Anne Rice’s previous novel, “The Wolf Gift,” introduced readers to journalist-turned-lycanthrope Reuben Golding and the shape-shifting Morphenkinder. Not much happened in that book, but its setting — Nideck Point, the California mansion that Reuben inherits under mysterious circumstances — and its charming werewolf elders made up for the underpowered plot. There were intriguing glimpses of the ancient history of the Morphenkinder and a tantalizing promise of darker revelations to come.
But none of that earns out in “The Wolves of Midwinter,” the second book in Rice’s Wolf Gift Chronicles.
Dubbed the Man Wolf by the popular press, Reuben only attacks evildoers, especially pedophiles, because who could feel bad about eating a pedophile? Early in “The Wolves of Midwinter,” Reuben saves a little girl named Susie from a serial killer; he then brings her, wrapped in a bloodstained blanket, to a rectory where a kindly older woman with a “simple no-nonsense face” sits eating “her lonely meal” and reading (perhaps from the screenplay for “Night of the Hunter”). Completely unperturbed by the sight of the Man Wolf, Pastor Corrie takes in little Susie, wags a finger at the girl’s hirsute savior and bids him leave before crazed rednecks come after him. Susie cries, “You saved my life, Man Wolf!”
“He turned back to her. For a long moment he gazed at her, her strong upturned face, the quiet steady fire in her eyes. ‘You’re going to be all right, Susie,’ he said. ‘I love you, darling dear.’ And then he was gone.”
At this point, it would take a reader with a sterner heart than mine not to reach for a silver bullet.
Rice’s work has often dealt with the efforts to create and sustain a family or tribe: Lestat and his vampire cohort, generations of Mayfair witches in the American South, even the erotic adventurer Beauty and her lovers in Rice’s pseudonymous A.N. Roquelaure novels. “The Wolves of Midwinter” features two clans: a human one consisting of Reuben, his parents and Reuben’s priest brother, Jim; and the supernatural Morphenkinder, whose ranks now include Reuben’s lover, Laura.
The tale takes place during the Christmas season, as the Morphenkinder plan a huge midwinter bash at Reuben’s estate. Everyone, human and supernatural, is invited to the party. (And I mean everyone — the Vienna Boys’ Choir is flown in for the event.) The Forest Gentry (don’t call them “fairies”) also show up along with a European branch of the Morphenkinder, whose white-haired leader regales everyone with “stories of Midwinter customs the world over — of ancient times and human sacrifice!”
All of this might lead you to believe that some creepy fun is in the offing, a Mendocino version of “The Wicker Man.” Instead, there are pages and pages of numbing description of an over-the-top gala where the guests are not just beautifully dressed in cashmere, velvet and vintage Chanel, but uniformly beautiful.
In fact, despite a few gorgeous Morphenkinder of sinister intent, “The Wolves of Midwinter” disturbingly identifies goodness with beauty. Everyone is beautiful, with the exception of evildoers like the sniveling, sobbing, craven, bald, bespectacled men — pedophiles all — devoured by the Morphenkinder in a feeding binge. The queasy moral equation extends to the trappings of wealth: Reuben and his friends, supernatural and human, all have perfectly appointed homes, clothing, hair. This becomes especially ludicrous when Reuben and the desperate Father Jim go into hiding at the Fairmont Hotel, and readers get a rundown on their luxurious accommodations. I was surprised not to learn the thread count of the sheets.
As for plot, there is only a series of setpieces and occasional supernatural intrusions, all too neatly resolved. Everyone gets off the hook, except for slimy pedophiles and drug dealers. True, Reuben himself is briefly haunted by the ghost of a dead female lover whose wardrobe changes with each spectral appearance. (Do ghosts even wear clothes?) But the helpful Forest Gentry encourage the ghost to go wherever it is ghosts go. Somewhere nice, I think; maybe the Fairmont?
That visiting pack of decadent European Morphenkinder seems like it might stir up some trouble at the werewolves’ annual yuletide bonfire, what with all that talk of human sacrifice. But while some fur gets singed everyone makes nice afterward.
In a 2012 interview, Rice said, “There’s a tremendous desire to believe you’re living in a safe universe, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you are able to believe that. I hope it’s true.” One can sympathize with this sentiment yet wish she had not extended it to her literary universe, where evildoers disappear down the hatch without a trace, ghosts natter on in sappy New Age-speak, and even the werewolves have been metaphorically defanged.
Hand’s most recent book is “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
THE WOLVES OF MIDWINTER
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 388 pp, $25.95