Beast of Eden

John Steinbeck in Copenhagen, 1946. Photo: Associated Press

It’s not quite sprouting fur and fangs under a full moon, but Stanford English professor Gavin Jones knows what it’s like to fall under the spell of a mysterious force.

One moment he was promoting his new book, Reclaiming John Steinbeck: Writing for the Future of Humanity, and the next he was an answer on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” and sought by reporters from New York to Italy.

The catalyst? An interview with the Guardian in which he enthused about a werewolf murder mystery that John Steinbeck had written in 1930, nine years before The Grapes of Wrath.

If you’ve never heard of Murder at Full Moon, don’t feel bad. Steinbeck, who attended Stanford on and off between 1919 and 1925, might have wanted it that way. He wrote it in nine days, under the pseudonym Peter Pym. The University of Texas archives holds a typescript of the unpublished book, generally dismissed as juvenilia by scholars.

It was irresistible: the Nobel laureate with the secret foray into horror; the professor championing its release; the agency standing in its way. 

Jones, though, found it an invaluable insight into Steinbeck’s breadth. There are overlaps with his famous works, not least humanity’s capacity for violence, he says. But Full Moon’s wry style challenges Steinbeck’s reputation as social realist. To solve the murders, the investigators glean lessons from bad detective books, a postmodern meta-ness we don’t associate with Tom Joad.

Anyone should be able to read it, Jones says. And therein lies the plot twist. “As longtime agents for Steinbeck and the Estate, we do not exploit works that the author did not wish to be published,” wrote Steinbeck’s literary agency in response to Jones’s endorsements to the Guardian.

It was irresistible: the Nobel laureate with the secret foray into horror; the professor championing its release; the agency standing in its way. Steinbeck was hot news. “It was fascinating because you lose control of it and it’s like a sort of werewolf itself,” Jones says.

His publisher was delighted with the publicity, though Jones hopes that nobody buying Reclaiming John Steinbeck will be disappointed. For all the attention he generated for Steinbeck’s werewolf, he didn’t mention it in his own book.


Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.