June 2, 2021

Steinbeck werewolf novel unlikely to see the light of day


John Steinbeck

When John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel prize in 1962, the committee lauded his “realistic and imaginative writings … and keen social perception.” Known as he is for the rugged and realistic, social media lit up earlier this week when news about the existence of an unpublished Steinbeck novel emerged, this one featuring werewolves.

“Murder at Full Moon” is a detective story with a supernatural dimension. When a small California town is wracked by a sequence of full-moon murders, a supernatural monster is feared to be the likely culprit. The novel, which is complete and even features illustrations from Steinbeck, has lain largely forgotten in an archive for decades. One academic is trying to change that. Professor Gavin Jones, an American literature professor at Stanford University, argues there would be “huge public interest in this work.” Jones continued, writing:

“Even though it is very different from Steinbeck’s other work, in a totally different genre, it actually relates to his interest in violent human transformation—the kind of human-animal connection that you find all over his work; his interest in mob violence and how humans are capable of other states of being, including particularly violent murderers.

“It’s certainly not Steinbeck the realist, but it is Steinbeck the naturalist, interested in human nature. It’s a horror potboiler, which is why I think readers would find it more interesting than a more typical Steinbeck. It’s a whole new Steinbeck—one that predicts Californian noir detective fiction. It is an unsettling story whose atmosphere is one of fog-bound, malicious, malignant secrecy.” 

Steinbeck wrote the novel over the span of nine days in 1930, when he was 28. Although he had published one book and had a few finished literary manuscripts, Steinbeck struggled to find breakthrough success. Written under a pseudonym, “Murder at Full Moon” was a commercial fiction attempt for the then-broke author. Either ignored or rejected by publishers, the venture was abandoned when Steinbeck successfully sold “The Pastures of Heaven.” By the time he published The Grapes of Wrath in 1933, Steinbeck’s status as figure in American literature was securely established.

Although interest in the novel has been high since the news broke (“A werewolf is just about the only thing that could get me to read a Steinbeck novel,” one Twitter user wrote), it doesn’t look like this unearthed manuscript will see the light of day anytime soon. Steinbeck’s agents McIntosh & Otis released a statement that because the book was written under a pseudonym and remained unpublished during Steinbeck’s lifetime, they wish to “uphold what Steinbeck wanted.” 

Jones and others have pointed out it is not uncommon for authors to write under a pseudonym or leave works unpublished. Obviously, in Steinbeck’s day, it was far more difficult for an author to publish both literary and genre fiction. Today, authors frequently find success crossing over and combining genres—Joyce Carol Oates or David Mitchell come to mind. For now, the Internet will continue to speculate about what the late author’s detective mystery might contain, and imagine werewolves in his pre-existing work—Grrrrrapes of Wrath anyone?



Franzi Nace is an intern at Melville House.