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Kelley Armstrong

The Globe and Mail

"Got a curse I cannot lift, shines when the sunset shifts, when the moon is round and full, gotta bust that box, gotta gut that fish." - Wolf Like Me, TV on the Radio

For a while now, two iconic supernatural creatures have hogged the spotlight. Zombies, of course, have mindlessly rampaged across the cultural landscape, chewing flesh and scenery in movies, video games, books and graphic novels - which is remarkable, given that zombies are one-dimensional characters.

Vampires have sucked up even more attention - buckets of it - of late, too. The current over-the-top success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series is the obvious culprit behind the dozens of similar "fangs and hormones" books and series that have (at last) mostly replaced those eerily familiar kids' books about wizarding schools and precocious young sorcerers.

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There is one creature that's been around just as long as vampires and zombies - perhaps even longer - but that rarely gets the kind of mainstream attention as its paranormal brethren: werewolves. That's changing in a trend sneaking up on the inside. Witness actor Taylor Lautner and his bad dog boys in Twilight Saga: The New Moon and Benicio Del Toro in the recent movie The Wolfman.

One Southwestern Ontario supernatural fantasy author has made, er, a killing tapping into the hunger for a fresh creature. Kelley Armstrong, of Aylmer, Ont., whose Tales of the Otherworld (Random House Canada) goes on sale in Canada April 13, has put the wolf back on the figurative map with her wildly successful Otherworld series.

Her first novel, 2001's Bitten, stars Elena Michaels, the world's only female werewolf, who leaves her wolfpack to settle in Toronto and makes a failed attempt at leading a boring, non-lycanthropic life.

Bitten was intended as a standalone, but its brisk sales meant pressure to write sequels, and so it became the first book in the series, which has since expanded to include nearly a dozen. The series also spawned a parallel YA series called The Darkest Powers. There are more than 300,000 of the adult Otherworld books in print in Canada and more than 150,000 of The Darkest Powers trilogy. The Awakening, the second book in that YA trilogy, had its debut at the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestsellers list last year, and in Britain, Armstrong is the bestselling author in her paranormal genre.

Yet, like so many of Canada's top genre writers, who sell busloads of books around the world but are seen as amusingly populist craftspeople at home, Armstrong is mostly unknown outside her (enormous) fan base. Indeed, like werewolves, she seems to have stuck to the shadows.

Armstrong, who was born in Sudbury in 1968 and grew up in London, Ont., says she was an avid reader of paranormal stories as a young girl, and she gravitated toward werewolf stories. "I think it's because [werewolves] combined my love of the paranormal with my love of animals," she says. "There was a time when I thought I wanted to become a veterinarian." (Armstrong studied psychology at the University of Western Ontario, but later switched to the more practical realms of computer programming.)

Unlike Twilight, her work has not yet been blessed by a big-screen adaptation. Warner Brothers optioned Bitten, and Angelina Jolie was mentioned as a star, but the option was dropped. Vancouver production company No Equal Entertainment recently signed a deal with Armstrong for a possible TV series based on the Otherworld books.

Werewolves - or lycanthropes - are one of the oldest and most enduring creature-myths in the world. There are references to humans turning into dogs or wolves in thousands of works of folklore and classical mythology, making it a fertile theme for storytellers, and one elastic enough to contain Ovid's Metamorphoses, R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Harry Potter series (which, though primarily about a guileless boy wizard, has a number of minor characters who can transform into animals, including one full-on lycanthrope).

More recently, the late Alice Borchardt, Anne Rice's sister, penned a beloved werewolf trilogy, 1998 to 2001: The Silver Wolf, Night of the Wolf and The Wolf King. Sharp Teeth, by Detroit author Toby Barlow, was a clever and very bloody 2008 novel-in-verse (that's right: in verse) about packs of L.A. werewolves who behave like duelling biker gangs. And in Canada, fantasy author Edo Van Belkom continues to add volumes to his popular Wolf Pack YA series.

"Almost any culture that has some kind of wild canine has a version of the werewolf myth," Armstrong says. "You can go through all of those legends and mythology and just pull out so much that you're pretty much guaranteed that unless somebody's basing theirs on, say, what they saw at the movies, each additional representation will never be the same."

Armstrong says she doesn't really have anything against authors and creators who do take the crazed-killer approach to werewolves, but admits it was her disappointment with an early, lycanthrope-themed episode of X-Files that started her writing Bitten: "It was your typical big hairy guy that goes around killing people. And I just thought, 'That's not how I would do werewolves.' And of course, for a writer, that then sparks, 'Okay then, how would I do them?'"

Armstrong's werewolves are more like real animals: cunning, intelligent and under control. She makes clear that in her fictional world, becoming a wolf "doesn't mean you go around slaughtering people at midnight, because animals do not generally do that. But it does mean you would have no problem killing someone for survival or territory or anything like that, because that is how an animal thinks."

Also, her lycanthropes possess healthy libidos, which helps make her stories about more than just full moons and fresh corpses. The marketing of her books has never shied away from highlighting their erotic content, which accounts for at least of small part of their success.

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Though Armstrong expanded the world of her books to include witches, sorcerers, demons and necromancers - "I couldn't have imagined doing 10 werewolf books; it would have gotten old very, very fast," she says - she returns to werewolves with every few books, including last fall's Frostbitten.

"I love werewolves," she says. "They are my favourite supernatural type."

She notes, laughing, that werewolves make better protagonists for paranormal romances than, say, zombies: "That is definitely not sexy; the whole rotting corpse thing is not going to work."

Nathan Whitlock is the Books for Young People editor of Quill & Quire magazine.

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