Werewolf Wednesday: “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott (1954)

Originally published in the April 1954 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Bruce Elliott’s “Wolves Don’t Cry” has long been a fixture in werewolf anthologies – largely due to its novel twist on the lycanthropy theme. The main character is a zoo wolf who has suddenly transformed into a human, and awakes in his cage to find himself with a new body:

Inside the naked man’s head strange ideas were stirring. His paw, what had happened to it? Where was the stiff grey hair? The jet-black steel-strong nails? And what was the odd fifth thing that jutted out from his paw at right angles? He moved it experimentally. It rotated. He’d never been able to move his dew claw, and the fact that he could move this fifth extension was somehow more boggling than the other oddities that were puzzling him.

The zoo’s staff take him for a drunk who had somehow managed to get into the cage and set the wolf loose. He is confused and dismayed by the crowd of excited “two-legged ones” around his resting place, even more so when he realises the extent of his changes: he can no longer howl; his sense of smell is vastly diminished; and he is now capable of seeing strange new colours. He is then forcibly transported to new surroundings:

But worse was to come: when he was carried out of the moving thing, the two-legged ones carried him into a big building and the smells that surged in on his outraged nostrils literally made him cringe. There was sickness, and stenches worse than he had ever smelled, and above and beyond all the other smells the odour of death was heavy in the long white corridors through which he was carried.

The story goes on to describe the protagonist’s confusion as he is placed in a cell with bars like his cage back at the zoo; forced to wear clothes; fed foul-tasting mush instead of meat and bones; pressured to walk on his hind limbs, in the manner of the dancing bear he had viewed wit derision as a zoo animal. Despite his great discomfort, he adapts to his surroundings at the “big new zoo” and learns to behave in the manner he is expected to, even picking up a few of the strange barks that form the English language.

So far, “Wolves Don’t Cry” has done more than just invert the central image of lycanthropy: it has dispensed with almost all of the conventions that audiences would have come to expect from werewolves. A werewolf story is not typically about a human suddenly turning into a wolf in the manner of Gregor Samsa becoming an insect in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”; in most cases there will be some sort of explanation for the change, be it a curse of infection. But while Bruce Elliott never explains quite how his wolf became a human, he does come to engage with werewolf conventions in a playful manner.

Once discharged from hospital, the protagonist visits a cinema (“a big place where, on a screen, black and white shadows went through imitations of reality”) and sees a film featuring a more conventional lycanthrope:

It was in this big place where the shadows acted that he found that perhaps he was not unique. His eyes glued to the screen, he watched as a man slowly fell to all fours, threw his head back, bayed at the moon, and then, right before everyone, turned into a wolf! A werewolf, the man was called in the shadow play. And if there were werewolves, he thought, as he sat frozen in the middle of the seated two-leggeds, then of course there must be weremen (would that be the word?) … and he was one of them. …

The wereman then goes to a library; he finds a book containing details on how a person might become a werewolf through a ritual that must be conducted while wearing a belt made of human skin (the author appears to be drawing on Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 Book of Were-Wolves, which mentions such a macabre artifact). He performs a version of this ritual with appropriate inversions – his belt is made of wolf hide, not human skin – and is returned to his original guise. The story ends with a hint of more to come, however. During his brief stint as a human, the wereman had sex with a woman; she then became pregnant – raising the question of what lupine attributes have been passed on to her child. The story closes with the wereman imagining his currently-human form suddenly becoming a wolf on a moonlit night.

While a brief story based around a basic role-reversal joke, “Wolves Don’t Cry” takes us on a tour across three distinct forms of transformation narrative. As noted, the wolf’s unexplained transformation into a human belongs to the surrealist tradition typified by Kafka. The scene in the cinema, meanwhile, acknowledges the cinematic conventions laid out by Universal’s werewolf films. Finally, when the wereman performs the climactic ritual, we see the werewolf of folklore: the magician harnessing dark forces. Elllott’s main intention appears to have been simply to tell a humorous story that examines the human world through the eyes (and nostrils) of a very confused wolf, and the story succeeds on this level; but the intertextuality adds another layer of appeal – and demonstrates how the werewolf theme had become familiar enough to warrant a revisionist take.

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