I had to read Warewolff! in bursts. I found that sitting down with it for too long left me feeling hollowed out. Shipley is a skillful engineer of abominations, and there is certainly something rewarding in following the paths he sets before the reader, but be warned—this is an intense and difficult book which will linger in the mind. He is one of the most daring contemporary horror writers, with an enviable command of prose, and has the audacity to go exactly where one doesn’t go.
Warewollf! is about language and authorship. It is composed of vignettes, few longer than two pages, many much less than a single page in length. Said vignettes are arranged into layers instead of chapters, with names like “eyes” and “holes” and “rooms.” The names of the vignettes include “Zeno’s Transatlantic Arrow,” “Cerebral Fistula,” “Barf Chair,” “Pollution Ingredients, of Which Some Are Territory,” and the elegantly simple “Bullet in Face.”
The content of these vignettes is alienating, outrageous, distressing, haunting, absurd, and sometimes darkly comical. A Buddhist monastery sprouts legs and does unspeakable things to chimps. A cult forms around a hole which demands constant offerings, up to and including the amputated members of its devotees. The sky vanishes, and strange plagues of extra-limbs (and limb-deficiencies) bloom. Other times, we are treated to a single sentence that runs on and on, terminating apparently arbitrarily, but not before we’ve encountered images like “necks scraped together from the slewed treatments of a hierophant’s allergies to the industrialized mining of ghouls effusing late morning disorder.” (That one’s called “Enucleated Eye.”)
Although there isn’t a narrative that runs through the vignettes, certain images and themes reoccur, especially motifs of disease, mutation, unacceptable sexuality (Crash has nothing on this), violence as extreme as it is creative, and depersonalization. This last motif is the focus of the longest vignette, “An Already Failed Light,” which depicts a man so totally alienated from himself that he becomes a voyeur of his own existence.
Warewolff! begins with Shipley effacing his role as author. He didn’t write these texts, he tells us. He discovered them, collected them from “a much wider archive of material, including but not limited to: audio recordings, official documents, chatrooms, blogs.” He is trying to accomplish an “experiment in seeing,” though this may also be an experiment in hearing. He is trying to see (hear) something that speaks via way of voices which are not its own. Maybe it has no voice of its own to speak through, and must utilize the communicative organs of others (its “victims”). Or maybe it simply chooses to communicate through infection.
Above I described the contents of this novel as “alienating.” That doesn’t go far enough. It is alien. The Warewolff, as I shall call the noumenal “other” that stands behind this text, is an infestation of the language centers of those through which it projects itself. It is an alien presence that crouches within the mouth that speaks, guides the hands that write. The Warewolff carves itself out with stolen tongues.
What is Shipley’s role if he is not the author? He is an archivist. But authors and archivists aren’t as distinct as we might think. An archivist picks and chooses what is preserved, and what is not, much like how an author will go through many combinations of words and sentences before arriving at the correct arrangement. Derrida once observed that “archive” is ultimately derived from “archon,” that is, those who hold authority—the archive was the lodging of the archon, who kept, in both senses of the word, the law (logos—word). Archivist and author is a distinction with only vague boundaries. Shipley may tell us that he didn’t write these texts, he merely documented them, but this does not dissolve his authorial responsibilities, at least not entirely. Even though he directs us to treat this text hypertextually, to rearrange the vignettes and find our own orders, it was still he that collated them in the first place, he that tried to glimpse the shape of The Warewolff through its parasitism.
The Warewolff’s occupation of its victims’ language centers points to a curious question—what is our relationship, as readers and writers/listeners and speakers, with “our” language? Indeed, isn’t that the very rub? What makes it “our” language? We speak as if we had some ownership of “our” language, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. As we grow and mature all the way from infant to adult, we somewhere along the line find ourselves occupied by an invasive force that arrives from beyond all living memory, which predates (and is the condition for) history. We “call” it “language,” as if we had the right, or ability, to name that which names.
Behind the twisting voices that Shipley presents us there is one voice—voice-as-such. Language itself is The Warewolff.
As author and archivist are not so distinct, Shipley is right to reject the authorial role as traditionally construed. The author/archivist discovers millennia of mutating material rolling out of mouths, books, screens, and sifts through it to construct an apparently unified combination of voices called a “text.” The author/archivist does not own or control this voice, they merely identify, isolate, and frame it. This isn’t to present the author/archivist as a neutral mediator; rather, it is to deny that they create ex nihilo. An author/archivist is, first and foremost, a listener searching for voices.
And Shipley found a voice which speaks cacophonously of both absurdity and obscenity.
Warewolff!, by Gary J. Shipley. Hexus Press, September 2017. 248 pages. £9.99 GBP, paper.
Sean Oscar is a writer, blogger, and podcaster who lives in Brighton, United Kingdom. He will receive his MA in philosophy from the University of Sussex in January, 2018.