This week I shall be taking a look at an early piece of French werewolf literature, courtesy of authors Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian. The story was originally published in either 1859 or 1860 (the sources I have at hand are inconsistent) as “Hugues-le-loup”, while an English translation entitled “The Man-Wolf” was published in 1876 and can be read online here.
The story by Erckmann-Chatrian concerns a Germanic family cursed with a (possibly psychological) lycanthropy that dates back to their ancestor Hugues, whose name anglicises to Hugh. This is an interesting overlap with “Hugues, the Wer-Wolf” by the British writer Sutherland Menzies, published nearly thirty years previously, which involved a (supposedly) lycanthropic family surnamed Hugues.
Menzies appears to have borrowed the name from Hugh Lupus, a Norman earl; I know of no folklore association the real-life Hugues with lycanthropy, but his name fits. Were Erckmann and Chatrian also inspired by the same individual? It seems curious that two French writers would model a family of fictional German aristocrats upon a Norman-British personage, but the trnaslator’s note at the start of the story playfully suggests a connection:
The English reader will not fail to notice the correspondence between the title and the well-known designation of the illustrious head of the noble house of Grosvenor. Whatever connection there may or may not be between that German Hugh Lupus of a thousand years ago and the truly British Hugh Lupus of our day, all the base qualities of his supposed progenitor have disappeared in him who is adorned with all the qualities which make the English nobility rank as the pride and the flower of our land.
“The Man-Wolf” begins with the protagonist, a doctor named Fritz, being visited by his sometime foster-father Gideon Sperver. The latter reveals that his master the Count of Nideck is suffering from “a terrible kind of illness, something like madness” and needs medical help.
Sperver describes the Count’s symptoms being first brought on by the cry of a crow: “At that cry the count suddenly gathered himself together with a shuddering movement, his eyes became fixed with a glassy stare, his cheeks were bloodless, and he bent his head forward just like a hunter catching the sound of his approaching game.” This occurred ten years ago, and the condition remains:
Every year at the same day and hour the count has shuddering fits. The malady lasts from a week to a fortnight, during which he howls and yells so frightfully that it makes a man’s blood run cold to hear him. Then he slowly recovers his usual health. He is still pale and weak, and moves trembling from one chair to another, starting at the least noise or movement, and fearful of his own shadow. The young countess, the sweetest creature in the world, never leaves his side; but he cannot endure her while the fit is upon him. He roars at her, ‘Go, leave me this moment! I have enough to endure without seeing you hanging about me!’ It is a horrible sight.
Fritz accompanies Sperver back to the count’s castle, and along the way the two encounter “an aged woman crouching on the snowy ground, with her arms clasped about her knees, and so tattered that her red elbows came through her tattered sleeves. A few ragged locks of grey hung about her long, scraggy, red, and vulture-like neck.”. Fritz is surprised to see his companion treat this woman with utter horror.
Sperver outlines his belief that this woman, known locally as the Black Plague, is a witch whose actions have somehow brought upon the count’s malady: whenever the Count has an attack, the Black Plague can be spotted in the vicinity; and the nearer she gets, the worse the count’s attacks become.
At the castle, Fritz meets a few members of the noble household. One is Knapwurst, a historian who happens to be a dwarf. Another is the Count’s daughter Odile, whose appearance “recalled to one’s mind those mysterious creations of the pencil in the Middle Ages when painting was pursued as a true art, but which modern imitators have found themselves obliged to give up in despair”. Odile turns out to be the cause of much family strife, as she refuses her father’s wishes that she have children. Fritz also learns something of the family history:
“And who was Hugh Lupus?”
“Why, Hugh the Wolf, to be sure. He was the head of the family of Nideck, a rough-and-ready warrior, I can tell you. He came to settle up here with a score of horsemen and halberdiers of his following. They climbed up this rock—the highest rock amongst these mountains. You will see this to-morrow. They constructed this tower, and proclaimed, ‘Now we are the masters! Woe befall the miserable wretches who shall pass without paying toll to us! We will tear the wool off their backs, and their hide too, if need be. From this watch-tower we shall command a view of the far distance all round. The passes of the Rhéthal, of Steinbach, Koche Plate, and of the whole line of the Black Forest are under our eye. Let the Jew pedlars and the dealers beware!’ And the noble fellows did what they promised. Hugh the Wolf was at their head. Knapwurst told me all about it sitting up one night.”
Fritz later has the opportunity to inspect the castle’s portraits. One painting shows Hugh I, who “seemed to glare upon you like a wolf stealing upon you round the corner of a wood”. Next is the image of a beautiful young lady who resembles the present count’s daughter, Odile. The third shows “a woman of the true Visigoth type, with a wide low forehead, yellowish eyes, prominent cheek-bones, red hair, and a nose hooked like an eagle’s beak.” Kanpwurst explains that the two women are Hedwige and Huldine, the wives of Hugh I:
“Sir,” said Knapwurst, pointing with his yellow hand to the portraits, “Hugh of Nideck, the first of his illustrious race, married, in 832, Hedwige of Lutzelbourg, who brought to him in dowry the counties of Giromani and Haut Barr, the castles of Geroldseck, Teufelshorn, and others. Hugh Lupus had no issue by his first wife, who died young, in the year of our Lord 837. Then Hugh, having become lord and owner of the dowry, refused to give it up, and there were terrible battles between himself and his brothers-in-law. But his second wife, Huldine, whom you see there in a steel breastplate, aided him by her sage counsel. It is unknown whence or of what family she came, but for all that she saved Hugh’s life, who had been made prisoner by Frantz of Lutzelbourg. He was to have been hanged that very day, and a gibbet had already been set up on the ramparts, when Huldine, at the head of her husband’s vassals, whom she had armed and inspired with her own courage, bravely broke in, released Hugh, and hung Frantz in his place. Hugh had married his wife in 842, and had three children by her.”
Knapwurst insists that Hedwige had no children; this surprises Fritz, as it leaves her resemblance to Odile unexplained.
Later on, Marie Lagouette (wife of the household’s wooden-legged head butler) reports awakening to a peculiar sight: “The tall middle window was wide open, the curtains were drawn, and there in the opening stood the count in his white night-dress, right on the window-sill.” This is all the stranger considering that the count is supposedly unable to move. Later still, a howling like that of a wolf is heard throughout the castle; Fritz and two cohorts run to investigate and find that the howling is coming not from a wolf, but from the count:
I gazed over his shoulder, and the sight that met my eyes made the blood run chill as snow in my veins. The lord of Nideck, crouching on all fours upon his bed, with his arms bending forward, his head carried low, his eyes glaring with fierce fires, was uttering loud, protracted howlings!
He was the wolf!
That low receding forehead, that sharp-pointed face, that foxy-looking beard, bristling off both cheeks; the long meagre figure, the sinewy limbs, the face, the cry. The attitude, declared the presence of the wild beast half-hidden, half-revealed under a human mask!
At times he would stop for a second and listen attentively with head awry, and then the crimson hangings would tremble with the quivering of his limbs, like foliage shaken by the wind; then the melancholy wail would open afresh.
Another howl is heard, this time from outside, comparable to a she-wolf answering a he-wolf. This, of course, is the Black Plague, whose hold over the Count of Nideck grows stronger still. Fritz later witnesses the count “clad in a huge wolf-skin thrown with its upper jaw projecting grimly over his eyes like a visor, the formidable claws hanging over each shoulder, and the tail dragging behind him along the flags.” The witch and her victim meet up, and Fritz observes them carrying out a strange pantomime involving a bag:
They approached the fireplace on tiptoe. There in the dark shadow of the recess at its side the Black Plague, with a horrible smile, unrolled a large bag. As soon as the count saw the bag he made a bound towards the bed and kneeled upon it with one knee; there was a shaking of the curtains, his body disappeared beneath their folds, and I could only see one leg still resting on the floor, and the wolf’s tail undulating irregularly from side to side. They seemed to be acting a murder in ghastly pantomime. No real scene, however frightful, could have agitated me more than this mute representation of some horrible deed.
Speaking to Odile, Fritz learns that this behaviour has been carrying on for years, and placed a great strain on the count’s (now deceased) wife:
“I know not how my mother made that terrible discovery,” added Odile, “but she became aware of the mysterious attraction of the Black Pest and their meetings in Hugh Lupus’s tower; she knew it all—all! She never suspected my father—ah no!—but she perished away by slow degrees under this consuming influence! and I myself am dying.”
I bowed my head into my hands and wept in silence.
“One night,” she went on, “one night—I was only ten—and my mother, with the remains of her superhuman energy, for she was near her end that night, came to me when I lay asleep. It was in winter; a stony cold hand caught me by the wrist. I looked up. Before me stood a tall woman; in one hand she held a flaming torch, with the other she held me by the arm. Her robe was sprinkled with snow. There was a convulsive movement in all her limbs and her eyes were fired with a gloomy light through the long locks of white hair which hung in disorder round her face. It was my mother; and she said, ‘Odile, my child, get up and dress! You must know it all!’ Then taking me to Hugh Lupus’s tower she showed me the open subterranean passage. ‘Your father will come out that way,’ she said, pointing to the tower; ‘he will come out with the she-wolf; don’t be frightened, he won’t see you.’ And presently my father, bearing his funereal burden, came out with the old woman.”
Fritz ponders the nature of the mysterious Black Plague: “a strange perversion of human nature had brought her near to the nature of the wolf… No doubt a wandering life had obliterated the moral sense in her”.
Another player in this drama is the Baron of Zimmer-Bluderich, who arrives at the castle claiming to be lost in the mountains. Fritz and Sperver later encounter him alone in the wilderness while they are pursuing the Black Plague; it turns out that the baron is actually the Black Plague’s son.
After an altercation that leaves the Black Plague (or rather, the Baroness de Bluderich) dead, the baron reveals all that he knows. His mother was prone to making secret trips into the Black Forest that would leave her returning in “a state of physical prostration, ragged, half dead, and that weeks of rest alone could restore her after the hideous labours of those few days.” These, clearly, were her jaunts to the castle to meet the Count of Nideck. But where did the relationship begin?
It falls upon the historian Knapwurst to fill in the blanks by detailing a family curse:
“[T]he burgrave Hugh, surnamed Lupus, or the Wolf, when he was old, used to wear a cowl, which was a kind of knitted cap that covered in the crest of the knight’s helmet when engaged in fighting. When the helmet tired him he would take it off and put on the knitted cowl, and its long cape fell around his shoulders.
“Up to his eighty-second year Hugh still wore his armour, though he could hardly breathe in it. “Then he sent for Otto of Burlach, his chaplain, his eldest son Hugh, his second son Berthold, and his daughter the red-haired Bertha, wife of a Saxon chief named Bluderich, and said to them—
“‘Your mother the she-wolf has bequeathed you her claws; her blood flows, mingled with mine, in your veins. In you the wolf’s blood will flow from generation to generation; it shall weep and howl among the snows of the Black Forest. Some will say, “Hark! The wind howls!” others, “No, it is the owl hooting!” But not so; it is your blood, mine and the blood of the she-wolf who drove me to murder Hedwige, my wife before God and the Church. She died under my bloody hands! Cursed be the she-wolf! for it is written, “I will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” The crime of the father shall be visited upon the children until justice shall have been satisfied!’
“Then old Hugh the Wolf died.
According to legend, this curse will be renewed “until the day when the first wife of Hugh, Hedwige the Fair, shall reappear at Nideck under the form of an angel to comfort and to forgive!” As Sperver points out, this has come to pass, as Odile is clearly the second coming of Hedwige. He also reveals a connection beween the Black Plague and Hugh’s second wife, Huldine:
“There,” he said, “is Huldine, the she-wolf. For a thousand years she has wept in the deep gorges amongst the pine forests of the Schwartzwald; she was the cause of the death of poor Lieverlé; but henceforward the lords of Nideck may rest securely, for justice is done, and the good angel of this lordly house has returned!”
While Sutherland Menzies’ “Hugues, the Wer-Wolf” rationalised lycanthropy as a product of superstition, “The Man-Wolf” turns out to be a strange mix of the psychological and the supernatural. The count’s affliction, as described, is clearly closer to a form of madness than a literal werewolf transformation, and the characters discuss it as such; yet the Black Plague is portrayed along more traditional lines as a wicked witch. The story’s conclusion serves to cement rather than dispel its supernatural element, introducing the apparent reincarnation of Hedwige as Odile and Huldine as the Black Plague — unless, of course, the reference to Huldine living a thousand years is meant to be taken literally, which would obviously push the story still further towards the supernatural.