Review: Dog Days O' Summer by James Newman & Mark Allan Gunnells

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Dog Days O' Summer
By James Newman, Mark Allan Gunnells
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I flat-out loved James Newman's Odd Man Out and enjoyed Mark Allan Gunnells' #MakeHalloweenScaryAgain, a novella printed in 2017's anthology Halloween Carnival Volume 1, enough that immediately after finishing each of these respective works, I went and bought a bunch of both men's other titles. When I learned they were co-writing a novella together, and a werewolf story at that!, I was overjoyed.

But, before I go any further I'm going to preface the rest of this review with a big, ol SPOILER WARNING. I have some contentions with the story, particularly its resolution, that require discussing in ways that I can't quite get around or be as oblique as I would like. It may be information you'd rather not know, in which case I'd say skip out on reading any further until after you've read this novella. Feel free to come back later, though!

OK? Let's proceed.

Dog Days O' Summer is certainly well-written, but ultimately a serviceable mid-90s coming of age story about a group of teens facing the inexplicable. It's a classic, well-mined set-up, but it lacks any real suspense or surprises. We know right from the get-go this is a werewolf book, and anybody who has read or watched at least one of these types of story previously will be screaming at these young boys to just figure it out already. When Jason, our 14-year-old first-person narrator, finally gloms onto what's really happening here, we breath a sigh of relief that, finally, at least one of these kids has caught up with us. Granted, Jason is relaying to us a story of past events from some point in his future, with all the build-up and foreshadowing that entails, and it's occasionally clunky given we already know more than Jason presumes of us. This is the type of book where it's more about the journey towards discovery for these boys, until their finally forced to accept the ultimate truth and contend with it.

Although Dog Days O' Summer doesn't offer up anything new, it mostly gets by on the easy likability of its characters (except for Jason's Bible-thumping parents; they're the sort of gospel music 24/7, Ten Commandments throw rug, holier-than-thou Christians that wander through the story looking to me like a werewolf buffet on feet), the smooth, easy reading prose, and the occasional bit of titillation from some particularly gnarly and graphically described murders. After the boys discover the killer's journal, Newman and Gunnells offer up a healthy number of diary entries charting one man's descent into madness, initially trying to deny what is happening to him before finally embracing his newfound powers with bloodcurdling effect.

I did greatly appreciate the authors challenging typical werewolf conventions though - there's no full moon and no silver bullets, for instance (although we get a few too many knowing winks and cutesy nods at werewolves in pop culture along the way). Instead, Newman and Gunnells explore some deeper, older mythological roots of werewolf lore related to star system Sirius, or Dog Star as it's more colloquially known. Although they get points for creativity here, I was rather disappointed by the appearance of a last-page trope that has quickly become overdone in horror circles - the "make of it what you will" ending.

While it doesn't exactly come out of nowhere given Jason's well-established interests and his narration recalling the deeds of decades past, I'm growing rather tired of endings that call into question the validity of all that came before in lieu of aiming for a satisfactory finale. Dog Days O' Summer came pretty close to ending on a highly interesting note, but the authors undermined it with a few extra paragraphs that attempt to spin Jason's story into metafictional realms. I'm sure there's a segment of readers out there that will appreciate it, but frankly I'm bored, and more than a little irked, with these type of bait-and-switch gotcha! twists that attempt to upend the entire narrative at the last minute.

Dog Days O' Summer is a short, unchallenging read that hits a few more high notes than it does low. It's more of a slim comfort read than an essential addition to werewolf legend - not that there's anything wrong with that - but I was hoping for something a bit more substantial from the pairing of Newman and Gunnells given the all-too brief sampling I've had of their individual works. It's not as great and ambitious as I had hoped for, but despite it not meeting my perhaps much too high expectations, Dog Days O' Summer isn't so bad I need a hair of the dog to recover.

[Note: I received an advance copy of this title from the publisher, Unnerving.]

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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