Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think is a one-shot horror-novel excursion for this science fiction Grand Master, but has nonetheless been described as not only the author’s finest work, but also one of the best treatments of the werewolf in modern literature. It has been chosen for inclusion in David Pringle’s overview volume Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (“a relatively disciplined and thoughtful work,” Pringle writes, in comparing it to the author’s earlier space operas) as well as in Jones & Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books (“the most unique and original take written on… lycanthropy,” illustrator Randy Broecker tells us). The novel originally appeared in a “short,” 48,000-word form in the December 1940 issue of Unknown magazine (the fantasy sister of Astounding Science-Fiction), and was later expanded by the author for a 1948 book edition.
Though dealing with werewolves, Darker Than You Think presents us with a very different sort of monster than readers of earlier horror tales and viewers of Universal horror pictures were perhaps accustomed to. Williamson’s werewolves are actually shape shifters, capable of becoming wolves or any other creature that strikes their fancy. Roaming at night, free of their corporeal bodies and invisible to human eyes, they have existed since the first Ice Age and for thousands of years dominated prehistoric Homo sapiens. Hidden and desperate by the mid-20th century, they await their so-called Black Messiah, the Child of Night, who will lead them to their long-awaited reconquest of man.
But “ Darker Than You Think (a strangely unsatisfying title for me, somehow; Child of Night might have been preferable) is mainly the story of Will Barbee, an alcoholic newspaperman living in the fictitious city of Clarendon (somewhere in the southeast U.S., I infer). Barbee meets a ravishing fellow reporter, April Bell, whilst covering a story at the Clarendon airport. Professor Mondrick and his three young colleagues, all old friends of Barbee, have just returned from the Gobi Desert with news of a monumental discovery. But as Mondrick and the others begin to die one by one over the course of the next few days, in exact conformity with some rather bizarre dreams of Barbee’s — in which he assumes the forms of a wolf, a saber-toothed tiger and a giant constrictor, alongside April Bell — the befuddled reporter must riddle out what is real and what, if anything, is fantasy.
It is not a simple thing for me to write about this novel’s story line without giving away any of the book’s many surprises, and indeed, perhaps I have already said too much. Suffice it to say that poor Barbee is thrown into an increasingly noirish and nightmare-filled world, and that Williamson keeps the suspense quotient ratcheted very high.
Though not a science fiction novel per se, the author does manage to come up with a scientific explanation for the shape shifters’ powers that invokes such disparate subjects as the Rhine experiments at Duke University and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Williamson’s background history of “Homo lycanthropus” is equally fascinating, incorporating ancient mythology, 15th century mass murderer Gilles de Rais and even Joan of Arc.
As compared to Williamson’s science fiction output of the ’30s, Darker Than You Think is certainly more elegantly written, and the author shows a much greater control over his descriptions and dialogue. The novel gets increasingly, uh, hairy as it progresses, with each chapter revealing some stunning surprise or shocking plot development. It is an extremely accomplished melding of fantasy, horror, sci-fi and pulp noir, and really almost a perfect novel. (The author does make a few flubs in the book, such as when he has a hungover Barbee thinking of the rum he had consumed the night before, when in actuality he had been drinking rum daiquiris TWO nights before.)
I cannot say for certain whether or not Darker Than You Think is Williamson’s finest novel (I have only read ten or so from this author’s huge ouevre, which spans almost an 80-year period!), but it sure is a mighty gripping read that will undoubtedly appeal to any fan of those four genres just mentioned. The werewolves on display here make Lawrence Talbot seem like a weenie, and that’s surely no easy task! More than highly recommended!