Thursday, October 24, 2013

1. The Allure of the Loup-garou

Just like H.P. Lovecraft’s Psychopompos (1919), the setting for Robert E. Howard’s short story In the Forest of Villefère is what is now modern day France.  Both deal with shape-shifters, especially those who favor the lupine form.  Mercifully, Howard’s story is not told entirely in rhyme, as Lovecraft’s is.  Howard published this story in Weird Tales in August of 1925, when he was just 19—it was one of his first few stories submitted to that magazine.  Unfortunately, the author only lived to the age of 30.  His influence on the genres of horror and fantasy is all the more remarkable given the short period in which he wrote.

In the Forest of Villefère is fairly predictable, but still fun to read and filled with Howard’s distinctively energetic style.  In a forest at twilight, a traveler named de Montour is traveling on foot to the next village. The war with the English is over, and he is on a mission to inform the Duke of Burgundy that a treaty has been signed.  This explains his haste as well as his folly in entering the forest after nightfall.  He encounters a strange man, wearing a mask, who speaks with an unfamiliar accent.  He is called ‘Carolus le Loup’.  He laughs quietly to himself whenever de Montour asks him questions like “Why do you wear a mask, m’sieu?” and “This path is not often used, is it?”

“…and what big eyes you have!

“All the better to see you with.”

“…and what big ears!”

The villagers had already warned de Montour that a wolf has been seen in the forest and that a fiend haunts it—possibly they are one and the same entity.   Knowing this, would you ask directions from a ‘Carolus le Loup’, or allow him to accompany you—in a dark forest?  De Montour does, and is led into a small, moonlit clearing, just as the full moon is highest in the sky.  Luckily for Montour, his companion in an unguarded moment had earlier provided him with this useful information:  “…if a werewolf is slain while a wolf, then he is slain, but if he is slain as a man, then his half-soul will haunt his slayer forever.”

It being a Howard story, someone is surely going to be slain. Both characters are, after all, armed with swords.  De Montour survives his ordeal, but not unchanged.  What happens in the forest is really an introduction to a much more elaborate werewolf story that Howard published less than a year later—Wolfshead (1926).  Interestingly, while de Montour is the narrator and protagonist of In the Forest of Villefère, he becomes the subject and antagonist of the narrator’s tale in Wolfshead.  Robert E. Howard’s fondness for action, violence and creative reworking of established forms is apparent even in these early stories.

As a side note, it is generally not easy to kill, much less cure, a werewolf, silver bullet notwithstanding.  Silver, in bullets or in other weaponized forms, (also mercury), is a fairly recent invention, popularized in the 1930s.  Don’t believe everything you see in the movies!  Roman Catholic paraphernalia such as holy water and crucifixes are entirely ineffective—these are for a different genus of monster.  However, exorcism may be one exception to this, and there is also evidence that making a devotion to St. Hubert is beneficial.  (The French saint is the patron of hunters, and was once called upon as a cure for rabies.)

Decapitation or removal of the creature’s heart, (or both for the sake of thoroughness) is often recommended.  Plant remedies include wolf’s bane, rye, mistletoe and mountain ash—perhaps in combination.  Several have advocated killing the werewolf when he or she is in their most vulnerable state, that is, while human, but this is problematic on many levels.  Howard clearly felt that this was risky and ineffective, due to residual haunting of the slayer.

Lovecraft’s more poetic recommendation still seems sound: 

“Above the wolf, a weapon in his hands;
The ready ax that served a year before,
Now serves as well to slay one monster more.
The creature drops inert, with shatter’d head,
Full on the floor, and silent as the dead…"  

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