The Wild Boys

by Travis Heermann

Reviewed by Donna Glee Williams

The cover of Travis Heermann’s new novel completely relieves me of my usual reviewer’s angst about spoilers; it tells you everything I might pussyfoot around in order to let you discover it yourself. The fierce and furry canine countenance misting into the profile of a teen beauty, along with the tag-line (“One 16 year old girl versus a plague of beasts,”) the title (The Wild Boys), and a prominent full moon—in case you’d missed the point—are billboard-sized road-signs: Welcome to Werewolf County, population one pint-sized high school girl named Mia, her Shar-Pei, her Japanese mother, her FBI dad, the icy-eyed ex-marine Slade with a toothy secret and plans for the new master race that will depose ordinary humans from the top of the food chain.

While the tell-all cover design makes sure that readers of this book know exactly what they’ve signed on for, it’s in some ways a disservice to the author’s careful suspense-building craft in the first third of the book. The creepiness accelerates gradually through the ominous goings-on at the spooky Saint Sebastian’s School for Children, animal mutilations, missing students, an off-screen attack on a runner on a lonely nighttime jogging path, and rumors of unknown carnivores stalking the streets of Omaha. Both during the build-up and when the gloves come off, the scary scenes reveal a writer who has definitely put in his time in front of big-screen classic horror:

He felt eyes on the back of his neck, and looked over his shoulder. The path was empty, but his legs found fresh speed. His breath pumped in and out of him, hoarse and dry with exertion.

A sound filtered through the undergrowth, a heavy rhythmic breathing, matching his, pacing him, leaves and branches pushed aside for the passage of something he could not see. Was it his breathing or something else he heard? Fear bloomed like ice, and he kept looking over his shoulder for signs of something he knew chased him. How many of them were there? His legs and arms pumped, pounding his sneakers, stretching the naked flesh of his legs, the largest portion of meat.

When a writer tackles a classic genre pattern like, oh, say, teen werewolf horror, for example, one of the challenges is dealing with the tension of being faithful to the form while bringing something new to the game. So, what makes this werewolf story different from other werewolf stories? There’s the main character’s Japanese roots—grounded in the author’s experience as an exchange teacher in Japan. There’s also a scientific rather than supernatural underpinning to lycanthropy, a choice that opens the door to fun with secret military intelligence operations and public health considerations. There’s the fact that the story doesn’t end with everyone unchanged from their adventures, ready to go back to their safe and normal lives. And, not least, there’s Mia’s dog, Deuce. As far as I know, Deuce is the first Shar-Pei to appear as a main character in a horror novel and, hey, who doesn’t love a Shar-Pei?

The Wild Boys will be of interest to teens or readers who enjoy stepping back into the world where firing an F-bomb across your parents’ bows is radical rebellion and a single kiss can rock your world. (The author has done time teaching teenagers and knows whereof he speaks.) The book’s action-packed, short chapters make it a fast, easy summer read.