Werewolf Wednesday: Elliott O’Donnell’s Luminous Lycanthrope (1912)

Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965) was a writer who presented himself as something like a real-life version of the occult detectives found in Edwardian weird fiction. H published volumes of purportedly true supernatural encounters, not only describing the stories but providing his own theories as to the supernatural underpinnings. Across his oeuvre, he depicted a world haunted by many varieties of occult entity that he was nonetheless able to fit into a generally coherent theoretical framework.

How seriously any of this should be taken is a matter of debate, however. His habit of removing names and locations (and therefore corroborating details) from the accounts he relates does not inspire confidence; not, indeed, does the fact that these narratives – even when supposedly recorded word-for-word from the people who shared them with O’Donnell – share a remarkably similar writing style. Whatever we make of his claims to veracity, however, we can hardly deny that his prolific output has earned him a place in the history of supernatural literature.

In his 1912 book Werwolves [sic] O’Donnell expresses a belief in the literal existence of these beings beings and dismisses as “grotesque and ridiculous” the idea that lycanthropy can be anything other than supernatural in origin. He acknowledges the possibility of psychological lycanthropy amongst the “bloodthirsty and ignorant” people of West Africa, but cannot see how such a thing could ever affect the “kindly and intelligent” populations of Germany, France and Scandinavia. In an idiosyncratic touch, O’Donnell speculates that certain werewolves may actually be the ghosts of people who showed a specific set of traits in life:

With our limited knowledge of the Unknown it is, of course, impossible to be arbitrary as to the class of spirits to which such phenomena belong. They may be Vice Elementals, i.e., spirits that have never inhabited any material body, whether human or animal, and which are wholly inimical to man’s progress—such spirits assume an infinite number of shapes, agreeable and otherwise; or they may be phantasms of dead human beings—vicious and carnal-minded people, idiots, and imbecile epileptics. It is an old belief that the souls of cataleptic and epileptic people, during the body’s unconsciousness, adjourned temporarily to animals, and it is therefore only in keeping with such a view to suggest that on the deaths of such people their spirits take permanently the form of animals. This would account for the fact that places where cataleptics and idiots have died are often haunted by semi and by wholly animal types of phantasms.

According to Paracelsus Man has in him two spirits—an animal spirit and a human spirit—and that in after life he appears in the shape of whichever of these two spirits he has allowed to dominate him. If, for example, he has obeyed the spirit that prompts him to be sober and temperate, then his phantasm resembles a man; but on the other hand, if he has given way to his carnal and bestial cravings, then his phantasm is earthbound, in the guise of some terrifying and repellent [19]animal—maybe a wolf, bear, dog, or cat—all of which shapes are far from uncommon in psychic manifestations.

With the opening chapter given over to a general introduction and the second focusing on various species of cat-person from outside Europe, the first werewolf account deployed by O’Donnell comes in chapter three and fits his association between werewolves and ghosts.

O’Donnell recounts what he claims to have been a case from Estonia that was recounted to him “some years ago”, the subjects being a “gentleman and his sister, whom I will call Stanislaus and Anno D’Adhemar”. The two siblings were invited to the country home of an unnamed baron and baroness; while travelling by carriage, they heard strange noises that may have been wolves:

To Stanislaus and Anno the word “wolves” came as a stunning shock. All the tales they had ever heard of these ferocious beasts crowded their minds at once. Wolves! was it possible that those dreadful bogies of their childhood—those grim and awful creatures, grotesquely but none the less vividly portrayed in their imagination by horror-loving nurses—were actually close at hand! Supposing the brutes caught them, who would be eaten first? Anno, Stanislaus, or the driver? Would they devour them with their clothes on? If not, how would they get them off? Then, filled with morbid curiosity, they strained their ears and listened. Again—this time nearer, much nearer—came that cry, dismal, protracted, nerve-racking. Nor was that all, for they could now discern the pat-pat, pat-pat of footsteps—long, soft, loping footsteps, as of huge furry paws or naked human feet. However, they could see nothing—nothing but blackness, intensified by the feeble flickering of the droshky’s lanterns.

These experiences culminated in the sighting of a weird apparition:

Nearer and nearer drew the steps, and again a cry—a cry close behind them, perhaps fifty yards—fifty yards at the most. And as they were trying to locate it there burst into view a gigantic figure—nude and luminous, a figure that glowed like a glow-worm and bent slightly forward as it ran. It covered the ground with long, easy, swinging strides, without any apparent effort. In general form its body was like that of a man, saving that the limbs were longer and covered with short hair, and the feet and hands, besides being larger as a whole, had longer toes and fingers. Its head was partly human, partly lupine—the skull, ears, teeth, and eyes were those of a wolf, whilst the remaining features were those of a man. Its complexion was devoid of colour, startlingly white; its eyes green and lurid, its expression hellish.

The account ends with the siblings speaking to the Baron about their ordeal:

An hour later they narrated their adventure to the Baron. Nothing could have exceeded his distress. “My dear friends!” he said, “I owe you a profound apology. I ought to have told my man to choose any other road rather than that through the forest, which is well known to be haunted. According to rumour, a werwolf—we have good reason to believe in werwolfs here—was killed there many years ago.”

Well, make of that what you will.

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