The Story of the Werewolf

by Kit Whitfield

The literary werewolf is something of an orphan. Unlike the other great monsters of the Western traditions, there is no seminal work to cast its grand shadow over the form: no Dracula, no Frankenstein, no book–that–started–it–all. Books have been written, some of them very good, but none has acquired the stature in the public imagination that the werewolf’s supernatural cousins enjoy. While this can be freeing for a writer, having no towering parent to measure up to, it has its down sides too.

Compare the werewolf’s lost condition, for example, with the aristocracy that the vampire enjoys. In the nineteenth century, folk tales and less successful works such as Varney the Vampire or John Polidori’s The Vampyre gave the vampire some currency in the collective unconscious — not unlike the position of the werewolf today, kept alive by a scattering of different stories with no leader of the pack to keep them in line. With the birth of Dracula, though, we were given a patriarch, who set the pattern for every vampire thereafter.This may sound oppressive, condemning his descendants to mere imitation, but in fact the genre has flourished on its heritage. The elements of a vampire can be varied, but there are enough props — garlic, daylight, stakes, mirrors, crosses, mists, animals, coffins, slaves, mesmerism, the list goes on — that anyone handling the genre has plenty to, no pun intended, get their teeth into. As a result, the vampire stories of today are rich, diverse and, most importantly, they couldn’t be about anything but vampires. Take any good vampire tale and imagine howit would read if you substituted the vampire for, say, Frankenstein’s monster or an ancient mummy. It just wouldn’t work. The popular panoply of vampiric attributes is absolutely essential, and writers always weave them thoroughly into the fabric of the story.

The werewolf is a more loose–woven entity, and as a result, may come unravelled. I’ve sat through werewolf movies which would work just as well if the monster was an alien, a super–robot, a loose spirit, or any other scary beast with the power of disguise. Written stories, lacking the benefits and demands of a special–effects department, don’t degenerate into your straight–up action story quite so often, but they have another difficulty. The obvious parallel to use when telling the tale is the inner beast, and that’s what a lot of writers decide to dwell upon.The inner beast by itself, though, is a limited subject. Either we embrace our dark side and learn to live with it, or we conquer it and drive out those who wish to embrace theirs; without other strands in the plot, there’s not that much to say about it. The other elements of the werewolf are often vague; sometimes we have pentangles and wolfbane, but they don’t loom large in our psyches. The definite ones are silver bullets and full moon — and that’s it. Not enough by themselves to build a tradition.

The best werewolf tale is probably Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hyde doesn’t grow fangs or howl at the moon, but as an animalistic alter ego who possesses his subject and controls his actions, he has everything but the fur. Now there’s a story that has a panoply like the vampire’s — science, trespass on God’s domain, irreversible decisions, selfhood, addiction, social constraints — and, as a result, we’re still playing with the idea. Alas for the werewolf, though, because Mr Hyde has picked up his cane and marched firmly out of lycanthropic territoryinto his own separate domain, leaving our poor beast once again masterless.

In citing Stevenson’s novella as the best werewolf story, I’m slighting various authors, Angela Carter and Saki (H.H. Munro) in particular, but there’s a reason why. Angela Carter’s magnificent fairy–tales (filmed by Neil Jordan as The Company of Wolves, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in the genre) form a bewitching study of the psycho–sexual implications of the myth. There is also Saki, brilliant, urbane, disturbing, whose satires return several times to the theme of wolves or werewolves as the perfect image for the vicious, primeval rapacity that underlies the brittle surface of his world, most notably hisshort story Gabriel–Ernest. The reason I don’t propose them as leaders in the field of werewolf stories is that their works don’t hold quite the same position that Mary Shelley’s or Bram Stoker’s offspring do. For one thing, it’s generally imperfect books that start off a trend: other writers and filmmakers get inspired with thoughts of what they could do to improve on the original. Saki and Carter are too good to fiddle around with — they stand alone, and elaborating on them seems rather pointless. Besides this, they have both managed the trick we sometimes witness in non–mainstream writing: an author writes a story,in a certain genre, and produces something so well–crafted and intelligent that people end up not thinking of it as a member of that genre at all, but rather as a literary work, which happens to include elements of a particular genre but, as it were, rises above them. Write a good enough genre story, and it doesn’t get considered genre. It’s a self–perpetuating trend, because if all the best works get officially sublimated out of, say, the horror category, then what’s left are the less advanced works, and any author who writes another good horror story will be likewise sublimated out of a kind of critical courtesy, so as not to confound him with the works that have officially failed to transcend their genre and remain just plain horror, romance, or whatever. With all the best examples labelled as something else, a genre’s reputation sinks, ambitious and innovative writers start to avoid it, and it remains publicly perceived as trashy, even when there’s no artistic reason why it should be.

More recently, fantasy authors have tried to tackle the myth, but it’s not as easy as it seems. All genres have their pitfalls, and one of fantasy’s pitfalls is the Mary Sue character: the wish–fulfilment girl who is impossibly special and uniquely talented (and about whom there is much entertaining material to be found on the Internet, for those who are interested). This doubtful girl can easily rear her pretty head with the werewolf tale if the writer isn’t careful. Naming no names, the werewolf dreamgirl, let’s call her Furry Sue, is usually wild in the glamorous sense, meaning bold, strong and direct, but the less appealing aspects of wildness don’t always get a look–in.She may have a ‘wolf–like’ understanding of dominance, but she never savages someone weaker than herself just to make their relative status clear. She may be feral, a foundling, but she never masturbates publicly or shows a self–enclosed lack of awareness of others’ existence. Like Tarzan, she is one of nature’s winners, and her sojourn in the forest functions more as an internship than a walk on the wild side. As such, she’s a generalised empowerment fantasy in wolf’s clothing rather than a sign of serious thought about the myth, more a hyena feeding off the kill than a leader who can take the pack in a different direction. She can have her moments of fun, but she’s not what the genre needs.

Some recent novels have avoided this trap, with involving and thoughtful results. Alice Hoffman’s Second Nature renders a wild man in Hoffman’s beautiful, lyrical prose. He is, indeed, a creature of nature — but nature being what it is, this includes being fearful, starving, isolated; his experiences in the frozen outdoors are real, graphic, and have a permanent bearing on his life that go beyond simply being a glamorous beginning. The consistently intelligent Gillian Bradshaw’s The Wolf Hunt, a retelling of Marie de France’s medieval lay Bisclavret, has a protagonist whose lyncanthropy is, interestingly, less a representation of his wild side than an extension of his introversion, part of a closely–guardedinner life rather than a sign of his darkness or specialness. Both are admirable works that show impressive integrity of thought and feeling, as well as being most enjoyable. However, students of lycanthropy do not seem to be aware of them, and it’s primarily because of my own research that I’m able to cite them, though I’d certainly recommend them to anyone interested in good fiction with a lycanthropic flavour.

So, the works of Carter and Saki stand as literary fictions rather than werewolf yarns and have not spawned imitators; the more contemporary Hoffman and Bradshaw have loyal readers but, again, are not much copied as mythologists; Furry Sue nibbles at the edges but has as little impact here as she has elsewhere. It’s impossible to say for sure why some books take on their own momentum and others don’t, but for whatever reason, these ones don’t form part of the collective unconscious, and no one is tinkering with them very much. There are other classic werewolf stories, such as Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, that just aren’t widely known. This leaves Stevenson, whose two–footed werewolf is now dancing to his own tune, and that’s about it. No figurehead monster in the werewolf canon.

I think there are two main reasons for this literary vacuum. One of them is that the werewolf, almost uniquely, came into contemporary nightmares not via a novel but via a movie. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man is a great film, and established just about everything we understand the werewolf to be. It created its own traditions, some of which (such as the pentangle in the victim’s hand) we simply forgot about, others of which we have enshrined. Werewolfism being transferred by a bite, for example, is not something we find in the medieval folk tales, but everyone believes it now. So why should Waggner’s descendants not be flourishing like Stoker’s?