Portrait of the Artist as a Young Werewolf

Brian McGreevy wants to ruin your workday

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Werewolf
Photo courtesy of Andy House

What with the saturation of glittery-torsoed vampires and Jane Austen-chomping zombies in contemporary novels, readers can be forgiven a tiny amount of fatigue regarding gore and spooks. Particularly in the Twilight series' recitation of vampire tropes as a front for a whitewashed and surprisingly unsanguine view of never-ending love, the whole beast-within-the-man idea seems to have been mined to the point of diminishing returns. So, say you hear of a new novel in which a teenage werewolf and vampire team up to hunt down a killer in their small Pittsburgh-area town – you might be tempted to write it off as another zeitgeist-chasing attempt at cashing in on the tween dollars of Twi-hards everywhere. The exception, of course, is that the book is put out under the typically august aegis of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publishing imprint housing the tony likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.

Brian McGreevy joins their company with Hemlock Grove, a tone-shifting, register-hopping novel as likely to reference ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, as it is high school coke dealers and fumblings under the bleachers. Following the murders of several girls, Peter Rumancek – part gypsy, part werewolf, all outcast – and Roman Godfrey, vampire scion of a wealthy family whose name graces the abandoned steel mill, join to find the killer. While the book's materials may seem to place it squarely in the realm of young adult novels, several brutal, unvarnished incidents and a dizzying scope of references and oddities announce its audience as decidedly adult.

Genre-skewing novels have of late served to incite plenty of flame wars in Amazon reviews and the pages of The New York Times alike – a Times review of Colson Whitehead's literary, zombie-apocalypse-plotted Zone One invoked so much bile that reviewer Glen Duncan later issued a defense. But McGreevy is largely unconcerned by such matters: "Really, that industry has such a hive mentality that I wouldn't have to change word one of the novel itself ... who the publisher is really is determinate of whether that debate is happening, which is why I tend not to take those debates very seriously at all."

Readers will be glad that McGreevy doesn't hew to strict notions of genre or form since Hemlock Grove is enlivened by his singular, all-encompassing eye for narrative. Peter and Roman converse with Salinger-esque snappiness, and the hulking, out-of-commission steelworks as a set-piece alludes to the vast economic and class disparities of the Pittsburgh area, but surreal touches, including Roman's 7-foot-tall, literally glowing sister whose condition goes unexplained (except in a recently released graphic novel prequel available online), a character being swallowed by a sinkhole that appears suddenly – gloss the story with the unexpected. Pulling off a slew of narrative tricks young novelists would be implored to steer clear of makes for an invigorating read when said young novelist does, in fact, stick the landing.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Werewolf

When asked to note the source of his wide-ranging freedom with these elements, McGreevy says, "I would say it's a combination of an inborn trait that was given a first-rate education." That education includes a fellowship at the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers (where, it should be noted, we first met as students); an early draft of Hemlock Grove served as his MFA thesis. "Put it this way," McGreevy says. "On one end of the spectrum, you have cartographers. And cartographers, their job is to create lines where lines don't naturally exist. On the other end of the spectrum, you have astronauts, who probably think that what cartographers are spending their lives doing is a little silly and missing the point. Not that I'm calling myself an astronaut! Just closer to that than a cartographer."

Graduate creative writing programs have been accused of churning out a great deal of monotonous fiction – think Connecticut divorcées frowning over the fine silver – but McGreevy's willingness to follow his gut is, in part, what makes his novel an exception: "I went to the Half Price Books on Lamar and saw a short story collection that looked interesting to me called The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. And I'm like, 'Oh, this entire book is about fucking werewolves and things like that, but she's a very, very literary writer.' And so that, for me, was sort of an epiphany: 'Oh, I don't have to be trying to put myself in a box that I don't particularly have the talent for.'

"I was not very good at realism at all. The South Americans have been doing this for ages. As I've said before, I don't believe that magical realism is a legitimate genre. It's a genre that was invented by college professors to describe fantasy novels that weren't written for mongoloids. ... If you're watching Shakespeare you can say, 'Well, a night watchman wouldn't talk like that.' Sure, a fucking night watchman wouldn't, but this one does. I'm not opposed to MFA culture as some contrarians are, because it's definitely worked out for me and some people that we know pretty well. It's like anything else: You have to be leery that committees have a tendency to bring things toward the middle. That's true of any committee in human history. So, it becomes a question of trusting your strongest narrative instincts and sticking with them."

Such conviction pays off, not only in the publication of the novel, which hit shelves last week, but also in its next incarnation as a Netflix-produced TV series. Famke Janssen (X-Men) and Bill Skarsgård have been cast, and torture porn impresario Eli Roth (Hostel) directs, making this his first project for the small screen. McGreevy is signed on as executive producer, and with longtime screenwriting partner Lee Shipman (another Michener grad), is working to ensure that the series retains as much of the novel's weirdness and violence as possible. Though McGreevy doesn't explicitly note Twin Peaks as a touchstone for the novel's TV adaptation, it shares a bit of the "who killed the girl" animus and small-town strangeness – not to mention that David Lynch was an early mentor to Roth. "None of us are coming from the TV side of things," says McGreevy. "We're too ignorant to even know what we're ignorant of, and that's been a huge asset for this project. We have no idea how to write a TV show, but we do know how to put this together. ... We're approaching it more like a 13-hour independent movie."

To that end, the production team has been watching horror and suspense essentials, taking notes on camera angles and their psychological effects: "If you watch The Shining, for most of the first half of the movie, there's tons of head room, which is very infrequent in movies. Rather than cut the shot off at the actor's head, you can see the ceiling well above them. As the movie becomes more and more claustrophobic, the head room shrinks and shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. It's a fantastic process, deciding all the things we're going to steal."

Netflix is a natural fit for the series, not only because it allows for sidestepping pesky, gore-restricting FCC regulations, but also because it plays into the binge-watching tendency that plagues even the best of us when faced with instantly streaming content. "The way that we're structuring the first season ideally is that thing where you're kind of tired, you're watching something before you go to bed, you watch an episode and you're like, 'Shit, I need to go to sleep, but I'm going to watch one more episode.' And then you watch it, 'Fuck! Goddamn it!' and you watch another episode. Cut to three o'clock in the morning, and you're like, 'I am going to have the worst day at work tomorrow.'"

Brian McGreevy celebrates the publication of Hemlock Grove with a staged reading and a screening of Twin Peaks episodes Monday, April 9, 7pm, at the ND at 501 Studios, 501 N. I-35.

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Brian McGreevy, Hemlock Grove, werewolves, vampires, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Michener Center for Writers, Eli Roth, Lee Shipman, Famke Janssen, Bill Skarsgard, Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, Netflix

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