In a literary vein: Three werewolf classics (Part 1)
Normally this space discusses movies, and one will be examined here, but for a change we will look at three classics of horror literature featuring werewolves as the chief supernatural menace. An outgrowth of this author's winter and early spring reading, and in one case, re-reading after more decades than he cares to mention, bringing these works back into the open again is not only a matter of interest but worthwhile in examining possible influences on their cinematic followers. Not to mention that all three are particularly good reads as well, despite contrasting styles and ideas.
Our selections include THE UNDYING MONSTER by Jessie Douglas Kerruish, H. Warner Munn's THE WEREWOLF OF PONKERT, and THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN by Alfred H. Bill. These books have been in the author's library for years, surviving moves from New York to Ohio, from town to town, from apartments to houses, but the only one that had been read was THE WOLF IN THE GARDEN back in the mid-1970s -- thus the second look that proved a pleasurable experience.
Perhaps the best-known of these works -- primarily due to its film adaptation from the second Golden Age of Hollywood horrors in the 1940s -- is THE UNDYING MONSTER, subtitled A TALE OF THE FIFTH DIMENSION, first published by London-based Phillip Allan in 1922. Some sources consider it as much of fictional watershed for lycanthropic tales as Bram Stoker's DRACULA was for vampires and Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS for monsters and freaks of science. Given the paucity of full-length werewolf novels at the time of its publication, THE UNDYING MONSTER occupied a unique niche in the gallery of classical horror for some time until newer takes on ancient tales of wolf-like creatures found their way into print.
Yet THE UNDYING MONSTER also stands apart from traditional yarns of this kind because it is heavily steeped in the history of the British Isles, and for its mixture of the supernatural and psychological in addressing the title abomination. Of necessity, much of this is lost in the movie version, but remains a fascinating surprise for those encountering the novel for the first time.
Set shortly after the close of what Kerruish termed the "Fifty-two Months' War," a reference to World War I then apparently in common usage, the ancestral Sussex countryside estate of the Hammand family is presided over by Oliver Hammand, a veteran of the recent conflict, and his younger sister Swanhild. Upon a cold, clear midnight, Swan responds to a dreaded wood known as the Barrow where her brother, his dog and Kate Stringer, a servant of Swan's steady boyfriend Goddard Covert, have been attacked. She arrives to find the dog torn to pieces, Kate seriously wounded and Oliver bearing a head wound.
This incident spells a reoccurrence of terror from the title creature, a product of the Hammand Curse that has bedeviled the family for centuries. The creature manifests itself to male heirs, and Oliver and Swan's father became one of its victims some time ago. Those who have encountered the seemingly spectral monster have either died on the spot or survived, only to go mad and then destroy themselves.
Oliver and Swan determine that now is the time to expose the creature and its cause, especially since Oliver is the last male in the line. To aid their investigation, the siblings engage a noted psychic detective, Luna Bartendale, to probe the Hammand history, its Norse roots and the acceptance of the supernatural that ruled in the area in time past. All climaxes when final proof of Oliver's transformation into a beast is witnessed, as Kerruish breathlessly describes when the revelation occurs in the Barrow:
"It was the face of Oliver Hammand, devil-obsessed or turned by some Circean spell to an animal with hatred and cold cruelty beyond the human or bestial. His hair stood on end; under it his ears laid themselves backwards; his upper lip had almost vanished from sight in a diabolical snarl; his whole mouth, blood-stained and slavering, was distended and sucked in at the sides. The jaws protruded abnormally, and the big teeth appeared to project still further forward, while the upper part of the face seemed to be contracted and sloped back into insignificance, a mere setting for the red eyes." (From the Awards Books reprint, New York, 1970, p. 177).
With Luna's aid, Oliver becomes the first Hammand to survive the experience that haunted his ancestors, and to understand the root cause of the effect, thanks to the research she has orchestrated on the family's behalf. The curse had been issued on the Hammands after a failed treasure hunt on the estate and was not the traditional full moon effect: succeeding victims in the family line were influenced mentally by the curse and once they found the monster was indeed within the recesses of their psyches, they either killed themselves then or later when they could no longer cope with the idea.
The monster is "a creature of the Fifth Dimension, and the Fifth Dimension is -- the human mind," Luna explains (p. 179). Armed with that knowledge and some rites that serve as a makeshift exorcism conducted by Luna on Oliver, the Hammand Curse and the memory that kept it alive is put to rest and with it, future appearances of the Undying Monster, its past crimes put down as unsolved mysteries.
Kerruish offers an impressive amount of detail in the form of old manuscripts and accounts surrounding the Hammand family history to build her case, some of it mystifying to non-UK readers but noteworthy for its creativity. This only slightly slows down a narrative that remains as driving now as it when it first appeared almost a century ago. That the Monster is not a baying source of chaos influenced into a physiological change by old sins and cycles of the moon is an unusual and thought-provoking variance from standard man-into-wolf themes up top that time, and a credit to the author for attempting something new with the concept. The description of Oliver's man-beast state above seems to prefigure werewolf makeups on screen ranging from THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) to THE HOWLING (1981) and beyond.
Kerruish also generates a certain sympathy for the Hammands' plight that almost absolves the fact the secret of the curse will remain just that, the death of Kate Stringer from her injuries in the novel's opening burst of action will be attributed to local legend, and that the Hammands avoid a full-blown scandal.
Such compassion seems out of place, given Oliver's lapses into a self-impressed martinet of a country squire, but Kerruish argues that misunderstanding and sensation-hunting newspapers luridly reporting the reappearance of the long-documented monster threaten the family's dogged attempt to end the curse forever. The latter concern appears to be a reflection of the author's own connection to Fleet Street journalism prior to the war.
Born in 1884 (some sources say 1890), Kerruish saw her early efforts reach print in the London press, some of which included fiction within their columns. Bill Ectric, writing a detailed addition to a Jan. 20, 2011, online article entitled "The Jessie Douglas Kerruish Mystery and THE UNDYING MONSTER," reported that around 1910, Kerruish came under the influence of editor Isabel Thorne, who attracted such talents as Sax Rohmer, Rafael Sabatini, Jack London and Edgar Wallace to the publications for whom she worked. Kerruish's skills were honed to the point that success greeted her first novel, MISS HAROUN AL-RASCHID, upon its publication in 1917. She was then inspired to write another Middle Eastern-themed work, THE GIRL FROM KURDISTAN. Both of these endeavors were described by historian Jack Adrian as "absorbing and pacey romantic adventure yarns."
Adrian was also moved to call THE UNDYING MONSTER Kerruish's "ultimate triumph," and it's easy to understand why given the craftwork put into the story. Sadly, it was not long after its publication that migraines forced the author into ill health and limited additional output; Kerruish died in 1949.
The Fox film version of THE UNDYING MONSTER, produced by Bryan Foy and directed by John Brahm, has kept the novel in the eye of horror fans although Lillie Hayward and Michel Jacoby's screenplay is a simplification of the original story. The novel's attention to detail would have been put aside anyway to concentrate on the thrills that established its reputation as one of the best B movie thrillers of old Hollywood.
Some have said the project was green-lit by Fox, which normally did not do horror films but was then experimenting with the form (see DR. RENAULT'S SECRET and the Milton Berle comedy WHISPERING GHOSTS, both released in 1942) as a response to Universal's successful THE WOLF MAN, but THE UNDYING MONSTER was distributed Nov. 27, 1942, almost a full year after THE WOLF MAN's initial release. THE UNDYING MONSTER bears some similarities to THE WOLF MAN in mood and production value, but stands apart from other movies in that vein thanks to the strength of the story and an enthusiastic approach to the production that shows in every frame.
The film, set about 20 years earlier than the novel, opens in a similar fashion with the Swan character, renamed Helga (Heather Angel) rushing to the aid of Oliver (John Howard) after an attack by a beast that destroyed his dog and left (the also renamed) Kate O'Malley (Valerie Traxler) clinging to life. "Something came at us from all sides," Oliver recalls upon regaining consciousness. Instead of seeking out a psychic sleuth to unravel The Hammond Mystery (an alternate title for the film with the use of the more familiar spelling of the family name), Helga contacts Scotland Yard, where Inspector Craig (Aubrey Mather) introduces her to dashing scientific detective Robert Curtis (James Ellison) and his comic relief assistant, Cornelia "Christy" Christopher (Heather Thatcher). They accompany Helga back to the estate, where the unfortunate Kate soon dies of her injuries. (The novel includes a minor character named Curtis, a journalist friend of Luna's).
After Curtis probes several suspects, among them Helga's boyfriend Dr. Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher), the curse takes effect and the transformed Oliver, having kidnapped Helga, meets his doom in a fusillade of bullets. The ending was dictated by the Production Code since Oliver, in his wolfman form, was responsible for Kate's death and planned on doing away with Helga. Although not strictly ruling out the supernatural (as eerily portrayed when wolf-like hairs recovered from the scene of the attack vanish before the sleuths' eyes in the laboratory), Curtis reveals that Colbert, a brain specialist, had tried to eliminate the mental influence of the curse through medical means, experimenting with exotic poisons. Oliver's death spells an end to the curse (as well as the the Hammond male line, which is affects), but the horror has been dispelled, and the detectives return to the lab to solve more crimes. Interestingly, a romance between Curtis and Helga is expected (Christy teases him at one point for "making sheep's eyes at a pretty face"), but doesn't materialize, given the rather bossy Helga is already practically hitched to the secretive Colbert, as are the more congenial Swan and Goddard in the novel.
THE UNDYING MONSTER couldn't make up its mind about fully embracing the fantastic, but substitutes such hesitation with a shadowy production design found in every nook, cranny and hidden room in the Hammand estate house, making it ideal for spooky goings-on, past and present. The well-appointed and lit sets, which no doubt came from a larger studio project, are fully explored by Brahm and Lucien Ballard's camera. The director and Ballard collaborated again on creating the suitable atmosphere for the higher-budgeted feature version of THE LODGER (1944), another of Fox's major contributions to the horror cycle.
Ellison's initial jauntiness as Curtis seems a bit out of place, but when he becomes serious about his work, Ellison lends a Sherlock Holmes-like intensity to the proceedings as well as the required physical action called for by the part. The role offered to audiences another side of the actor best known as a western hero and male lead in the occasional A feature, a quality Ellison expanded upon with his appearance in the Val Lewton production I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) at RKO. Howard, an ex-Bulldog Drummond at Paramount, skillfully keeps the question of is-he-a-werewolf-or-not in play as long as possible, in effect keeping us guessing as well.