Werewolf Wednesday: “The Were-Wolf” by Clemence Housman (1890)

WhiteFellClemence Housman’s story “The Were-Wolf” was originally printed in an 1890 edition of Atalanta, a British magazine aimed at girls; it was later published as a standalone volume in 1896.  While the former edition was illustrated by Everard Hopkins the latter featured new artwork by Laurence Housman, the author’s brother, which can be seen here.

Along with Frederick Marryat’s “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains” (1839) and Sir Gilbert Campbell’s “The White Wolf of Kostopchin” (1889), Housman’s story fits into a body of nineteenth-century werewolf tales in which the lycanthrope is cast as a beautiful temptress who infiltrates a household, only to prey upon its most vulnerable members in the guise of a white wolf.

The story opens with a young man named Sweyn and his (presuambly Scandinavian) farming household noticing weird phenomena. First, they hear “with strange distinctness a sound outside the door—the sound of a child’s voice, a child’s hands” but when someone opens the door they find nobody there; not even footprints in the snow. Sweyn suggests that they had only heard the sound of the wind, but the rest of the household is unconvinced:

Many faces looked scared. The sound of a child’s voice had been so distinct—and the words “Open, open; let me in!” The wind might creak the wood, or rattle the latch, but could not speak with a child’s voice, nor knock with the soft plain blows that a plump fist gives. And the strange unusual howl of the wolf-hound was an omen to be feared, be the rest what it might. Strange things were said by one and another, till the rebuke of the house-mistress quelled them into far-off whispers. For a time after there was uneasiness, constraint, and silence; then the chill fear thawed by degrees, and the babble of talk flowed on again.

Then comes another call at the door. This time, a figure stands on the other side, a white-robed woman (“No wraith! Living—beautiful—young”). The household dog Tyr leaps at her, but Sweyn apprehends the animal and takes stock of the woman in the doorway:

The stranger stood in the doorway motionless, one foot set forward, one arm flung up, till the house-mistress hurried down the room; and Sweyn, relinquishing to others the furious Tyr, turned again to close the door, and offer excuse for so fierce a greeting. Then she lowered her arm, slung the axe in its place at her waist, loosened the furs about her face, and shook over her shoulders the long white robe—all as it were with the sway of one movement.

She was a maiden, tall and very fair. The fashion of her dress was strange, half masculine, yet not unwomanly. A fine fur tunic, reaching but little below the knee, was all the skirt she wore; below were the cross-bound shoes and leggings that a hunter wears. A white fur cap was set low upon the brows, and from its edge strips of fur fell lappet-wise about her shoulders; two of these at her entrance had been drawn forward and crossed about her throat, but now, loosened and thrust back, left unhidden long plaits of fair hair that lay forward on shoulder and breast, down to the ivory-studded girdle where the axe gleamed.

The woman claims to be travelling alone on “a long journey to distant kindred” and shows no fear in savage beast or brutish man, having lived a “bold free huntress life”. A foreigner, she explains to her hosts that her real name “would be uncouth to your ears and tongue” and reveals that the country’s locals have subbed her White Fell on account of her robe. Sweyn’s little cousin Rol becomes fascinated with the visitor:

He nestled happily, fingering the axe head, the ivory studs in her girdle, the ivory clasp at her throat, the plaits of fair hair; rubbing his head against the softness of her fur-clad shoulder, with a child’s full confidence in the kindness of beauty. White Fell had not uncovered her head, only knotted the pendant fur loosely behind her neck. Rol reached up his hand towards it, whispering her name to himself, “White Fell, White Fell,” then slid his arms round her neck, and kissed her—once—twice. She laughed delightedly, and kissed him again.

“The child plagues you?” said Sweyn.

“No, indeed,” she answered, with an earnestness so intense as to seem disproportionate to the occasion.

Meanwhile, Sweyn’s twin brother Christian is on his way back home. He comes across a trail of wolf-prints leading right up to the door; when he enters and sees White Fell, he realises immediately that the newcomer is a werewolf: “And he found himself seated beside the hearth, opposite that dreadful Thing that looked like a beautiful girl; watching her every movement, curdling with horror to see her fondle the child Rol.”

Christian tries without success to convince his brother of White Fell’s true nature. “Another, who was not your brother, might believe you to be a knave,” replies Sweyn, “and guess that you had transformed White Fell into a Were-Wolf because she smiled more readily on me than on you.” He then facetiously directs Christian to Trella, a superstitious old woman:

“If you want an ally,” continued Sweyn, “confide in old Trella. Out of her stores of wisdom, if her memory holds good, she can instruct you in the orthodox manner of tackling a Were-Wolf. If I remember aright, you should watch the suspected person till midnight, when the beast’s form must be resumed, and retained ever after if a human eye sees the change; or, better still, sprinkle hands and feet with holy water, which is certain death. Oh! never fear, but old Trella will be equal to the occasion.”

Sweyn’s contempt was no longer good-humoured; some touch of irritation or resentment rose at this monstrous doubt of White Fell. But Christian was too deeply distressed to take offence.

Although Sweyn is joking when he speaks these words, the lore he mentions here — that werewolves transform at midnight and are harmed by holy water — later turns out to be true. Note that neither full moons nor silver bullets were conventions of the werewolf genre at this point.

White Fell turns out to have disappeared the following morning, and Christian concludes that she must have fled before becoming a wolf at midnight. There is another disappearance one evening when little Rol runs out of the house into the wilderness and is never seen again, although his whimpering puppy returns home without him.

When white Fell finally returns, Sweyn continues pursuing a romantic relationship with her; Christian continues to accuse her of being a werewolf, and his brother continues to dismiss these claims as arising from envy, the twins coming to blows over the affair. Meanwhile, the werewolf claims another victim in elderly Trella.

The story’s climax has Christian chasing White Fell through the wilderness at the cusp of midnight, with Sweyn pursuing him in turn. White Fell wields an axe and succeeds in nearly severing Christian’s hand. Finally, she manages to kill him — only to receive a deadly surprise herself:

Like lightning she snatched her axe, and struck him on the neck, deep—once, twice—his life-blood gushed out, staining her feet. The stars touched midnight.

The death scream he heard was not his, for his set teeth had hardly yet relaxed when it rang out; and the dreadful cry began with a woman’s shriek, and changed and ended as the yell of a beast. And before the final blank overtook his dying eyes, he saw that She gave place to It; he saw more, that Life gave place to Death—causelessly, incomprehensibly. For he did not presume that no holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil thing than the life-blood of a pure heart poured out for another in free willing devotion.

Sweyn finally catches up with the two combatants, and finds Christian’s body lying next to the corpse of a great white wolf. Finally, Sweyn realises that Christian had spoken the truth after all: “And he knew surely that to him Christian had been as Christ, and had suffered and died to save him from his sins.”

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