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Professor speaks on Steinbeck’s mysterious werewolves

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Werewolves, secrets and pulp fiction: what could be better for the Halloween spirit? As part of the HOWLoween series hosted by Stanford Libraries celebrating Wolf Awareness Week, English professor Gavin Jones spoke on Wednesday about his investigation into John Steinbeck’s unpublished murder mystery novel, “Murder at Full Moon.”

“Murder at Full Moon,” set in the marshlands near Monterey, tells the story of a community shaken by a series of brutal murders committed during full moons. The narrator, cub reporter “Egg” Waters, attempts to find the culprit with the help of an amateur sleuth who solves crimes by reading pulp detective fiction. Through this character, Steinbeck parallels detective work with the act of reading. The novel is self-aware that its plot depends on its literary form, which Jones remarks is an extraordinarily postmodern sensibility for a writer preceding postmodernism. The sleuth begins to suspect that there is a creature hiding in the marshes, preying on townspeople. Eventually, the novel reveals that the “creature” is in fact the leader of a local gun club, who suffers from a psychological disorder triggered by the full moon that makes him appear inhuman — like a werewolf. The story is violent, lurid and enchanting, a trifecta that would make it a bestseller today.

But, the novel was reportedly rejected for publication in 1933, when Steinbeck was still trying to make a name for himself. Strangely, while Steinbeck had burned two of his previous unpublished manuscripts, he kept this one, which now lies in the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. So why has it remained unpublished? 

We may never know. Earlier this year, Jones reached out to Penguin, Steinbeck’s publisher, only to receive a resounding silence. He also contacted McIntosh & Otis, Steinbeck’s estate manager, about publishing the novel now, but McIntosh & Otis refused. This conflict of whether to bring the novel to light took the news cycle by storm when The Guardian reporter Dalya Alberge published her interview with Jones titled, “John Steinbeck’s estate urged to let the world read his shunned werewolf novel.” Jones said that he was surprised at the attention that Alberge’s article received when it was released. Still, the story continued to make headlines; Jones received an interview invitation from The New York Times, parody articles were published in Slate and The Washington Post and the debacle was mentioned on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Jones even received hate mail from an anonymous reader saying that he had no right to demand anything from Steinbeck’s estate. With the speed of a werewolf’s full-moon transformation, Jones’ quiet Steinbeck scholarship had turned into a viral story. 

Wolves have appeared in other Steinbeck stories, the most notable of which is a chapter that was ultimately cut from “Cannery Row.” The chapter, titled “The Day the Wolves ate the Vice Principal,” features violent descriptions of a pack of wolves mercilessly tearing a vice principal to pieces. Though many may think that these fantasy horror narratives are off-brand for Steinbeck, Jones emphasizes that “Murder at Full Moon” is in line with Steinbeck’s long-term interest in plants and animals. Anthropomorphic creatures like werewolves ultimately blur the line between the human and the animal, inviting us to explore our capacity for physical and mental transformation. 

Jones believes that despite McIntosh & Otis’ refusal to publish the novel, it will take on a life of its own and attract future scholarship. “Murder at Full Moon” is now digitized at the Harry Ransom Center, and anyone who wants to read it can request access by writing to them

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Betty He is the Screen beat desk editor. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.