Bob Duke, his wife Cindy and their twelve-year-old son Kevin do their best to enjoy life in New York City, though the harsh realities of a competitive economy threaten poet-turned-computer-consultant Bob's livelihood. He wants more for his family than hamburgers and TV. "He wanted to take his family to the Plaza, and dine in the Palm Court on finger sandwiches, followed by enormous slices of cake and strong, black coffee. He wanted to do this while listening to a Vivaldi concerto played by the Palm Court String Quartet." [p. 15, Macdonald edition (1990)]
On a visit to Central Park Zoo, Bob finds an old, wretched wolf that stares at him with supernatural concentration. That night he dreams of the wolf chasing him down and devouring him.
On a business trip to Atlanta, Bob transforms temporarily into a wolf, wreaking havoc in a hotel. Upon his return to New York he changes again, more-or-less permanently. This metamorphosis marks the beginning of a crazy rollercoaster ride leading from a filthy dog pound to the Canadian forests as cops, SWAT teams, hunters, coy-dogs, and everyone else rise up to chase him.
"If only he could talk! 'This is all so silly,' he would say. 'I'm about the least offensive person you could meet.'" [p. 169] If The Wild is a horror novel, the horror is learning how truly helpless and terrified one would be, trapped, fully aware, in an animal's form. Bob can't talk or write, his hands are now unmanipulative paws, and virtually anyone who sees him tries to kill him. His plight is described with the poignancy of Olaf Stapledon's super-intelligent-dog novel Sirius, but the pursuit of Bob Duke races along with the frenzy of a Jackie Chan movie.
Bob Duke, used to pate de foie gras and caviar, must eat diseased rats and Drano-soaked garbage. He fights dogs, wolves, a child-rapist, and an extremely unfriendly bear. He nearly drowns, freezes, and starves in the woods. Meanwhile, wife Cindy and son Kevin search for him, aided by a tired old Native American shaman and a Dana-Scully-type psychiatrist.
I have read many stories of shape-shifters; such characters are usually loners from the start. (In Andre Norton novels like The Jargoon Pard, for instance, the heroes are outsiders, nearly friendless if not actually hated by their peers.) In The Wild, Bob Duke's family suffers almost as much anguish and pain as Bob himself. When the police literally haul Bob off to the dog pound, for instance, there is nothing believable they can do or say that would stop them. The transformation has only just occurred; it is hard enough accepting that, but when the family lawyer ends a phone conversation with "I will try to prevent the animal's being destroyed," who can blame Cindy for losing it?
"She threw the phone as if the instrument had grown hot. The man was talking about Bob, about Bob's life! She could hardly breathe, couldn't do more than make an awful sound, 'Eh, eh, eh,' as her blood thundered and her breath came in raw stutters." [p. 136] Cindy and Kevin would give their lives to restore Bob's humanity, and their life on the run is as hellish as his. This is an obvious course to take but one I don't remember reading in a lycanthropy novel before.
What I have read often enough is that the animal's spirit somehow pollutes the human soul -- intelligence fades, he/she becomes bloodthirsty, psychotic, or downright evil. The Wild describes a perfect melding of human intelligence with wolf instinct and supernormal senses -- Bob can hunt down a deer and simultaneously feel sorry he has to kill "Bambi". "And he would die having had one of the highest of experiences: to be a raw animal, in the body of an animal, with all his human consciousness intact." [p. 253] The human mind is enhanced, not soiled, by the lupine.
Is The Wild truly a horror novel? Bob is horrified by his transformation at first, but slowly he comes to appreciate his new form: "This body could run, could lope, could leap. He could not dislike it any more, not after the past few minutes. He'd never been much of a physical specimen, not before now. This was quite wonderful!" [p. 166] He also enjoys enhanced senses: "He was a generous man, and at that moment his heart burst with one wish, that all human beings everywhere could just for one instant experience the old world in this new way." [p. 209]
The experiences of the man-turned-wolf are painful in the extreme, but Strieber's magical prose describes for us not only hair-curling agony but the wonder and pleasure of Bob Duke's new existence. There are too many gems of great description to quote -- I find something on nearly every page. One more will have to suffice: "The spirit of man had finished its ages-long journey through history, and was finally returning to the wild from which it had come. But it was returning triumphant, bringing the gift of intellect with it." [p. 315]
There are scenes of wolf dominance-submission and (let's face it) sex in The Wild that may offend some readers, and Bob Duke is such a loser as a human that some may not sympathize with him. None of this has lessened the novel's impact on me.
"All our yesterdays are filled with examples of sensational 'best sellers' that never had a tomorrow," writes naturalist and scholar John Kieran. "When it comes to recent or current fiction, the first reception may be far from the last judgment. Survival down the years seems to me to be the best test of the worth of a book." 
With respect to Mr. Kieran, I made it less than halfway through The Wild before I knew it would be my favorite book ever. For three years after reading it, there was not an hour of the day or night that I didn't think of it for some reason. I'd see a truck on the highway and think of Bob trying to cross that many-laned nightmare expressway, a semi whipping right over him. I'd see a boy playing with a dog, and think of the scene where Bob has to kill a poor kid's dog in order to save his own skin.
Nowadays it doesn't fill my mind quite as much, but its influence has not faded:
After Eleven Years
Is it still an obsession after so long? I have to admit I date events in my life as having happened before or after March 1991, when I first read the book. I occasionally spend time online looking through search engines for "strieber wild," "whitley wild wolf," and similar word combinations. Predictably, most hits for Whitley Strieber have to do with alien abductions or the "Dreamland" radio program. I decided that, as usual with oddball interests, I'd have to make my own web page on the subject.
Last year (2001) I spent $55.00 for a mint condition British hardback of the book, with the astonishing dust cover painting seen above. I began reading it anew -- and it was worth every penny.
One thing that strikes me during this year's re-read is how much humor is mixed in with the existentialist worry and depression in the opening chapters. Some parts seem all the more appropriate now that I've entered my forties:
"The man beside him had responded to his thoughts, not because he could read minds but because he had obviously spoken out loud. All right, so you pass age forty and you start talking to yourself.
"Nose, ears and penis all continue to grow, even as your overall body mass starts to decline. Short-term memory is going. And now you mutter.
"Silently, over the past year, Bob had begun to engage in the battle of the nose hair. You couldn't very well just leave it to grow longer and longer, curly and grey, like smoke flowing out of your nostrils. You had to cut it. Bob used nail clippers, and the process made him sneeze. The more he cut it, the stiffer the hair became. Maybe he was one of those unlucky men whose beard grew inside their noses." [p. 28]
These lines sound more familiar with each passing year. For some reason they remind me of Billy Crystal's running comments in City Slickers. At least we can laugh at our Mid-Life Crises.
1. Kieran, John. Books I Love (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969), p. xiii.
All Wild quotes come from: Strieber, Whitley. Wild (London: Macdonald, 1990).
I have just finished my eighth re-reading of Wild. This ties the lupine epic with the only other novel I've read through so often, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.
(For what it's worth, next would come Wells' War of the Worlds and Time Machine, John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes and Day of the Triffids. I've also read several of Andre Norton's books three or four times each. (These stats would be higher if I weren't the world's slowest reader.)
Before 1991, anytime I came across a book of a "were" or "anthropomorphic" nature, I'd read it through, then immediately turn back to the beginning and read it again: Norton's Moon of Three Rings and Jargoon Pard, Stapledon's Sirius, Dickson's The Dragon & the George, among others. After reading The Wild, however, I didn't touch the book again for three years. It became such a part of me so quickly, I didn't need to read it again. Indeed, just looking through a few pages at a time fills my mind and breast with such a range of emotions, I have to set it aside for a while when I am reading it.
Eventually, though, I take it up again, and now reading it is something of an annual event. Next year it will become the book I've read most often, as is most appropriate.
MARCH 2021 -- THIRTY YEARS AFTER
I went fifteen years between re-readings of The Wild. Well, my life was put on hold during the first decade or so of the twenty-first century for reasons I'd rather not go into here, and I'd like to erase that whole period from my memory.
Anyway, I read it after fifteen years and my first reaction on finishing the story again is, "Those fifteen years sucked deeply, and now I know why." My second is, "How did I survive that long without The Wild?" Honestly, this tale of the tribulations of a man changing into a wolf, becoming literally a wolf living in the wilderness, yet still staying himself inside, has been my obsession since March of 1991. Any time I see a historical reference, my first thought is whether that was before or after reading the book. My enjoyment of any novel, film, or non-fiction work increases a little if I can somehow relate it to Strieber's tale. For instance, I like any story set in New York City just a little more than I might have otherwise, solely because The Wild was set there.
I've read many hundreds of books over the decades; I own more than anyone I've ever met. I hope to read many hundreds more during the course of my life. My recent long-time-coming re-reads, however, have convinced me of something: I am 100% certain Whitley Strieber's Wild has been/ is now/ and always will remain my favorite book.
I am facing a new task in life: Each September I'll read it again, and then I'm going to try to last a year WITHOUT re-visitng this lupine masterpiece. Wish me luck.
Marko Susimetsu's The Wild and other book reviews
The Wild on Amazon.com -- also available on Kindle and as an audiobook