Now becoming somewhat accustomed to the type of book Dark Regions Press likes to unleash, I had only a vague idea of what to expect when Arena of the Wolf landed on my desk. After a decade heavily immersed in the landscape of Australia’s dark fiction maestros, many new writers from across the pond have now come into view. Some of these have the bibliographies of seasoned veterans … while others are introducing us into a whole new world of mayhem. Jim Gavin falls into the latter category. With Arena of the Wolf, he takes a well worn creature mythos and tries to breathe new life into it with something innovative and fun.
An over the road ex-trucker, Jerry wakes up one day to find himself cursed: not only is he now a bona-fide werewolf, he is also forced to participate in a corrupt rodeo fixture where werewolves are the main attraction. Reveling in a blood sport for the entertainment of thousands, he slowly learns to adapt to the climate of being an unwitting celebrity and killer. For the bosses do provide the odd perks – and as long as there is enough beer and whiskey to placate a werewolves dreams of freedom, then perhaps the life of a bestial show-pony isn’t such a bad life after all …
Beginning with first person narration, Jim Gavin takes the reader through a very confusing and oddball story. Here he displays a different kind of writing – a kind of stream-of consciousness twang that takes some getting used to. I will admit that for the most part the prose did not feel comfortable. First and foremost I want to be swept away, but the first part of Jerry’s adventures had me shifting uncomfortably. Although trying to suspend my belief for the sake of the story (this is, after all, supernatural fiction), the oftentimes crude handling of style made me acutely aware I was at all times reading a book.
Things pick up in the second half as Jim switches to omniscient narrator. After barely escaping from his circus prison, our werewolf goes on a hallucinogenic journey that transcends into a revenge mission. This is probably where the strengths of the novella lay … in Jim’s ability to pierce the werewolves curse with flight-of-fancy humor and a gargantuan body count to rival any in horror fiction. The gore element is right on the money, as is the author’s ability to have us sympathizing (and rooting), for our wounded protagonist.
There is definitely an audience for this book, but it falls into a category that is hard to define. A novella should not be a chore, yet there were certainly times Arena of the Wolf felt more like a clinical assignment. Overall, however, these are personal predilections. Jim Gavin is only just beginning to carve a niche for himself, and there is little doubt he will eventually find a dedicated readership.