Werewolf Wednesday: “The White Wolf of Kostopchin” by Sir Gilbert Campbell (1889)

Frederick Marryat’s “White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains” appears to have been influential in its time, and its lycanthropic temptress Christina has a number of clear descendants in werewolf fiction of the nineteenth century. One example of this can be found in Sir Gilbert Campbell’s “The White Wolf of Kostopchin”, published in his 1889 collection Wild and Weird: Tales of Imagination and Mystery.

The main character of this story is Paul Sergevitch, “a gentleman of means, and the most discontented man in Russian Poland”. Once noted for his extravagance and loose-living, Paul was forced to retreat into his estate of Kostopchin in Lithuania after killing the prime minister of an unspecified country in a duel. Here he sired two children, Alexis and Katrina, their mother dying three years after marriage.

Katrina desires that her father bring her squirrels form the forest, but Pauk’s servant Michal warns him that the woodlands are dangerous: “there are terrible tales told about them, of witches that dance in the moonlight, of strange, shadowy forms that are seen amongst the trunks of the tall pines, and of whispered vies that tempt the listeners to eternal perdition.” Michal recounts his own experience of encountering a pack of wolves there; he was able to ward most of them off with a crucifix, but the leader – a fearsome white she-wolf – continued to pursue him.

Paul dismisses Michal’s claims, but reconsiders his position when he finds the mutilated body of a local poacher in the forest. Days pass and more bodies turn up in similar condition: in each case the heart has been removed, and in each case a tuft of white fur is found nearby. Paul arranges for a band of men to beat thei way through the woods in search of the beast responsible; they find not a white wolf, however, but a beautiful woman with red hair, blue eyes, a green travelling cap and a mantle of white fur. Her hands are stained with blood, which she claims to have picked up after an encounter with the wolf.

It turns out that the woman, Ravina, knows of Paul’s exploits: she was once a member of Russian high society until becoming a fugitive from the law (“I have had the iimpridence to speak my mind too freely, and – well, you now what women have to dread who fall into the hands of the police in Holy Russia). Paul invites Ravina into his household, where she faces hostility from both Michal (“where have I seen those shining teeth and those cold eyes?”) and from Paul’s son Alexis (his daughter Katrina, on the other hand, is fascinated by her – particularly her necklace of wolf claws). Paul eventually asks to marry the newcomer; she consents, albeit on a few conditions:

“Make no bargains blindfold,” answered she, “but listen. At the present moment I have no inclination for you, but on the other hand I feel no repugnance for you. I will remain here for a month, and during that time I shall remain in a suite of apartments which you will have prepared for me. Every evening I will visit you here, and upon your making yourself agreeable my ultimate decision will depend.”
“And suppose that decision should be an unfavorable one?” asked Paul.
“Then,” answered Ravina, with a ringing laugh, “I shall, as you say, leave this and take your heart with me.”
“These are hard conditions,” remarked Paul. “Why not shorten the time of probation?”
“My conditions are unalterable,” answered Ravina, with a little stamp of the foot. “Do you agree to them or not?”

Ravina subsequently begins showing oddly reclusive behaviour, while the white wolf (previously thought vanquished) returns to the estate. The most horrible moment comes when Michal catches Ravina in them idle of an attack on little Katrina:

By the faint light of a shaded lamp, he saw Katrina stretched upon the ground; but her wailing had now ceased, for a shawl had been tied across her little mouth. Over her was bending a hideous shape, which seemed to be clothed in some white and shaggy covering. Katrina lay perfectly motionless, and the hands of the figure were engaged in hastily removing the garments from the child’s breast. The task was soon effected; then there was a bright gleam of steel, and the head of the thing bent closely down to the child’s bosom.
With a yell of apprehension, the old man dashed in the window frame, and, drawing the cross from his breast, sprang boldly into the room. The creature sprang to its feet, and the white fur cloak falling from its had and shoulders disclosed the pallid features of Ravina, a short, broad knife in her hand, and her lips discolored with blood.
“Vile sorceress!” cried Michal, dashing forward and raising Katrina in his arms. “What hellish work are you about?”

The girl is rescued but, curiously, neither she nor the servant mention this incident to Paul. And so, Ravina is ultimately able to take him at his word and claim his heart – albeit not in the sense that he had intended. Paul’s son Alexis arrives and shoots the werewolf with a pistol, too late to save his father. Katrina, meanwhile, is left with nightmares of her ordeal.

Although rather tighter in construction, “The White Wolf of Kostopchin” shares much of its plot with Marryat’s “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains”. In each case the main character is an exile from his homeland who has children but no wife; in each case the werewolf temptress (or in Marryat’s tale, the father of the werewolf) curries favour with him by claiming to be in a similar state; in each case the werewolf preys upon at least one of the man’s children, while one child takes arms against her (although only in Campbell’s story is he successful); and in each case the werewolf’s husband is undone by the nature of his marriage vows. It seems unlikely that all of this was coincidence: Campbell appears very much to have been drawing upon Marryat.

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