John Steinbeck Wrote a Werewolf Novel, and His Estate Won’t Let the World Read It: The Story of Murder at Full Moon

Pho­to of Stein­beck by Sonya Noskowiak, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

John Stein­beck wrote Of Mice and MenThe Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, but not before he’d put a few less-acclaimed nov­els under his belt. He did­n’t even break through to suc­cess of any kind until 1935’s Tor­tilla Flat, which lat­er became a pop­u­lar roman­tic-com­e­dy film with Spencer Tra­cy and Hedy Lamarr. That was already Stein­beck­’s fourth pub­lished nov­el, and he’d writ­ten near­ly as many unpub­lished ones. Two of those three man­u­scripts he destroyed, but a fourth sur­vives at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas in Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter, which spe­cial­ized in hoard­ing lit­er­ary ephemera, espe­cial­ly from Nobel lau­re­ates. The unpub­lished nov­el deals not with labor­ers, farm­ers, or wastrels, but a were­wolf.

“Set in a fic­tion­al Cal­i­forn­ian coastal town, Mur­der at Full Moon tells the sto­ry of a com­mu­ni­ty gripped by fear after a series of grue­some mur­ders takes place under a full moon,” writes The Guardian’s Dalya Alberge. “Inves­ti­ga­tors fear that a super­nat­ur­al mon­ster has emerged from the near­by marsh­es. Its char­ac­ters include a cub reporter, a mys­te­ri­ous man who runs a local gun club and an eccen­tric ama­teur sleuth who sets out to solve the crime using tech­niques based on his obses­sion with pulp detec­tive fic­tion.”

Alberge quotes Stan­ford lit­er­ary schol­ar Gavin Jones describ­ing the book as relat­ed to Stein­beck­’s “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.”

Then still in his twen­ties, Stein­beck wrote Mur­der at Full Moon under the pseu­do­nym Peter Pym. After receiv­ing only rejec­tions from pub­lish­ers, he shelved the man­u­script and seems not to have giv­en it anoth­er thought, even in order to dis­pose of it. Though Stein­beck­’s estate has declared its lack of inter­est in its posthu­mous pub­li­ca­tion, Jones believes it would find a recep­tive read­er­ship today:  “It’s a hor­ror pot­boil­er, which is why I think read­ers would find it more inter­est­ing than a more typ­i­cal Stein­beck.” It also “pre­dicts Cal­i­forn­ian noir detec­tive fic­tion. It is an unset­tling sto­ry whose atmos­phere is one of fog-bound, mali­cious, malig­nant secre­cy.” It could at least have made quite a noir film, ide­al­ly one star­ring Lon Chaney, Jr., whose per­for­mance in Of Mice and Men proved he could play a Stein­beck char­ac­ter — to say noth­ing of his sub­se­quent turn in The Wolf Man.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspir­ing Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

John Stein­beck Reads Two Short Sto­ries, “The Snake” and “John­ny Bear” in 1953

John Stein­beck Has a Cri­sis in Con­fi­dence While Writ­ing The Grapes of Wrath: “I am Not a Writer. I’ve Been Fool­ing Myself and Oth­er Peo­ple”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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