**spoiler alert** Given the somewhat "classic horror" status of this book (for example, it is on the list of "21 Must Read Horror Books" in the Horror**spoiler alert** Given the somewhat "classic horror" status of this book (for example, it is on the list of "21 Must Read Horror Books" in the Horror Writer Association's horror writers' guide), I have to admit I was disappointed, especially since this is also about shapeshifters, one of my favorite subjects. I'm giving it 3 stars instead of 2 because it is quite different than most books of this type that I've read. In my opinion, it is really more of a sci-fi/fantasy novel than horror, and more adventure-oriented than atmosphere-oriented. As such, it is more appreciated as a pure genre work than literary work.
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD** I will try not to give away too much. I said it is about shapeshifters above because, although it is usually mentioned as one of the best werewolf books, the characters can assume other shapes, they just happen to take wolf shape sometimes. I kind of like this, and found it intriguing that they could even assume the shape of prehistoric animals.
The explanation behind the shapeshifting ability is couched in scientific rather than supernatural terms, which gives an interesting twist, although ultimately it smacks somewhat of racist/eugenic notions that I find troubling (and don't see mentioned much in discussions of the book). This could be written off as more the attitude of the human characters, but both they and the shapeshifters think in black-and-white terms. It's good vs. evil, with the shapeshifters harboring a hatred for humans and vice versa. The narrative tries to set up a conflicted protagonist who tries to sympathize with both sides, but ultimately it doesn't work for me, as he seems to have little control over his own actions; either side is reducible to biological impulses. It could have made for some intense inner drama, but the lack of real self-reflection and choice makes it too simplistic.
Much of the dialogue is dated, sometimes more funny than compelling, always a risk with this kind of novel but a particular problem here. It stuns me how many have said that the book doesn't seem dated--its vaguely racist and sexist attitudes, as well as some of the cliche dialogue and descriptions, hammer its datedness home for me (it was published in 1948). It has a kind of noir-ish feel, though the protagonist is a reporter not a detective. Some of the scientific stuff does seem advanced for its time, I give it that. There is also a blind woman character with a guide dog--not something I find even in fiction today, let alone 1948. She is and isn't a stereotype--she "sees more" despite being blind, something quite common for blind characters, but her bravery and determination make her more rounded.
To return to the protagonist, I felt he was quite weak and easily manipulated, despite...well, you'll have to read it to know what I mean, but you'll probably be able to guess what I mean after not too long into the novel. But I didn't find myself rooting for him much. I admit I was a bit surprised by the ending, especially by the weird postmodern turn it seemed to take when the characters started talking about how readers and critics wouldn't understand or believe the story if it were ever published.
One plus is that the edition I read included black-and-white drawings of certain scenes, some of which were somewhat cartoonish, but they nonetheless made a quirky addition to the text that gave it something like a graphic novel feel (and maybe it would have been more effective as a graphic novel). All in all, I don't think it deserves the hype it gets, but you could do worse if it sounds like your kind of thing. (And if shapeshifters are your thing, you can do much worse.)