Charlotte F. Otten, Ed., The Literary Werewolf
(Syracuse University Press, 2002)
Patrick Jennings, The Wolving Time (Scholastic, New York, 2003)
Did you know that the werewolf has a long and distinguished history as a subject of literature? The oldest entry in this anthology is Ovid's first-century Roman telling of the myth of Lycaon, who unwisely tries to play a nasty trick on the god Jupiter and is punished by being turned into a wolf.
Will the other wolves accept it? "'No,' replied Jupiter. 'That would be too light a punishment. I made sure that wolves won't have him. He still has the consciousness of a human being. I won't ever let him forget that he is human, but he can only act only like the beast he is in his heart ferocious, violent, uncivilized. He will always be aware that he has lost his humanity but that he isn't fit to be a wolf.'"
Most of the werewolves in this anthology fall into this category caught between two worlds, neither one nor the other, and displaying the most unsavory qualities of both. As Marie de France, in her "Lay of the Were-Wolf" from the twelfth century, writes:
"The Were-Wolf is a fearsome beast. He lurks within the thick forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He goeth to and fro, about the solitary place, seeking man, in order to devour him."
Later writers became fascinated with the werewolf as an embodiment of some ferocious irrationality which lurks within the human being, and at times erupts, "mad and horrible to see." Most of the stories included here were written between 1850 and 1950, with the magazine Weird Tales obviously being a prime market for werewolf fiction (five of the stories were originally published there).
Even with this common theme, there is a surprising amount of variety in The Literary Werewolf. We are offered satirical sketches by Saki, British-Indian adventure from Rudyard Kipling, erotic horror by Stephen King, psychological introspection from Fritz Leiber, and the classic detective fiction of Seabury Quinn. A few of the stories even question the inherent evil of the werewolf. In Jane Yolen's "Green Messiah" a woman involved in a genetic experiment relishes her gradual transformation into wolf as a way to greater freedom and dignity.
In short, whatever your tastes, you'll probably find something here to suit them. My personal favorites include the gorgeously stylized tale by Clemence Housman, which reminded me of something out of Hawthorne; Peter Fleming's sly description of a man-wolf in "The Kill"; Algernon Blackwood's strangely touching and lyrical "Running Wolf"; and the final, tour-de-force story, Bruce Elliott's "Wolves Don't Cry." Turning the legend on its head, he portrays a wolf who wakes up one day in his zoo cage baffled by his transformation into a "two-legged." Experiencing the human world through the eyes of a wolf, this "wolfwere" is unimpressed by our shallow, unnatural lives.
The anthology is a follow-up to the scholarly work, A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, and it is a handsome production from an academic press. Editor Charlotte Otten includes biographies of the contributors and an introduction placing the werewolf phenomenon in its historical context. (Human beings who demonstrate wolf characteristics and behavior are described in medical records from classical times to the present day.) She has divided the texts into thematic groupings: "The Erotic/Guilty/Voluntary Werewolf," etc. and written a lengthy introduction to each group, which unnecessarily to my mind includes complete, no-holds-barred plot summaries of every single story. So don't read these introductions before the stories, unless you want to have each author's carefully-crafted plot twist prematurely revealed to you.
The irony of the werewolf, of course, is that in becoming one a person becomes a cannibal, whereas real wolves are pack animals with a well-developed social system, strong bonding with their mates and young, and no history of attacking or eating one of their own kind. (They usually wouldn't attack humans, either, except in extreme conditions.) More in accord with this image, a kinder, gentler sort of werewolf is the subject of Patrick Jennings' The Wolving Time.
Laszlo Emberek and his parents lead a hard but idyllic life as shepherds in sixteenth century France. Laszlo looks forward eagerly to the time when he too can experience "the change" and meet the wolves in the area who are their friends and guardians. Trouble intervenes when a village girl, ward of the cruel, witch-hunting priest who already has his suspicious eye on them, witnesses Laszlo's mother transforming herself into a wolf. Can he trust her with the secret? Will the bigotry of the villagers finally drive them away, or worse?
Sometimes I became impatient with the characters' insensibility to their obvious peril; I wanted to take Laszlo by his homespun shoulders, shake him and shout "Evil priest! Evil priest! Run away!" (By the way, for those concerned about anti-priest stereotyping, a more pleasant type is portrayed as living in the next village.) The idea of humans cooperating with wolves is interesting but needs to be developed more; being split between two worlds is not so easy. Some questions arise when Laszlo experiences his first kill, but they aren't pursued. I suspect that Jennings has a sequel in mind.
Jennings, a children's librarian and author, had two sources of inspiration: an ancient Greek legend that certain shepherds could become wolves in order to communicate with neighboring packs and better protect their flocks; and the fact that thousands of supposed "werewolves" were convicted and executed by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. The novel is very earnest and thoroughly researched, especially as to the details of torture methods in the sixteenth century. The plot is simple, the style clear, but some of the grislier scenes make it unsuitable for very young readers. The target audience seems to be adolescents who will identify with Laszlo's transformation and learn from the "human cruelty is the real horror story" message. Still, like The Literary Werewolf, this one is worth a read.