In a literary vein: Three werewolf classics (Part 2)
A common denominator in the works under examination -- THE UNDYING MONSTER: A TALE OF THE FIFTH DIMENSION, THE WEREWOLF OF PONKERT and THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN -- is that the lycanthropic menace of all three stem from Old World Europe. Much like the werewolf films that came out of Hollywood starting in the 1930s, the origin of the wolf creature spreading havoc in contemporary times arises from ancient lands and beliefs, where superstition surrounding old crimes and sins still hold an influence with the people who live in such locations.
More often than not, in fiction and in movies, the curse of the werewolf is passed on through the bite of an affected being on a normal human during a nighttime encounter in a lonely section of Hungary or Rumania, showing that such regions are not the exclusive domain of Count Dracula and other vampires. Eventually, the werewolf's presence in America was accepted, as for example, Mike Nichols' feature WOLF (1994), in which the hero (Jack Nicholson) is bitten while driving home in Vermont.
An exception to the traditional explanation of the source can be found in Guy Endore's novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS (1933) which posed the idea that lycanthropy is one result of man's inhumanity to man. But on the whole, werewolf tales accept that such creatures are the product of the supernatural, of legend and rites that echo from the dawn of time. "Perhaps there are some things that science hasn't yet figured out," Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) comments in the 1942 film version of THE UNDYING MONSTER.
In Jessie Douglas Kerruish's 1922 novel THE UNDYING MONSTER, the wolf-like creature causing doom for the heirs of an old British family with roots in the nation's Saxon heritage is more mental but comes from an overseas influence. Our other works also place their wolfmen as not only being from Europe but other time periods. The horrors not only take place in the old countries, but long ago as well.
H. Warner Munn's THE WEREWOLF OF PONKERT originally saw publication in book form in 1958, but was a compilation of two stories Munn (1903-1981) wrote decades earlier for his then-main source of income, the noted pulp magazine Weird Tales, which first hit newsstands in 1923. The book consists of "The Werewolf of Ponkert," a lengthy short story WT used in 1925, and "The Werewolf's Daughter," a three-part serial the magazine put out during 1928. Munn reportedly was inspired to write the first story thanks to a letter to WT by one of the magazine's more famous contributors, H.P. Lovecraft, who suggested a novel approach would be to tell the werewolf's tale from his own point of view.
A traveler in contemporary France finds a curious old manuscript hailing from northeastern Hungary authored by one Wladislaw Brenryk, a man of humble origins who through hard work and diligence has become a successful small business owner in the rural town of Ponkert. Making his usual ride home on a cold and clear winter night, his sleigh is attacked by canine-like beings he manages to fight off, except for their memorably evil leader, who inflicts the bite of the werewolf on Brenryk.
Brenryk recovers but finds himself filled with strange impulses which are soon made clear to him by his attacker, a centuries-old abomination known only as the master, possessing, among other powers, the ability to turn ordinary men into wolves and killers. Brenryk finds those who attacked him are other residents and merchants of Ponkert, who in their wolf form are led by the master on raiding parties, hapless travelers their most frequent victims. The members of the pack profit materially from the raids, but Brenryk discovers to his horror that the master feeds on the victims' blood to prolong his unnatural existence.
"I will not dwell long upon the year or so in which I was the master's slave," Brenryk relates, "for our dark and bloody deeds are too numerous to mention in detail. Some nights we wandered about in fruitless search and returned empty handed, but usually we left death and destruction behind us. Most times, however, we would be summoned on some definite foray, which culimnated in each of us being, the next day, somewhat richer." (From the Centaur Books reprint, New York, 1976, pp. 35-36).
After a failed attempt to destroy the master, Brenryk pays for his defiance by turning into his wolf form and slaying his wife when she unknowingly bars his escape from their home. His infant daughter escapes unharmed. Unable to deal with the burden of his actions, Brenryk reveals all to the commander of the king's guard in the town. He helps plan a trap for the other unfortunates in the master's thrall, resulting in a bloody battle that finds all destroyed but the master, who escapes and apparently never haunts the region again. Brenryk goes to his execution for the crimes that were committed with the satisfaction of helping rid Ponkert of the master and his minions.
"The Werewolf's Daughter" takes up the story some years later. Ivga, Brenryk's child, has grown into womanhood and is parented by Dimitri, the king's officer who befriended her tormented father in his final days. Because memories of the horrors perpetrated by the wolf pack have not faded, Ivga is shunned by the people of Ponkert, and hungrily accepts the affection of Gunnar, the errant son of a French nobleman who's taken up with a band of gypsies. "... but now I want to be loved by other people too," Ivga laments to the elderly Dimitri, whose legs have been crippled by age. "I want to be liked -- I want to be loved because I am myself, and not because I am your daughter." (p. 74).
Ivga's yearnings are also heard by another -- the master, making a reappearance in the community he once terrorized. Seeking the slightest pretext to condemn the girl for her family history, the townsfolk, led by a vengeance-bent idiot tanner Dimitri once struck down, bind her to a gallows and prepare to torture her before committing her to the hangman. Instead, Gunnar comes to her rescue, dispatches the guard left to look after her, and convinces her to leave Ponkert forever.
Dimitri, injured in a confrontation with his old enemy the tanner, prays for strength and finds his summons answered. Given back the use of his legs, he dusts off his old, fearsome broadsword and holds off the villagers as Ivga and Gunnar make their escape on the river. The master, gleefully observing the carnage inflicted by the reinvigorated but doomed Dimitri, still has the upper hand, promising to appear many times to the descendants of the young lovers, who eventually reach France and a new life.
Written in the more flamboyant style of 1920s pulp stories, "The Werewolf of Ponkert" and "The Werewolf's Daughter" are nevertheless engrossing and imaginative tales, displaying Munn's talent as a "thoughtful and articulate writer" for Weird Tales (from the introduction to the Munn story "The Chain" in Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., WEIRD TALES: 32 UNEARTHED TERRORS, New York: Bonanza Books, 1988, p. 67). While the first story is the only real exploration of the werewolf theme, it is compelling for taking the viewpoint of a victim of lycanthropy; Brenryk's anguish at his actions mirror not only those of later fictional counterparts but also the cinematic performances of Henry Hull in WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and Lon Chaney Jr. in THE WOLF MAN (1941).
"The Werewolf of Ponkert" makes its case in a forthright manner with an urgency that keeps its readers turning the page. It and "The Werewolf's Daughter" reveal the influence of Munn's association with fellow New Englander Lovecraft in establishing an atmosphere of dread and doom. The latter story also points to some of the influence of fellow WT author Robert E. Howard, the young Texan who by the late '20s was grounding his reputation for virile, violent and imaginative tales of ancient worlds that eventually yielded his warrior characters Conan and Kull.
Some similarities to the Howard style can be found in "The Werewolf's Daughter" as Dimitri, blocking the path to the villagers pursuing Ivga and Gunnar, dispatches the tanner: "Slashing down as the falcon swoops for prey screamed the thirsty sword. It shore through the profaning arm -- and the hand, still clasped about the dagger's hilt, spun into the shadows. Then, with a quick reverse stroke, the old man struck again, so that ten feet of air was the only union between the tanner's head and the shoulders that had born it." (p. 136).
"The Werewolf of Ponkert" and "The Werewolf's Daughter" also served as a basis for a series by Munn that became known as Tales of the Werewolf Clan, which focused more on the exploits of the master, who proved too excellent a villain to consign to a single yarn. Thus his reappearance in "The Werewolf's Daughter" along with "Return of the Master" (1927), "The Master Strikes" and "The Master Fights" (both 1930), and "The Master Has a Narrow Escape" (1931).
Munn's greater fame rests with fans of Howard-like fantasy-adventure. In 1936, the year of Howard's death, Munn saw the publication of his novel-length KING OF THR WORLD'S EDGE in Weird Tales. It appeared in book form in 1966, caught on with a new generation of sword-and-sorcery aficionados, and led to two related novels, THE SHIP FROM ATLANTIS (1967) and MERLIN'S RING (1974). It was in the flush of interest in these works, Lovecraft and WT that THE WEREWOLF OF PONKERT reappeared in print, adding to the latter-day following that kept Munn busy until his own passing.
A more traditional yet still involving approach marks Alfred H. Bill's THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN, a tale of terror that visits a Hudson River Valley in New York near the turn of the century -- the 18th Century, that is. THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN, published in 1931 by Longmans, Green & Co. of New York, combines engaging fiction with knowing historical detail to give it a unique flavor among other works of werewolf literature.
On an autumn day around 1794, two arrivals in New Dortrecht forever change the life of young Robert Farrier, who has abandoned his college studies due to lack of funds to work for his uncle Barclay in his counting house. On this particular day, Robert is dispatched by his uncle to greet a new resident, an exiled French nobleman known as Comte de Saint Loup. Robert finds the at-first jovial Saint Loup pleasant enough, but the well-fed Frenchman whose occasional chuckle sounds like a growl soon earns Robert's dislike. More so when Felicity Paige, an orphaned cousin of Robert's from Maryland decamps the same day to live with Barclay and captures the attention of the leering Saint Loup. For Robert has almost immediately fallen for Felicity, engendering a barely-concealed rivalry between our hero and Saint Loup over her affections.
In his initial tour of New Dortrecht, Saint Loup takes a fancy to the house of village miser Peter Armitage. Problem is, decrepit Peter still lives there and has no intention of selling to anyone. Peter's sudden demise that night launches a series of deaths and actions designed to clear Saint Loup's path to gaining all he desires, including Felicity. The slayings are at first blamed on a savage wolf believed to have boldly sprung from the wilderness, while Saint Loup's huge dog DeRetz -- who's never seen with his master -- fuels suspicions within the community. As local clergyman Mr. Sackville observes upon his first meeting with the former royal: "A strange fellow ... Civil enough, interesting, but with something -- something tropical about him that makes my northern blood simmer. I cannot say I like him." (From the Centaur Press reprint, New York, 1972, pp. 23-24).
Robert's probe into the mysterious events, assisted by Sackville, an Ichabod Crane-like student of the occult, lead Robert to a final confrontation with Saint Loup, whose villainy has grown throughout the story along with a disgusting personality, as Robert relates at one point: "... the Frenchman regaled us with such unnatural and recondite obscenities as were properly graced with the furtive smirk with which he uttered them, and, as often as not, left us two staring in honest yokel-like imcomprehension." (p. 100).
As can be seen, Saint Loup's existence as the title creature becomes more possible as the story unfolds, but Bill creates enough doubt and incident to keep the reader in suspense until the final revelation. The tale is told by Robert very much in the vernacular of the time, as the reader can judge from the passage quoted above, a tribute to Bill's fidelity to history. However, Bill was also enough of a fiction writer to spin a decent mystery filled with the requisite elements of murder, blackmail and last-minute rescue.
The descriptions of the wolf creature -- which eventually costs Robert the use of an arm -- are fleeting but creepy, and since Bill did not normally write horror stories, he leaves the origin of the creature a riddle. A partial explanation is provided by Felicity's Haitian-born servant Vashti, who recognizes Saint Loup as the victim of some fateful encounter with the supernatural prior to his arrival in the New World. For purists, THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN is perhaps disappointing in not dealing with a monster in the midst of a community, but rather with the reactions of certain members of that community who suspect its presence. Yet with the limited number of book-length werewolf tales at the time, THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN was unusual enough in its day to warrant acceptance and remains worthy of investigation; as previously mentioned, it is an enjoyable reading experience.
For Bill (1879-1964), THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN was his fifth published novel and may have been influenced with its overtones of turmoil in France by his previous work of fiction, evidently geared for children, THE RED PRIOR'S LEGACY (1929), subtitled THE STORY OF THE ADVENTURES OF AN AMERICAN BOY IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN was his last novel until the appearance of THE RING OF DANGER: A TALE OF ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND in 1948. Otherwise, the author devoted himself to a number of historical studies, such as REHEARSAL FOR CONFLICT: THE WAR WITH MEXICO (1947) and VALLEY FORGE: THE MAKING OF AN ARMY (1952).
The paperback edition of THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN issued by Centaur Press, the forerunner of Centaur Books, brought new attention to the forgotten volume as a revival of interest in books and stories with supernatural and exotic themes took hold in the '70s. Centaur's "Time Lost" series shed light on such obscure jungle adventures as Arthur O. Friel's TIGER RIVER (1923), the Solomon Kane stories of Robert E. Howard and even the novelization by Henry Kuttner (using the pseudonym Will Garth) of the 1940 science fiction film DR. CYCLOPS, not to mention THE WEREWOLF OF PONKERT. For those of us who enjoy such rediscovery, such reprints are worth the time and effort to search out, either in print or hopefully, via e-book.
The three works discussed here provide a foundation for the literary heritage of werewolves in popular entertainment. As such they deserve re-examination on their own merits, and as the basis for the changing face of the man-into-wolf legend both in print and on film.