By Ryan Fleming
Last time, we stopped a completely random stranger on the street and asked them to name a stock character from horror fiction. Then we assumed that the first thing that would come to mind was the vampire. Chances are if they did not pick a vampire then their mind instead would have goneto the werewolf. Both vampires and werewolves have their origins in legends and folklore that predate the development of horror fiction. Unlike vampires, which were common in one form or another across most cultures, werewolves, specifically a human that shapeshifts into a wolf or wolf-like creature, is peculiar to one specific continent.
More curiously, unlike vampires or most other stock horror archetypes, the work that we get most of our modern ideas of werewolves from does not feature werewolves or lycanthropy in any literal sense. Not that they were unheard of in gothic fiction until the 20th century, and not that werewolf fiction did not eventually get its own equivalent of Frankenstein or Dracula. It remains though that this same person stopped on the street, if pressed to name some characteristics of werewolves, would be naming those originated from a non-werewolf origin. Even more of those characteristics might have originated far later in 20th century films than in 19th century literature.
In this respect, what a modern audience would think of werewolves is markedly different to what readers in the late 19th century would have expected. Nevertheless, literary werewolf fiction has interesting cultural origins from the fairy tales, folklore, and moral panics of preceding centuries. And as much as the archetypical werewolf work might not actually be a werewolf work it is probably better remembered than the far later, yet more definitive, werewolf novel. All this from some very specific cultural trends in Europe centuries before horror fiction had first emerged.
Humans and wolves had had a… complex relationship throughout the millennia. The lupine canines, from whom are descended humanity’s best friend, the dog, have featured in some way or another in human folklore, religion, mythology, fable, and literature for perhaps as long as such things have existed. Fear of wolves has been widespread in many human cultures, even though humans are not part of the wolf’s natural prey.
The ancient Greeks associated the wolf with the god Apollo, their god of light, whereas the ancient Romans associated them with their god of war, Mars. The Romans further believed the founders of Rome itself, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a she-wolf. Ancient peoples from areas as diverse as Europe, Asia and North America associate the star Sirius with canines, with Chinese astronomers calling it the “celestial wolf” and some Pawnee tribes knowing it as the “Wolf Star”. Even werewolves have some precedent in these legends, with the Greek myth of Lycaon being transformed into a wolf by Zeus.
Fables and fairy tales also featured wolves extensively. Aesop’s most famous tale “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” uses the possibility of being eaten by a wolf as a warning against raising false alarms. “Little Red Riding Hood”, first set to pen by Charles Perrault in 1697, involves a young girl potentially being eaten by a wolf that has disguised itself as the girl’s grandmother. The Big Bad Wolf of the tale is capable of speech and can disguise itself as a human. The character has also been suggested as an allegorical sexual predator. Stories such as these went some way to further the vicious reputation of the wolf in European cultures.
Those fables furthered the reputation but did not create it. Until the 20th century wolf attacks on humans in Europe were still an occasional feature of life. There is some belief that as the most feared predators in the continent the animals would find themselves projected into folklore of evil shapeshifters. In comparison, other parts of the world used different kinds of predators for this niche: hyenas in parts of Africa and tigers in India, for instance. Were horror fiction to have its origins more drawn from Indian folklore than Europe, it is possible that feline shapeshifters would become the more prominent stock character than the canine ones.
Accusations of being werewolves were common during witch trials, featuring in the Valais Witch trials. Thar witch-hunt was the first of the systematic campaigns that would happen in Europe and in those parts of North America colonised by Europeans from the 1400s to the 1700s. Lycanthropy as part of these would reach a peak from the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Two famous cases were those of Gilles Garnier and Peter Stumpp, executed in 1573 and 1589. In both cases, the men concerned were accused of multiple murders and cannibalism. It has been suggested that werewolf legends were possibly used to explain serial killings, though given the hysteria over allegations of witchcraft it is perhaps just as likely this was a coincidence.
Much like vampires, characteristics of the werewolf superstition were in no way uniform. Some held there were physical signs of lycanthropy even in human form, such as a single eyebrow. Other beliefs in the wolf form held that it was indistinguishable from an ordinary wolf aside from having no tail. So too the modern notion of becoming a werewolf via bite from another werewolf is not present in most superstitions. One Swedish legend held that werewolves were created by drinking a specially brewed beer. Italian, French, and German legends held that a werewolf was created if a man or woman slept outside on a Wednesday or Friday, during the summer, with the full moon shining directly on their face. Here, the involvement of the moon is something recognisable, if not exactly the same, as the modern understanding of the stock character.
Other legends held that werewolf transformation was achieved via Satanic ritual in order to eat human flesh. Yet more legends held that lycanthropy was a form of divine punishment, returning us to the story of Lycaon and Zeus. According to some legends becoming a werewolf was said to happen to those who were excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church.
European folklore held the wolf, and the werewolf, in very low esteem. The cause for this was reportedly either a desire to commit, or a punishment for committing, what the superstitious viewed as heinous acts. Yet our modern understanding of the werewolf is a tragic figure, and the condition as a curse but not necessarily as punishment for particularly evil acts. Where did the change come that cast werewolves in a more sympathetic light? The fact is what we consider many of our stock characteristics of the werewolf have no basis in werewolf legends at all.
As Gothic and horror fiction took off in the 19th century, it was not long before werewolves started to appear in such tales. As early as the 1830s tales were being published featuring them from authors in English and French. However, what we might consider the archetypical werewolf tale did not arrive until the 1880s and leaned more toward science fiction than the supernatural. It was from the Scottish author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would accidentally create the werewolf story for the 20th century.
Gothic werewolf stories published before 1886 include The Phantom Ship, by Frederick Marryat and published in 1839, and The Wolf Leader, by Alexandre Dumas and first published in 1857. The main focus of the Marryat work is not a werewolf, but rather the legendary Flying Dutchman ghost ship. Other supernatural elements abound throughout, including a werewolf in a single chapter. This chapter is often excerpted as “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains.” Marryat’s work was not well-received, particularly by an anonymous reviewer in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine that some believe to have been written by Edgar Allan Poe.
The efforts of Alexandre Dumas on werewolf fiction did not make it to the English language until the 20th century. The Wolf Leader could better be described as a work of fantasy than of horror. A shoemaker is beaten by the gamekeeper of the local lord and is promised vengeance by a huge wolf, walking on its hind legs. When the shoemaker accepts the bargain, he finds wolves will now do his bidding, and he proceeds to get revenge for every little slight he can imagine, all the while finding himself becoming more ostracised as an alleged werewolf.
It is possible that had Dumas’s work been translated into English earlier, as his prior, more famous works like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers had, then the werewolf might have been a creature more associated with fantasy than horror. After all, the rest of the 19th century would go without a definitive werewolf tale in the way Dracula was for vampires. Historically, something else filled that niche, but if The Wolf Leader had translated into English in the 1850s or anytime before 1886, perhaps the notion of the werewolf in popular literature may have already been altered.
Though today most readers are probably familiar with the relationship between the eponymous Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, what is forgotten is that in the source material this is in fact a major plot twist. Similar to how Dracula’s vampirism is not known by the narrator in the earliest chapters, leaving Stoker making several hints to this that more than a century later readers wonder why he bothered.
What interested Stevenson was the nature of good and evil. The most direct inspiration came from William Brodie, cabinetmaker, guild deacon, and city councillor, who maintained a secret life as a housebreaker to fulfil a desire for excitement and to fund his gambling habit. The Edinburgh figure, who legend holds built the first gallows in that city and also wound up its first victim, was known to Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie. Stevenson’s earliest attempts at dealing with the theme of a good façade hiding an evil nature were plays about Brodie.
The duality of the title characters has drawn much speculation as to what it might represent. Human versus animal; civility versus barbarism. The social hypocrisy of the Victorian era. The impact of substance abuse as known at the time. The Scottish identity within wider Britain. Even the layout planning of the City of Edinburgh itself. Perhaps all of them are true, perhaps none of them.
Unlike later werewolf tales, at first the transformation from Jekyll into Hyde is entirely voluntary and achieved via a serum. Jekyll does this to indulge in his vices without fear of detection. Eventually, the transformations happened involuntarily as he slept. A moment of weakness form Jekyll led to the return of Hyde, who having been hidden for so long beats a friend of Jekyll’s to death. The involuntary transformations become more frequent until Jekyll takes his own life.
Comparisons with later werewolf fiction, particularly around the involuntary transformations and the murder of friends whilst transformed, stand out. Though these themes are in a way secondary, some modern versions of the tale have made this almost explicit, such as the 2007 BBC serial Jekyll written by Steven Moffat and starring James Nesbitt. Whether lupine or not, both the stock werewolf and Mr Hyde stem from the base, violent side of humanity.
Plays were already being run based on the novella as early as its year of publication. Richard Mansfield and Thomas Russell Sullivan horrified audiences in Boston, but the play was so successful that it returned to London for a successful ten weeks in 1888. Mansfield was forced to close the production when London newspapers began to mention him as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper killings.
Belonging as much to science fiction as it does to horror, it was not inevitable that Jekyll and Hyde became the basis for many werewolf stories of the 20th century. Indeed, perhaps the most famous derivative of the character does not belong to the horror genre at all, despite using ideas borrowed from two horror archetypes. The mixture of Frankenstein’s Monster and Jekyll/Hyde is even a heroic character, but where galvanism and serums worked in the 19th century the 20th century called instead for gamma rays and the Incredible Hulk became a mainstay of Marvel Comics and later adaptations.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was being adapted without the werewolf connection as early as the 1930s, owing much to the stage adaptations of the work. So too did the earliest Hollywood adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula owe as much to the stage as it did to the written word. It was during the 1930s that perhaps the definitive werewolf tale, explicitly about werewolves, was published.
The 20th century had seen many werewolf stories published before 1933. Authors such as Algernon Blackwood and Robert E. Howard made contributions in the genre. It would not be until 1933 that the Dracula of werewolf fiction would be published: The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore. Born Samuel Goldstein in Brooklyn, New York, Endore counted amongst his influences as a writer one Robert Louis Stevenson. However, it would be a German writer, Hanns Heinz Ewers that would have the most influence on his werewolf tale.
Ewers’s 1911 work Alraune deals with a scientist that artificially inseminates a prostitute with the semen of a hanged man in an experiment on heredity. There is no werewolf connection, but this bizarre subject matter does have some echoes in the plot of Endore’s novel. Alraune, along with other of Ewers’s horror work is told from the perspective of a character based on Ewers. Right down to his Nietzschean morality. Indeed, Ewers would go on to join the Nazi Party, though his works wound up banned and his assets seized. The direction of his politics could not have been more different from Endore as the 1930s wore on.
Werewolf of Paris plays out against actual historical events and is epic in scope by the standards of most horror novels. The unhappy life of Bertrand Caillet, born Christmas Eve to an adolescent girl who had been raped by a priest, plays out against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Endore, a member of the Communist Party in Hollywood during the 1930s, writes the work sensitive to the plight of the working class, and his narrator condemns the retaliation of the French government on the commune. Even remarking that the Versailles government had achieved in one week almost ten times the deaths that the Reign of Terror managed in fifteen months.
That the book was a New York Times bestseller upon publication perhaps comes as a surprise given such themes. Especially given how open Endore was about his political beliefs, even later coming under investigation by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. It perhaps says much that his next novel, a fictionalised account of the Haitian Revolution told from the perspective of a slave, the titular Babouk, had to find publication through an explicitly leftist publishing house but the werewolf novel espousing much of the same politics not only snuck through a mainstream publisher but also became a bestseller.
Despite its popularity, and despite the fact that Endore worked for a time at Universal Studios, the pinnacle of horror filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, The Werewolf of Paris was not adapted until the 1960s. Even then, it was by the British studio Hammer Film Productions, with little of the political content and the action transplanted from France to Spain. Why Spain? Hammer wanted to make a horror film about the Spanish Inquisition and had begun work, when the British censors said no chance the pre-production work went towards the werewolf picture.
The political content of the novel might be considered a precursor to the social horror that would become more of a fixture in the later decades of the 20th century. Readers in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression may have found more similarities in the working classes of France than they would have liked. This might go some way to explain its popularity at the time. It was influential on later horror writers like Robert Block and Basil Copper. Many consider it to be the definitive werewolf tale, despite its relative obscurity compared to the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Perhaps the relative obscurity stems from its lack of a plethora of screen adaptations compared to those works, despite being the only one of them to have been written by an actual screenwriter when he was working for Hollywood studios. It is amazing to consider how much the well has been drank dry for many seminal works in the horror pantheon that perhaps the greatest werewolf tale of them all remains without an adaption epic in the same scope as the source material.
It is possible that Endore, had he struggled to sell the manuscript, may have reworked it into a screenplay and taken it to any of the Hollywood studios to film it. He too was suffering under the Great Depression and may have sold the novel to Farrar & Rinehart for a flat flee, never receiving a single royalty. It is unlikely that Hollywood would treat a screenwriter in the 1930s any better. It is also very likely that the charged political content of the novel may have been abandoned, along with much of the outright sexual and violent content. There was only a very small window the film could have been made without falling afoul of the notorious Motion Picture Production Code. Even if it had been made and released during that window, its content could have led to it lingering in obscurity, being cut in order to be released under the code, or even lost as films sometimes were right up to the 1960s.
Film might not have done The Werewolf of Paris any favours in actual history or in an alternate one, but there is no denying that the development of film and the motion picture gave an entirely new medium for horror fiction. Said medium perhaps being more readily identifiable with horror fiction than literature a century since the first horror films terrified audiences. If the legend of Train Pulling into a Station is to be believed horror films were being made since 1896, albeit unintentionally.
Horror films is where we shall be stopping next, but not to Hollywood. At least, we shall not be starting in Hollywood. The earliest horror films owed much to their literary and theatrical predecessors, but they owed just as much to the political and social upheaval that followed the Great War. Much as the Year Without a Summer inspired the birth of horror fiction, much as the Franco-Prussian War played a major part in the development of definitive horror works, so too did the Great War provide many themes for the earliest horror films.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP