Friday, October 25, 2013

2. Until There Is A Cure…

“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the moon shines bright.”

--from The Wolf Man (1941)

Many of us formed our earliest impressions of the torment of lycanthropy from the classic 1941 movie, The Wolf Man.  A good man, while rescuing his girlfriend from an attacking wolf, is bitten by the creature, and becomes a werewolf himself.  Unable to control the ravages of his disease, he begins killing people in the village by the light of the moon.  In the climactic scene, he is beaten to death with a silver headed walking stick—Freudian alert!—by his father.

Talbot, the tragic victim of the contagion of lycanthropy, radiates deep shame and guilt when he comes to his senses the morning following his latest attack.  In his yak-haired transformations into wolf and then back into confused, anguished human, there is a clear demarcation between civilized man and beast.  The audience is expected to sympathize with Talbot the man, and cheer him on as he struggles, heroically, though in vain, to free himself of the malady.

But Talbot is an anomaly, an antisepticised medicalization of lycanthropy.  More often than not, the condition is willfully chosen, and the subject is complicit in the transformation of the self into a rapacious animal.  ‘Carolus le Loup’, the werewolf discussed in the previous post, has to wear a mask to conceal his predatory intent.  He is already in the process of shifting his shape to the lupine ideal, and does not struggle at all against the change—in fact he embraces it with glee.

Somewhere in between Lawrence Talbot and Carolus le Loup is ‘Mr. Craw’, wolfish man in Manly Wade Wellman’s The Werewolf Snarls.  The story was later renamed Among Those Present in 1973, by the author.  It seems a better title.   Wellman originally published this story in the March 1937 issue of Weird Tales, along side of The Seeds from Outside, by Edmond Hamilton, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House.  Sadly, Lovecraft passed away that same month of cancer.

In Wellman’s story, Mr. Craw is attending a gathering of friends and associates at “fluttery” socialite Lola Wurther’s home.  Wurther and her husband are well known, well-to-do occultists.  The narrator of the story, who describes himself as a “little, rheumatic old man”, is introduced to Craw and strikes up a conversation with him.  Therapeutic rapport is soon established, and Mr. Craw opens up to the narrator about his troubled past and current plight.  Have I mentioned that there is a full moon that night?

Unlike Talbot, (but not nearly as far gone as le Loup), Mr. Craw already exhibits several wolf-like characteristics, and acknowledges that he is a werewolf—if anyone cares to believe him.  Facing the truth about oneself is an important first step towards personal change.  But others are in denial, and see him as an object of scornful mirth. 

The narrator of Wellman’s story takes him seriously though, and inventories details about his hair, forehead, ears, eyes, and posture—just as Little Red Riding Hood does.  But the narrator, a natural clinician, is more interested in the man’s history, and how the past has affected his turbulent present.  Typical of many understaffed psychiatric facilities, Craw was recently declared ‘normal’ and released back into society.  He has not been doing too well though.

We learn the Craw used an ancient but reliable pharmacy to transform himself into a werewolf. The ingredients are belladonna, monkshood, henbane, hemlock, and “the fat of an unbaptized child.” All but the latter are relatively easy to come by.  Craw applied this as a salve, and achieved results within a few days.  A moonlit walk with female Liberal Arts major—whom he wound up partially consuming—confirmed the diagnosis.

Perhaps he has now reached rock bottom.  He tells the narrator that he wants to be cured of his lycanthropy, and was told by Mr. Wurther that he and his wife could help him.  He was led to believe they were professional experts in satanic and occult procedures, but is now less sure.  Has he become some kind of party joke this evening?  His clinical insight setting off internal alarms, the narrator leaves the party early.  He wants to avoid being abruptly and violently removed from the Wurthers’ invitation list.

In his short story, Wellman has deftly cut to the heart of lycanthropy—both its evil attractiveness and its deeper nature.  Becoming a werewolf is more than enduring a mere psychic separation of mankind’s daytime nobility from his rapacious night time animal nature, much deeper than The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.   Lycanthropy is also more than a magnified predatory hunger for flesh and blood.  A very dark part of us all finds that hunting, attacking, killing, and eating others—is sexy. 

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