Howl by Renee Miller
Book Review by Rich Duncan
It should come as no surprise that Creature Feature books are a big staple here at Ink Heist. Shane and I both are obsessed with them and the bigger, the bloodier, the better is our motto. Hell, our love and passion for this particular brand of literary mayhem are what prompted us to start A Bloody Bestiary in the first place. So, when Renee Miller approached me with Howl, her latest novella from Unnverving, I was all in. My initial thoughts and hopes were that it would be a sort of Bigfoot novel, based a little on the description, the title, and the cover art. The reality is that Miller has created a unique beast that is capable of extraordinary violence and bloodshed and is unlike anything I have ever read in Creature Feature horror.
Howl follows a trio of friends who are on their way to a work conference and starts out with them mercilessly mocking each other as close friends usually do. They are in the middle of nowhere, with limited access to GPS as the map basically ends leaving them deserted and cut off from civilization. Amidst the arguing and frustration of being lost, things go from bad to worse as their vehicle runs out of fuel. They have limited supplies and as the snow begins to fall, they are forced to make a choice. Do they stay and wait for help or take their chances cutting through the woods? The group decides to soldier on and while they are lost and surrounded by wilderness, things take an ominous turn when they hear a howl coming from the trees. The noise is easy to write off as a wolf or some other creature at first, but as they venture further into the heart of the woods, the howls seem to follow them and don’t sound like anything they’ve ever heard before. As the noises intensify and they realize they’re in grave danger, they see a cabin that signals refuge. However, once they reach the cabin, they realize their nightmare is just getting started.
Howl has a rocket-fueled pace that is cultivated through relentless action and bloodshed and the natural, humorous banter between the characters. The trio of friends makes for an excellent group of protagonists as they are sort of bumbling everymen that are thrust into a life and death situation. They start off as acting a bit juvenile, but as Miller runs them through a gauntlet of terror, that veneer is stripped away and they start to show their true nature. There are a few other characters introduced along the way, chiefly Bob and Rita. Bob is a man that seems like he was born for this situation. He has extensive knowledge of the outdoors and hunting and also has the most knowledge of the creatures’ behavior and potentially how to outsmart them. Rita is also integral to the group’s survival hopes, but she seems to only really get along with Bob. It could be because they have endured this nightmare together thus far, but I get the feeling it’s because she sees Bob as her best chance of survival.
As someone who devours these types of books, I also have to applaud Miller’s imaginative monsters. I won’t spoil the reveal of what is terrorizing the characters, but the descriptions Miller gives are vivid and conjure up visions of a beast unlike anything I’ve come across. While the creatures are distinctly Miller’s, there is also something familiar about them. She takes some well-known elements from various classic monsters that lend to the familiarity but adds some inventive twists that will delight fans of the genre. I’m also a bit of what I like to call a “greedy” reader. When I latch onto a book I really enjoy I always want more, even if the story is perfect as-is. That’s what happened here. That being said, I’m glad that Miller leaves the creatures as an enigma. She gives readers enough information to conjure them in their mind and insight into what they’re capable of, but that’s about it. There isn’t some sort of mythology or legend, they’re just an anomaly in nature that somehow has slipped under the collective consciousness. They also possess an uncanny intelligence that makes them formidable foes. These aren’t just creatures that get by on brute strength but are dumber than a box of rocks. They possess an ability to plan and strategize, which makes them a deadly adversary for the characters in the cabin.
At first, Howl reads like any number of monster-filled stories, but Miller has some tricks up her sleeve that ramp up the horror. As the situation in the cabin grows more dire and the group finds their numbers dwindling, Miller raises the stakes and crafts some stomach-churning scenes of extreme horror. It’s a tonal shift in an already blood-soaked story that fits it perfectly, but still shocks the reader and draws them further into the mayhem. I expected this book to lean more towards the extreme side of the spectrum, but Miller definitely surprised me with how far she was willing to go later in the novel. I had an absolute blast reading Howl, which was my first experience reading Miller’s work. It definitely won’t be my last and I can’t wait to explore her other works. If you dig Creature Feature fiction or extreme horror, Howl is a must-read novella you’ll want to add to your collection.