(This is the fifth part in a series; see also parts one, two, three and four)
Reynolds’ Miscellany, where Wagner the Wehr-Wolf was serialised, was sold for one penny an issue. That’s half of the “penny dreadful” label earned, and now — after some stalling — I’ve arrived at the portion of the novel that justifies the second half.
Granted, there’s still a little more stalling to go. At this point it’s clear that Reynolds is not above repeating himself. Consider the narrator’s description of Nisida:
She was attired in deep black; her luxuriant raven hair, no longer depending in shining curls, was gathered up in massy bands at the sides, and a knot behind, whence hung a rich veil that meandered over her body’s splendidly symmetrical length of limb in such a manner as to aid her attire in shaping rather than hiding the contours of that matchless form. The voluptuous development of her bust was shrouded, not concealed, by the stomacher of black velvet which she wore, and which set off in strong relief the dazzling whiteness of her neck.
Compare this with Agnes’ description in the previous chapter of the mysterious woman who haunted her:
The lady was enveloped in a dark, thick veil, the ample folds of which concealed her countenance, and meandered over her whole body’s splendidly symmetrical length of limb in such a manner as to aid her rich attire in shaping, rather than hiding, the contours of that matchless form.
Chapter 11 opens with announcing that months have passed, so that the story has reached 31 January 1521. Love is in the air, with Francisco expressing his love of Flora (despite social strictures against a count marrying a commoner) and Wagner courting Nisida. The latter encounter is broken off abruptly, however, as Wagner realises that the sun is about to set on the last day of the month — and soon he will become a wolf. After one of the purplest descriptions of s sunset ever commuted to prose, the following chapter describes Wagner’s transformation:
But, hark! what is that wild and fearful cry?
In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.
He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.
Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.
“Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.
And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.
But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf!
At last, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf has its werewolf. Reynolds seems more at home with the ensuing lupine mayhem than with the preceding romance, and shows great glee in describing the wolf’s bloody rampage through a funeral procession:
The coffin-bearers dropped their burden, and the corpse rolled out upon the ground, its decomposing countenance seeming horrible by the glare of the torch-light. The monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down by the violence with which the ferocious monster cleared its passage; and the venerable father—on whose brow sat the snow of eighty winters—fell with his head against a monument, and his brains were dashed out.
The mayhem continues. The wolf makes short work of a boy who happened to be in his way (“the child—the blooming, violet-eyed, flaxen-haired boy—the darling of his poor but tender parents, is weltering in his blood!”), causes a herdsman to be gored to death by his own startled ox and knocks a gay maiden to her death in a rapid stream. Then, finally, dawn breaks and Wagner once again becomes “a handsome, young and perfect man” — at least, until the month ends.