Werewolf Wednesday: “Running Wolf” by Algernon Blackwood (1920)

CenturyAug1920Hotel Clerk Malcolm Hyde visits the Canadian backwoods on holiday and heads to Medicine Lake in the hopes of catching some fish (“You’ll have it to yourself except for an old Indian who’s got a shack there” says Morton of the Montreal Sporting Club). He arrives there, and finds it as beautiful as he had been led to believe:

The lake formed a crescent, perhaps four miles long, its width between a mile and half a mile. The slanting gold of sunset flooded it. No wind stirred its crystal surface. Here it had lain since the redskin’s god first made it: here it would lie until he dried it up again. Towering spruce and hemlock trooped to its very edge, majestic cedars leaned down as if to drink, crimson sumachs shone in fiery patches, and maples gleamed orange and red beyond belief. The air was like wine, with the silence of a dream.

Hyde has been repeatedly told to avoid the western shore of the lake, but he does not take this advice seriously. After setting foot upon the “forbidden shore”, as he terms it, he is plagued with the feeling that somebody at the seemingly deserted lake is watching him. Then, at night, he sees what appears to be the shape of a crouching man; yet the eyes are those of an animal:

It was a pair of animal eyes that stared so fixedly at him out of the night. And this certainty had an immediate and natural effect upon him. For, at the menace of those eyes, the fears of millions of long dead hunters since the dawn of time woke in him. Hotel clerk though he was, heredity surged through him in an automatic wave of instinct.

With the aid of a burning brand, Hyde gets a clear look at the creature. It turns out to be a large timber-wolf, but its behaviour is strange: it shows no fear of fire and appears to be watching him with some sort of intent. “Great Scott!” he proclaims upon looking into the wolf’s eyes. “It’s like looking at a human being!” From here, the wolf’s demeanour grows increasingly anthropomorphic:

Good heavens! It sat there with the pose, the attitude, the gesture in repose of something almost human. And then, with a second shock of biting wonder, it came to him like a revelation.The wolf sat beside that camp-fire as a man might sit.

Hyde reacts to this development with “a full-blooded superstitious fear… that nameless terror that is said to attack human beings who suddenly face the dead”. However, he overcomes this visceral response and begins to feel sympathy for the creature, which seems to be asking him for help. The wolf leads him to a nearby bluff (“probably the spot, he imagined, where the Indians held their medicine-making ceremonies”) and continues to act strangely, sometimes behaving like an intelligent human, other times like a happy dog. Hyde interprets the animal’s movements and gestures as a call for him to begin digging in a certain area, and he does so.

Eventually, he uncovers a human skeleton – apparently a Native who had been killed violently. Hyde gives the remains an impromptu but respectful burial, and the wolf disappears into the night.

In the morning, Hyde meets the Native man who lives by the lake; although the latter speaks little English, the two are able to discuss something of the previous night’s events. “Him no wolf”, says the man. “Him big medicine wolf. Him spirit wolf.” The story concludes with Hyde’s acquaintance Morton explaining to him the full legend of the area. According to this account, a young brave named Running Wolf had killed his namesake animal – an unforgivable crime, as the wolf was the totem animal of his tribe. As punishment for offending the spirits, he was exiled; should he return, he was threatened, he would be killed and his remains scattered, his own spirit barred from the Happy Hunting Grounds until a person of another race should find his body and bury it.

Published in the August 1920 edition of Century Magazine, “Running Wolf” is one of the stories in which Algernon Blackwood draws upon his own history of travelling in Canada. It is possible that Blackwood’s sometime travelling companion Wilfred Wilson played a role in its composition as the 1921 collection The Wolves of God and Other Fey Stories – which includes “Running Wolf” – is credited to both Blackwood and Wilson. Mike Ashley, in his biography of Blackwood Starlight Man, theorises that the minor character of Morton was based upon another of Blackwood’s friends, Reginald Moreton.

While its portrayal of indigenous Canadian culture is questionable (the usage of the phrase “Happy Hunting Grounds”, which likely originated with James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional Mohican Chingachcook, is a warning sign) the story conveys a sincere belief in nature as an apt location for sublime encounters, a theme that runs through much of Blackwood’s work. The character of Hyde is surrounded with sardonic humour at the start of the tale, but this is gradually pared away as he spends time in the wolf-haunted wilderness. Also notable is that “Running Wolf” is an example of what could be called the anti-horror mode of the ghost story: the main character must overcome his fear of the ghost and achieve understanding so that he can put Running Wolf to rest.

How accurately it can be termed a werewolf story is debatable – it clearly is not drawing upon the werewolf of European folklore, at least not in any literal sense – but it has been included in at least two werewolf-themed anthologies over the years (Way of the Werewolf from 1966, The Literary Werewolf from 2002). Blackwood would later adapt the story for radio, first in 1937 as a narrated broadcast entitled “The Curse of the Wolf” and then as a 15-minute play that aired in 1944 under the original title.

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