Sunday, October 27, 2013

4. The Wolf as Were-Man

When we last left de Montour, the gentleman from Lombardy, he had narrowly escaped being eaten by the evil werewolf Carolus le Loup, (see earlier post, “The Allure of the Loup-garou”).  De Montour was the narrator of Robert E. Howard’s short story In the Forest of Villefère, published in August of 1925.  Within a year Howard published a much more ambitious tale, Wolfshead (1926).  De Montour returns, but as a character of interest—he is no longer the narrator.

Wolfshead has a relatively large cast of characters for a Weird Tales story.   Various nationalities are represented; there are two women, numerous restless natives, and a werewolf.  Typical of the times, politically incorrect stereotypes abound.  Women are either demure and virginal, or loose and ‘fallen’.  The two females serve mainly to start fights among the male characters who want to possess them.  Hispanics are lascivious and prone to rage, and Africans—‘black devils’—are depicted as unintelligent slaves.  People of various Caucasian ethnicities are also stereotyped by nationality.  

The sensitivity to racial and ethnic diversity (or rather, lack thereof) is similar to that displayed in such movies as The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), and Flash Gordon (1936).  Perhaps this can be excused as consistent with early 20th century attitudes, but it is dismaying that nearly 100 years have passed and these prejudices are still prevalent.  One can see how far we have come—not far.

Wolfshead is a sprawling combination of historical fiction, detective story, swashbuckler, and horror tale.  Pierre, the narrator, is a guest of Dom Vincente, and stays with him in the latter’s fortress-like castle on the west coast of Africa.  Dom Vincente has made a fortune by oppressing the local inhabitants and trading in rare woods, ivory, and slaves.  Vincente’s guests amuse themselves with parties and romantic intrigues, while treating the native population appallingly.  However, when de Montour arrives, the bodies begin to pile up, both inside the castle and in the nearby village.  There is a subplot involving a rival of Dom Vincente, who stirs up a revolt among the natives.

But the subject of interest is de Montour, who has become a werewolf himself after killing Carolus le Loup in the previous story.  He tells Pierre that he had failed to take precautions when dispatching the other werewolf:  the moon was not yet at its highest point in the sky, and le Loup was only partially transformed into his werewolf form.  The werewolf has to be fully a wolf; otherwise its spirit haunts and inhabits its slayer.  De Montour jumped the gun, or rather, sword, and so is now afflicted himself.  He seeks redemption for all the murders he committed as a werewolf since his mortal struggle with le Loup.

We learn that being a werewolf gives de Montour superhuman, fiend-like powers, and these come in handy when the conspiracy to stir up the natives and over throw Dom Vincente comes to a head.  There is a happy ending, insofar as de Montour obtains a cure for his lycanthropy, but the process involves decimating most of the native population.

Wolfshead is worth reading for Howard’s novel explanation of how lycanthropy came to be.  Suffice it to say that it involves ancient fiends from outer space, an epic struggle between good and evil, the biblical King Solomon, and lupine evolution.  The most startling insight that Robert E. Howard offers is that “the true werewolf is not (as many think) a man who may take the form of a wolf, but a wolf who takes the form of a man!   Although the story is marred by overt racism and chauvinism, it is a good example of the exuberance and inventiveness of 1920s era pulp fiction.       

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