“In the Forest of Villefére” was published in the August 1925 issue of Weird Tales. Its author, Robert E. Howard, was nineteen when he wrote both this story and its sequel “Wolfshead”, which was published in 1926. He would remark in a 1933 letter to H. P. Lovecraft that “it was two solid years before I sold another line of fiction”. His most famous creation, Conan, would come later; during this brief period of his young career, it was werewolves rather than Cimmerians that loomed large in Howard’s writing.
The story’s rapier-wielding protagonist – de Montour of Normandy – takes a twilight trip through a forest purportedly home to a werewolf. Here, he encounters a masked man; this stranger, who gives his name as Carlous le Loup, offers a peculiar explanation for his disguise:
“A mask!” I exclaimed. “Why do you wear a mask, m’sieu?”
“It is a vow,” he exclaimed. “In fleeing a pack of hounds I vowed that if I escaped I would wear a mask for a certain time.”
“Wolves,” he answered quickly; “I said wolves.”
The two men travel together, and de Montour grows increasingly perplexed with his new companion. For one, he is unable to identify Carlous le Loup’s nationality: “he had a very strange accent, that was neither French nor Spanish nor English, not like any language I have ever heard.” The conversation between the two men soon turns to the local werewolf. “The old women say,” remarks Carlous, “that if a werewolf is slain while a wolf, then he is slain, but if he is slain as a man, then his half-soul will haunt his slayer forever.” At the same time, the masked man appears to be in a hurry, encouraging de Montour to move on “before the moon reaches her zenith.”
Eventually, it turns out that Carlous le Loup has led de Montour not to the other end of the forest, but to a moonlit glade. Here, he begins acting strangely:
He laughed without sound. “Why,” said he, “This is a fair glade. As good as a banquet hall it is, and many times have I feasted here. Ha, ha, ha! Look ye, I will show you a dance.” And he began bounding here and there, anon flinging back his head and laughing silently. Thought I, the man is mad.
As he danced his weird dance I looked about me. The trail went not on but stopped in the glade.
“Come,” said I “we must on. Do you not smell the rank, hairy scent that hovers about the glade? Wolves den here. Perhaps they are about us and are gliding upon us even now.”
He dropped upon all fours, bounded higher than my head, and came toward me with a strange slinking motion.
“That dance is called the Dance of the Wolf,” said he, and my hair bristled.
Le Loup then attacks de Montour, who fights back and pulls off his assailant’s mask in the struggle: “Beast eyes glittered beneath that mask, white fangs flashed in the moonlight. The face was that of a wolf.”
With fanged jaws and taloned hands, the werewolf continues to attack de Montour until the latter stabs the beast with a dagger; le Loup lets out a “terrible, half-bestial bellowing screech” before falling at de Montour’s feet. But the werewolf still lives, and de Montour is left with the prospect of being cursed should he slay the beast too soon:
I stooped, raised the dagger, then paused, looked up. The moon hovered close to her zenith. If I slew the thing as a man its frightful spirit would haunt me forever. I sat down waiting. The thing watched me with flaming wolf eyes. The long wiry limbs seemed to shrink, to crook; hair seemed to grow upon them. Fearing madness, I snatched up the thing’s own sword and hacked it to pieces. Then I flung the sword away and fled.
So ends Howard’s brief tale. The sequel “Wolfshead” is considerably longer and provides more to talk about, but for now, there are three things worth flagging up in Howard’s earlier treatment of the werewolf theme. One is the intriguing ambiguity as to exactly what Carlous le Loup transforms into: while he is described as having lupine attributes when he first attacks the protagonist, the final paragraph makes it clear that he has not fully transformed yet. This would suggest that he is some sort of half-man, half-wolf being, perhaps similar to the ones later seen in Universal films like The Wolf Man, in contrast to the fully lupine transformations that were conventional in werewolf stories of the nineteenth century.
Second, the werewolf is established as transforming when “the moon reaches her zenith”. Third, we are told that if the protagonist kills the werewolf in its human form, he will be haunted by its spirit. “Wolfshead” elaborates upon each of these points: a full moon is specifically involved in the transformation, while a person haunted by a werewolf spirit is revealed to become a werewolf in turn – in other words, lycanthropy is contagious.
What makes these latter two details notable is that the concepts of full moon transformations and contagious (as opposed to hereditary) lycanthropy, while cinematic conventions from the Universal era onwards, were very rare in werewolf literature before then. In fact, I am unaware of any story prior to Howard’s mid-twenties tales to use either element.