One book I’ve been planning to cover for this column is Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by George W. M. Reynolds; this was serialised between 1846 and 1847 in a periodical edited by the author, Reynolds’ Miscellany. I have to admit, though, that it’s taken me a while to pluck up the fortitude. I tried reading the novel a few years ago, but it was only a chapter or two before I started having flashbacks to reading Varney the Vampire — and soldiering through that monument to incoherence wasn’t an ordeal I was in a hurry to repeat.
But still, no history of literary lycanthropy would be complete without covering Wagner’s adventures. To make things easier on myself I’ve decided to cover the novel piecemeal, with this post covering the prologue and first two chapters. Since I never finished the book on my first attempt (and to be honest, have forgotten what happened in the chapters I did read) this will be a voyage of discovery for me. Wish me luck — who knows, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf might be a cut above Varney the Vampire after all.
The opening lines are not particularly promising, being perilously close to “it was a dark and stormy night”:
it was the month of January, 1516. The night was dark and tempestuous, the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts.
The first character we meet is an elderly shepherd who resides in a cottage on the edge of the Black Forest. Most of his family has been wiped out by the Black Death, leaving only his sixteen-year-old granddaughter Agnes; and even she has mysteriously vanished. In the stormy night his is visited by an enigmatic strange, who — rather insensitively — informs him that he will soon die, and being alone, will probably be eaten by wolves before his body’s found. The shepherd is understandably disturbed by his nameless visitor:
“Talk not thus!” cried the old man, with a visible shudder; then darting a half-terrified, half-curious glance at his guest, he said, “but who are you that speak in this awful strain—this warning voice?”
Again the thunder rolled, with crashing sound, above the cottage; and once more the wind swept by, laden, as it seemed, with the shrieks and groans of human beings in the agonies of death.
The stranger maintained a certain degree of composure only by means of a desperate effort, but he could not altogether subdue a wild flashing of the eyes and a ghastly change of the countenance—signs of a profoundly felt terror.
“Again I say, ask me not who I am!” he exclaimed, when the thunder and the gust had passed. “My soul recoils from the bare idea of pronouncing my own accursed name! But—unhappy as you see me—crushed, overwhelmed with deep affliction as you behold me—anxious, but unable to repent for the past as I am, and filled with appalling dread for the future as I now proclaim myself to be, still is my power far, far beyond that limit which hems mortal energies within so small a sphere…”
However, the visitor has an offer. He declares that he has a means of restoring the shepherd’s youth and vitality, granting him wealth and intelligence in the process. This offer comes with two conditions; the first is straightforward — to become the stranger’s companion for a period:
“The first is, that you become the companion of my wanderings for one year and a half from the present time, until the hour of sunset, on the 30th of July, 1517, when we must part forever, you to go whithersoever your inclinations may guide you, and I—— But of that, no matter!” he added, hastily, with a sudden motion as if of deep mental agony, and with wildly flashing eyes.
The second condition, meanwhile, is altogether nastier. To work the spell, the visitor must summon an evil spirit (presumably Satan himself) who requires human sacrifices. Furthermore, it shall be the shepherd’s job to carry out these sacrifices in the guise of a werewolf:
Knowest thou not that there is a belief in many parts of our native land that at particular seasons certain doomed men throw off the human shape and take that of ravenous wolves?”
“Oh, yes—yes—I have indeed heard of those strange legends in which the Wehr-Wolf is represented in such appalling colors!” exclaimed the old man, a terrible suspicion crossing his mind.
“’Tis said that at sunset on the last day of every month the mortal, to whom belongs the destiny of the Wehr-Wolf, must exchange his natural form for that of the savage animal; in which horrible shape he must remain until the moment when the morrow’s sun dawns upon the earth.”
“The legend that told thee this spoke truly,” said the stranger. “And now dost thou comprehend the condition which must be imposed upon thee?”
“I do—I do!” murmured the old man with a fearful shudder. “But he who accepts that condition makes a compact with the evil one, and thereby endangers his immortal soul!”
“Not so,” was the reply. “There is naught involved in this condition which—— But hesitate not,” added the stranger, hastily: “I have no time to waste in bandying words. Consider all I offer you: in another hour you shall be another man!”
The shepherd (who is, of course, the titular Wagner) accepts this offer. The visitor gives him a bottle; after he drinks the liquid inside, Wagner’s youth is duly restored and the two set off together to carry out their nefarious deeds.
Note that, while later werewolf fiction would establish the conventional lycanthrope as the unwilling victim of a curse, the portrayal of Wagner as a Faustian character is true to the tales from the witch-hunt era, when werewolves were imagined as a subcategory of evil sorcerer. It’s also interesting that Reynolds has his werewolf transform once a month: the convention of the full-moon transformation wouldn’t be established by Hollywood for almost a century, but Reynolds has coincidentally hit upon a similar device.
The prologue completed, the novel’s first chapter opens in November 1520, more than four years after Wagner made his bargain. We are introduced to the two children of the Count of Riverola: twenty-five-year-old Nisida (hot-tempered, haughty and deaf-mute) and nineteen-year-old Francisco (amiable and agreeable). As their father lies dying, he encourages Francisco to commit himself to Christianity, and also hands the youth a key with the injunction that — on the day of his wedding — he use it to open a certain door leading to a certain closet, the contents of which the ailing nobleman leaves a mystery.
“And remember”, says the count, “that while I bestow upon you my blessing—my dying blessing—may that blessing become a withering curse—the curse of hell upon you—if in any way you violate one tittle of the injunctions which I have now given you.”
He then dies. Despite this stern warning, however, Nisida can’t keep her mind off the mysterious closet:
But when, suddenly awaking from that profound meditation, she started from her seat with flashing eyes—heaving bosom—and an expression of countenance denoting a fixed determination to accomplish some deed from which her better feelings vainly bade her to abstain:—when she drew her tall—her even majestic form up to its full height, the drapery shadowing forth every contour of undulating bust and exquisitely modeled limb—while her haughty lip curled in contempt of any consideration save her own indomitable will—she appeared rather a heroine capable of leading an Amazonian army, than a woman to whom the sighing swain might venture to offer up the incense of love.
Once Nisida has stolen the key from her sleeping brother, not even the sight of her father’s corpse gives her enough guilt to rethink her actions. The book’s second chapter ends with her approaching the forbidden closet, ready to open it…