Werewolf Wednesday: “The Refugee” by Jane Rice (1943)

As far as horror films were concerned, werewolves were perhaps the biggest monster of World War 2. For one reason or another, the war years saw an influx of lycanthropes onto screens: The Wolf Man (1941), The Mad Monster (1942), The Undying Monster (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Return of the Vampire (1943), Cry of the Werewolf (1944), House of Frankenstein (1944). With “The Refugee” by Jane Rice, originally published in the October 1943 edition of Unknown Worlds, we have a werewolf story with a wartime setting – namely, Nazi-occupied France as seen through the eyes of American ex-pat Milli Cushman. A decidedly self-absorbed individual, Milli had once found the overseas conflict most exciting, but this excitement has since dwindled:

The trouble with the war, Milli Cushman thought as she stared sulkily through streaming French windows into her rain-drenched garden, was that it was so frightfully boring. There weren’t any men, any more. Interesting ones, that is. Or parties. Or little pink cocktails. Or café royale. Or long-stemmed roses wrapped in crackly green wax paper. There wasn’t even a decent hairdresser left.

Milli’s thoughts are interrupted by the arrival in her garden of an unclothed youth, beautiful yet with an animalistic quality. The two stare at each other through a window, eyes locked, “Milli’s like those of an amazed china doll; his like those of an untamed animal that was slightly underfed and resented the resulting gastric disturbances.” The boy soon disappears from sight, and Milli is left in a state of confusion. On the one hand she believes him to be a refugee, and that “refugees of any sort were dangerous”; yet she remains captivated by his beauty.

Later, at night, Milli’s servant Maria throws a bucket of water out of a window to scare off an animal that she has seen outside. Milli is afraid that she has driven away the alluring visitor, and so dashes out calling for him. There is no sign of the youth, however; only clawed footprints and Maria’s claims of having seen gleaming yellow eyes. The next morning Milli learns that an elderly neighbour has been killed and apparently eaten by an animal; true to her character, she is unperturbed by this. After all, he was old, “while she, with so much life yet to be lived, was embalmed in a wretched sort of flypaper existence” without even decent toast for breakfast!

Milli eventually meets the boy, who gives his name as Lupus. She apparently takes him to be some sort of resistance fighter who picks off German officers, an occupation that she views with some scorn: “It seems so silly… What good does it do? It doesn’t scare them. It just makes them angrier. And that makes it harder on us.” Still, she invites him into her house. He gives her a pinch. “It was, Milli thought, not at all a flirtatious pinch. It was the sort of pinch her father used to give chickens to see if they were filled out in the proper places.”

“The Refugee” is a slim but lively tale, mixing gruesome horror, a wry portrait of a dislikable main character and a touch of macabre beauty in its choice of word-pictures. Lycanthropy is not the only animal transformation to be found in the prose, with one extended metaphor turning the whole of Paris into a cat:

Then, unexpectedly, the city had become a gaunt, grey ghost, a cat. A gaunt grey cat with its bones showing through, as it crouched on silent haunches and stared unwinkingly before it. Like one of those cats that hung around the alley barrels of the better hotels. Or used to hang. Cooked, a cat bore a striking resemblance to a rabbit.

The story was likely influenced by Saki’s “Gabriel-Ernest” (1909). It has a similar tone of sardonic humour, and a similar portrayal of the werewolf as an ephebic youth who fascinates the protagonist. There is something of an overlap in dialogue between the two stories as well. Here is Milli’s conversation with the werewolf boy:

‘What are you doing in my garden?’ Milli asked, thinking it best to put him in his place, first and foremost. It wouldn’t do to let him get out of hand. So soon, anyway.
‘Sleeping,’ the boy said.
‘Don’t you have any place to sleep?’
‘Yes. Many places. But I like this place.’
‘You’re not hungry?’ Milli elevated her eyebrows in surprise.
‘Not now.’ The boy let his glance rove fleetingly over his hostess’s neck. ’I will be later.’

Compare the above exchange with this conversation in Saki’s story:

“What are you doing there?” he demanded.
“Obviously, sunning myself,” replied the boy.
“Where do you live?”
“Here, in these woods.”
“What do you feed on?” he asked.
“Flesh,” said the boy, and he pronounced the word with slow relish, as though he were tasting it.
“Flesh! What Flesh?”
“Since it interests you, rabbits, wild-fowl, hares, poultry, lambs in their season, children when I can get any; they’re usually too well locked in at night, when I do most of my hunting. It’s quite two months since I tasted child-flesh.”

Another influence is Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933), which is mentioned by title during the course of the story. “The Refugee” reaches a twist ending that subverts the conventions of the werewolf genre – indicating that, between Endore and Universal, the genre had become sufficiently well-known by 1943 to be lampooned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: