Werewolf Wednesday: “Wolfshead” by Robert E. Howard (1926)

WeirdTalesApril26Having covered “In the Forest of Villefére”, a werewolf story written by a 19-year-old Robert E. Howard, I shall now turn to its (considerably longer) sequel “Wolfshead”. This was published in the April 1926 edition of Weird Tales, several months after its predecessor.

The protagonist, “a reckless young cavalier” named Pierre, pays a visit to his friend Dom Vincente da Lusto at the latter’s estate on the west coast of Africa. Amongst the other guests is a mysterious man from Normandy, de Montour – the main character of “In the Forest of Villefére”. At a gathering, du Montour drinks an eccentric toast:

He seemed to dominate, to overawe the group of revelers. Then with a mocking, savage laugh, he lifted the goblet above his head.
“To Solomon,” he exclaimed, “who bound all devils! And thrice cursed be he for that some escaped!”
A toast and a curse in one! It was drunk silently, and with many sidelong, doubting glances.

Du Montour’s strange behaviour continues. In the night of the full moon, he warns both Pierre and the Italian maiden Marcita to lock their doors. The next morning, mischievous Marcita declares that in the future, she shall leave her door unbarred. Later on, there is an animal attack in the nearby village: a man is torn to pieces, his death blamed on a leopard. The next victim to be discovered is Marcita, attacked in her room at night:

The girl lay quietly in her brother’s arms, her dark hair loose and rippling over her shoulders, her dainty night-garments torn to shreds and exposing her lovely body. Long scratches showed upon her arms, breasts and shoulders.
Presently, she opened her eyes, shuddered, then shrieked wildly and clung frantically to Luigi, begging him not to let something take her.
“The door!” she whimpered. “I left it unbarred. And something crept into my room through the darkness. I struck at it with my dagger and it hurled me to the floor, tearing, tearing at me. Then I fainted.”

Marcita survives, but von Schillen – one of the men she flirted with – is not so lucky and is found dead. The residents of the estate rush to pin blame. Could this be the start of a slave uprising, or a jealous attack carried out by one of the other targets of Marcita’s minxish affections? An exanimation of von Schillen’s injuries, meanwhile, suggests that the culprit is a vicious animal. The next morning, Pierre finds that his recently-acquired slave Gola has anecdotal evidence of a bizarre sort:

Suddenly an idea came to me. I had heard vague tales, little more than hints of legends, of the devilish leopard cult that existed on the West Coast. No white man had ever seen one of its votaries, but Dom Vincente had told us tales of beast-men, disguised in skins of leopards, who stole through the midnight jungle and slew and devoured. A ghastly thrill traveled up and down my spine, and in an instant I had Gola in a grasp which made him yell.
“Was that a leopard-man?” I hissed, shaking him viciously.
“Massa, massa!” he gasped. “Me good boy! Ju ju man get! More besser no tell!”
“You’ll tell me!” I gritted, renewing my endeavors, until, his hands waving feeble protests, he promised to tell me what he knew.
“No leopard-man!” he whispered, and his eyes grew big with supernatural fear. “Moon, he full, woodcutter find, him heap clawed. Find ‘nother woodcutter. Big Massa (Dom Vincente) say, ‘leopard.’ No leopard. But leopard-man, he come to kill. Something kill leopard-man! Heap claw! Hai, hai! Moon full again. Something come in, lonely hut; claw um woman, claw um pick’nin. Man find um claw up. Big Massa say ‘leopard.’ Full moon again, and woodcutter find, heap clawed. Now come in castle. No leopard. But always footmarks of a man.”

Pierre happens to check in upon de Montour, and finds the latter’s chamber empty – with the door having been broken from inside. Investigating further, Pierre gets into a fight with an unknown figure in the dark; only after he overpowers his adversary does he realise that he has been struggling with .de Montour. The latter admits to being the mysterious killer, and then undergoes a terrible transformation…

As I looked, to my horror, out of nothing, a shapeless, nameless something took vague form! Like a shadow it moved upon de Montour.
It was hovering about him! Good God, it was merging, becoming one with the man!
De Montour swayed; a great gasp escaped him. The dim thing vanished. De Montour wavered. Then he turned toward me, and may God grant that I never look on a face like that again!
It was a hideous, a bestial face. The eyes gleamed with a frightful ferocity; the snarling lips were drawn back from gleaming teeth, which to my startled gaze appeared more like bestial fangs than human teeth.

Pierre shuts himself behind a door to escape the werewolf, which gives up attacking him and slinks into the darkness to cause carnage elsewhere. The next morning, de Montour reveals all. He recaps the plot of “In the Forest of Villefére”, explaining that because he had killed a werewolf in its human guise, he is now haunted by its spirit and cursed to become a werewolf in turn. He also outlines the origin of werewolves, allowing Howard to offer the novel twist that a true werewolf is not a man who becomes a wolf, but a wolf that becomes a man:

“Now listen, my friend, and I will tell you of the wisdom, the hellish knowledge that is mine, gained through many a frightful deed, imparted to me amid the ghastly shadows of midnight forests where fiends and half-beasts roamed.
“In the beginning, the world was strange, misshapen. Grotesque beasts wandered through its jungles. Driven from another world, ancient demons and fiends came in great numbers and settled upon this newer, younger world. Long the forces of good and evil warred.
“A strange beast, known as man, wandered among the other beasts, and since good or bad must have a concrete form ere either accomplishes its desire, the spirits of good entered man. The fiends entered other beasts, reptiles and birds; and long and fiercely waged the age-old battle. But man conquered. The great dragons and serpents were slain and with them the demons. Finally, Solomon, wise beyond the ken of man, made great war upon them, and by virtue of his wisdom, slew, seized and bound. But there were some which were the fiercest, the boldest, and though Solomon drove them out he could not conquer them. Those had taken the form of wolves. As the ages passed, wolf and demon became merged. No longer could the fiend leave the body of the wolf at will. In many instances, the savagery of the wolf overcame the subtlety of the demon and enslaved him, so the wolf became again only a beast, a fierce, cunning beast, but merely a beast. But of the werewolves, there are many, even yet.”
“And during the time of the full moon, the wolf may take the form, or the half-form of a man. When the moon hovers at her zenith, however, the wolf-spirit again takes ascendency and the werewolf becomes a true wolf once more. But if it is slain in the form of a man, then the spirit is free to haunt its slayer through the ages.”

He then ties this back to his personal history, describing his first transformation:

“One night in a small village in the center of a great forest, the influence came upon me with full power. It was night, and the moon, nearly full, was rising over the forest. And between the moon and me, I saw, floating in the upper air, ghostly and barely discernible, the outline of a wolf’s head!
“I remember little of what happened thereafter. I remember, dimly, clambering into the silent street, remember struggling, resisting briefly, vainly, and the rest is a crimson maze, until I came to myself the next morning and found my garments and hands caked and stained crimson; and heard the horrified chattering of the villagers, telling of a pair of clandestine lovers, slaughtered in a ghastly manner, scarcely outside the village, torn to pieces as if by wild beasts, as if by wolves.”

De Montour has no easy escape from this curse. He could commit suicide; but as well as damning his soul to hell, this would cause his body to “forever roam the earth, moved and inhabited by the soul of the werewolf!” In addition, he seems invincible. He has survived swords and daggers, while his demonic aspect has freed him from chains, cells and even the executioner’s block. He still hopes for death, however, and pleads for Pierre to slay him.

Days pass and Pierre neither kills de Montour nor alerts the master of the estate to his condition, finding the werewolf too pitiable. Instead, they settle on an arrangement where Pierre keeps de Montour safely housed in the garden, secretly providing him with food. Then, while visiting the dungeon one night, Pierre personally witnesses the beginning of the werewolf’s transformation:

And then the hand of horror grasped me. On the wall behind de Montour appeared a shadow, a shadow clearly defined of a wolf’s head!
At the same instant de Montour felt its influence. With a shriek he bounded from his stool.
He pointed fiercely, and as with trembling hands I slammed and bolted the door behind me, I felt him hurl his weight against it. As I fled up the stairway I heard a wild raving and battering at the iron-bound door. But with all the werewolf’s might the great door held.

Meanwhile, the owner of the estate – Dom Vincente – becomes the target of a scheme hatched by his caddish cousin Carlos, who hopes to claim the estate and all that comes with it (including the lovely Ysabel, the virtuous counterpart to Marcita’s mischievous coquette) for himself. He convinces the natives that Dom Vincente is the killer, and they respond by rising up against the castle’s occupants. Dom Vincente tells Pierre that the only way to end the uprising is to set off a storehouse of gunpowder. This job falls to the werewolf, who accepts the task – even if he should fail, he will at least end his cursed life.

He succeeds in blowing up the storehouse, and the natives are either killed or scared away. Pierre is then reunited with de Montour, who is in his human guise despite the moon being full. He explains that during his physical battle against the natives, he also fought a spiritual battle – which he likewise won:

“I fought a frightful battle, as I ran to the river,” he answered, “for the fiend had me in its grasp and drove me to fall upon the natives. But for the first, time my soul and mind gained ascendency for an instant, an instant just long enough to hold me to my purpose. And I believe the good saints came to my aid, for I was giving my life to save life.
“I leaped into the river and swam, and in an instant the crocodiles were swarming about me.
“Again in the clutch of the fiend I fought them, there in the river. Then suddenly the thing left me. […] My soul is free. Incredible as it seems, the demon lies drowned upon the bed of the river, or else inhabits the body of one of the savage reptiles that swim the ways of the Niger.”

“Wolfshead” is remembered primarily for being an early story by the man who would create Conan; had Howard ceased writing at this point, it would likely have faded into oblivion. But it has to be said that the teenage Howard had an innovative conception of lycanthropy which, as I said in my post on “In the Forest of Villefére”, is remarkably similar to that found in Universal films over the next two decades. Howard is the earliest writer that I know of to use the full moon as a trigger for werewolf transformations and to portray lycanthropy as contagious (albeit under rather different conditions to the now-standard infectious bite). The portrayal of the werewolf as a tragic figure seeking redemption or death was not new by this point (see Wagner the Wehr-wolf) but it was not yet the default.

The young Howard was no more racially sensitive than the latter Howard, but the African setting does at least provide some novelty value, with an effective contrast being created between the European werewolf and the more exotic beasts of the jungle. Howard’s proposed origin for werewolves, tied to King Solomon, is also fetching. All in all, “Wolfshead” retains interest as a halfway point between the intangible, demonic werewolves of nineteenth-century literature and the more physical, bestial werewolves of cinema.

(I also have to point out the final line’s implication that lycanthropy can be passed from human to crocodile – a notion that, to the best of my knowledge, no writer has picked up on…)

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