The Gothic mode literalizes what in a straightforwardly realist piece would be couched in metaphor. When Martin Scorsese makes a realist film about a ruthless and amoral New York stockbroker and calls it The Wolf of Wall Street, it is clear there is no expectation that the title character will be a literal wolf. In Joe Hill’s story “Wolverton Station,” the protagonist, sixty-one-year-old Saunders, is an American executive with a global coffee conglomerate called Jimi Coffee. His innovation to spur growth is to erect coffee shops across the street or kitty-corner from small, independent mom-and-pop operations and take a loss until the multinational inevitably puts the indie out of business. Jimi Coffee will then reap the rewards of being the only game in town. The corporate franchise is a clear Starbucks manqué, and Saunders is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wolf.
But Hill is not writing a naturalistic piece. “Wolverton Station” is a Gothic tale and it is apparent from the very first line that the story will involve actual wolves the size of men and dressed variously in natty business attire and rock ’n’ roll t-shirts or Manchester United football club kit. It is also clear from Hill’s fairy tale structure and allusions that things will not end well for Saunders, who boards a train from London to Liverpool, though his true destination is his rightful comeuppance.
The bulk of the story takes place in the first-class car of that train speeding through the English countryside in the dead of night. Saunders has escaped protesters in London who are upset at Jimi Coffee’s exploitation of child workers – Saunders finds this unfair, since the company does not employ children in the fields, as the protesters claim, but only indoors at their warehouses. When Saunders glimpses what appears to be a man in a wolf suit on a train station platform, he assumes it is another protester in costume, like the Uncle Sam activist with the giant pink rubber phallus who greeted him outside his London hotel. This will prove only the first of Saunders’s many misapprehensions and miscalculations over the course of the story.
Before long, Hill’s Gothic approach kicks into high gear and Saunders is joined in first class by a bizarre and frightening travelling companion: “He had the body, roughly, of a man, with a broad, wedge-shaped chest that swept down to a sunken stomach and a narrow waist. But he had paws, not hands, wiry grey hair on them. He held a copy of the Financial Times himself, and his hooked yellow nails made audible scratching noises as he turned the pages.” One of Hill‘s grace notes is to have the “businesswolf” read a financial broadsheet and speak in the haughty manner of the English upper crust, which is counterpointed by the cockney rhythms of the chav wolves in coach. There is a not-so-subtle class commentary at work here, buried inside the outlandish scenario.
Hill uses his story to critique the rapaciousness of a certain type of executive who cares more about profits than people. Saunders is a former hippie who travelled to India in his twenties looking for enlightenment, only to sell out to big business, where he made his mark by being callous and unsparing – he once fired someone with a text that read, “You’re toast.” His nickname as a corporate hatchet man was “the Woodcutter,” a clear reference to Little Red Riding Hood; Hill makes this allusion explicit when the wolf in first class lectures Saunders about the “American fairy tale.” Saunders recognizes only too late the emptiness at the heart of the American corporate dream that is designed to render everyone the world over in thrall to U.S. cultural hegemony. “You people are finding out the actual worth of the things you make,” the wolf tells him. ”Your sneakers, your software, your coffee, your myths.”
The irony is that Saunders has bought into many myths over the course of his life, including during his youthful excursion to India (he was following in the footsteps of his idols, the Beatles). His guru advises him to find a mantra, something he neglects to do until he is confined in an English train with a group of slavering werewolves: his latter-day mantra becomes “I am not going to be killed and eaten by a wolf on an English train.”
Hill‘s story exists at the nexus of several cultural referents. It is a gleeful mashup of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (a song that was in his head as he was writing, according to an author’s note), Little Red Riding Hood, and An American Werewolf in London. The story even ends in a pub; not the Slaughtered Lamb, but the Family Arms – a name that, like its cinematic antecedent, has more than one connotation. It’s clear that the author is having a good time and so is the reader, though a somewhat strong stomach is required: the description of the carnage in coach is delightfully graphic and Hill manages to work up a real air of menace in the story’s final moments.
This exuberant tale of the train ride from and/or to hell might best be thought of as an allegory about corporate greed and the ugly American abroad. Both are based on the myth of U.S. exceptionalism and the idea that the rest of the world is composed of sheep willing to be led to consume American culture, American food, American ideals. But what if this myth gets it exactly backward? What if the American should turn out to be the sheep, surrounded on all sides by wolves?