo lycanthropus, whose ability to manipulate probability gave it the power to change its shape and practise magic. These concepts, fascinating as they are, might make for dry reading were they not mediated via a gripping thriller riddled with startling plot twists, that blends scientific romance with images of stark bloodcurdling horror, such as the kitten throttled with a ribbon and impaled with a pin to induce Mondrick's asthma attack and heart failure, and the pathetic yet fearsome figure of his blind widow, her eyes clawed out by were-leopards. With its scenes of demonic mayhem in an academic setting and the sexual and moral sparring between the two main characters, it almost feels like a prototype of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in a film noir setting.
Darker Than You Think

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