Structure and pace in 'Cycle of the Werewolf'
The pacing and structure of a story can affect the mood and tone of the piece. This is true of Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, which is written in twelve short chapters, each titled after a month in the Western calendar. Beginning in January, the story tracks the events of a werewolf plaguing the small town of Tarker’s Mills, Maine. Each month introduces new characters and adds information to the setting and the plot. This chronology slowly feeds the readers the story, which works well for such a short piece of fiction (only 127 pages long). The chapters start out small, but as the story progresses, the chapters expand as more information is added, building the mood and tone with suspense and tension.
In the first chapter, January, the readers are introduced to the outskirts of Tarker’s Mill and two characters: the werewolf and its first victim, Arnie Westrum. Arnie is given enough background for the audience to care about his death and may be shocked by his fate. The werewolf is introduced only as a savage beast. The structure of the first chapter—a month, slow-dripped information, and shocking violence—sets the pace for the rest of the book, creating suspense and tension for the readers.
In March, the readers meet Milt Sturmfuller who, besides the werewolf, is the only seemingly despicable person in Tarker’s Mill—he’s an abusive husband to his wife, Donna Lee. He appears to be the perfect candidate to be the werewolf or for the werewolf’s next victim, but he passes through the month unscathed. His survival creates a character that the audience may root to be targeted. The suspense builds with each month that Milt is left alive, leaving the reader to wonder if he will die. Also in March, the audience is given a glimpse of the hero of the story. “In the night, something begins to howl […] Donna Lee hears it as her unpleasant husband sleeps the sleep of the just beside her; […] others hear it, as well. One of them is a boy in a wheelchair.” (King 1983) Although several people are listed, it’s the last reference to Marty Coslaw, the boy in the wheelchair, that is important. This foreshadowing is a slow feed to the audience and assists in building tension and mystery.
In May, readers are given a clue to who the werewolf terrorizing the town is. The Reverend Lester Lowe has a nightmare in which he preaches about the beast walking amongst the town as he watches his congregation turn into werewolves and devour each other. At the end of the nightmare, Reverend Lowe also turns into a werewolf. The majority of this chapter is the dream except the next morning, when Reverend Lowe discovers the mutilated body of the church janitor. The heavy emphasis of Lowe in this chapter and his dream makes him highly suspect.
July is just past the mid-point of the year and is also the mid-point in the story. In this chapter, Marty Coslaw comes face to face with the werewolf. Marty, playing alone at night on the Fourth of July with a bag of fireworks, protects himself by flinging a lit firework at the monster. “Marty sees one of its lamplike green eyes wiff out as four crackers go off at once with a terrific thundering KA-POW! at the side of its muzzle.” (King 1983) The werewolf runs off and Marty is left exhilarated, not only having survived, but also marking the beast by taking its eye out. With each new month, the mystery begins to unravel, but the suspense and tension, eased into each month with added information and more violence, continues to climb.
In September, the men in town begin to actively hunt the werewolf to no avail. In October, Marty discovers who the werewolf is while trick-o-treating. “The man with the eyepatch, the man who dropped a Chunky bar into his bag and then smiled and patted him on top of his rubber head, is not a Catholic. [Marty goes to the town’s Catholic Church.] The beast is the Reverend Lester Lowe, of the Grace Baptist Church.” (King 1983)
The action dramatically rises in November. Lowe has been receiving threatening unsigned letters written on grade-school paper in childish handwriting. However, instead of frightening him, the letters make him angry and self-righteous. Lowe travels to a seedy hotel in Portland, Maine, to become the werewolf. This is also the hotel where Milt Sturmfuller is staying with a prostitute. The werewolf kills Milt. It’s the last murder the werewolf will commit, closing the Milt’s arc that was opened back in March. At the end of the chapter, Lowe makes the decision to hunt the child who knows his secret. His decision sets up the audience for the climax, especially with the slow-building apprehension and anticipation.
In the last chapter, December, Marty has bated the werewolf by sending signed letters. Marty has also enlisted the help of his uncle, Al, to make two silver bullets and outfit him with a gun. The showdown between Marty and the werewolf concludes just before midnight. “He waits, waits…and as the werewolf lunges again, he fires. Magically, the beast’s other eye blows out like a candle in a stormwind! It screams again and staggers, now blind, toward the window. The blizzard riffles through the curtains and twists them around its head—Al can see flowers of blood begin to bloom on the white cloth—as, on the TV, the big lighted ball begins to descend its pole.” (King 1983) The story has come full circle, beginning at the start of the year and ending on December 31. This structural decision drags the drama and suspense to the last moment of the calendar, continuing the technique of slowly drawing out the tension and excitement.
King, Stephen. Cycle of the Werewolf. New York: Signet, 1983.