Monday, November 13, 2017

Silver Bullets: Classic Werewolf Stories - selected by Eleanor Dobson

This may well have been my most anticipated book of the year - great title, great subject, and great expectations of the British Library (who published it) based on previous collections (see The Haunted Library and Lost in a Pyramid). I was not disappointed. I also came across this Article from the New Yorker whilst I was reading it which underlined something I'd started to notice.

This collection of stories and poems come from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and with some  exceptions they are all set in a time, or place, where wolves still roamed. One exception is Saki's 'Gabriel-Ernest', which in its way is the most unsettling of the lot. It's a curious thing that whilst Victorians happily imagined contemporary vampires (and re-animated mummies, and in one memorable example a re-animated mummy that was also a vampire) their werewolves lived in the past, or Canada.

There are some real curiosities in this collection, George MacDonald's 'The Grey Wolf' particularly interested me because it's set in Shetland, it's setting feels roughly contemporary to its 1871 publication date which makes it another exception to my roaming wolves theory. It's curious to me because although there's a legend about something called a Wulver in Shetland folklore (a beast with the body of a man, but the head of a wolf, which seems to have been a fairly benign creature who didn't transform from or into anything) recorded by Jessie Saxby, it's not wolf country. If they ever roamed in Shetland it would have been a very long time ago when the islands still had tree cover. MacDonald's tale is eerie rather than frightening, with only a limited sense of danger for his protagonist - but it's haunting enough for all that,

W. B. Yeats' 'Where There is Nothing, There is God' is an interesting inclusion, I guess it's intention is to misdirect the reader (I think this was the intention of both Yeats, and Dobson) into anticipating one thing and getting another. It's a beautiful bit of writing though, one with a tremendous visual quality (I feel like I watched it, rather than read it, so strong we're the images it conjured).

I think Kipling's 'The Mark of the Beast' might actually have been my first proper introduction to him, it's made me want to read more. 'Gabriel-Earnest' is Saki on top form, his something wild in the wood is all the more disconcerting for its introduction into an Edwardian drawing room.

Another curiosity is Clemence Housman's 'The Were-Wolf'. It's an interesting mix of things - there's it's northern setting, her own role in the suffragette movement which gives a particular resenonce to her choice to have her werewolf take the human form of a beautiful, dangerous, huntress, and the Christian allegory that underpins it all. Unlike the equally beautiful but dangerous lady in Gilbert Campbell's 'The White Wolf of Kostopchin', it's possible to feel some sympathy for Housman's White Fell who's allure is based on her wildness as well as her beauty. Campbell's story speaks more of men's fear of women's power, and their own weakness in desire.

Altogether it's an excellent collection. Entertaining to read by a fire, with the doors safely barred, and no intention of letting in unwelcome or uncanny visitors on these dark nights, as well as gathering enough examples to appreciate the hold these creatures had on popular imagination, and what they were used to explore. It's also interesting to trace how these beginnings developed - into Angela Carter's wolf stories, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight wolves, or the traditional horror film versions.


  1. Hm, intriguing review: I'm curious. The ways in which the writers have used the idea of the werewolf seem very imaginative. Squeamish as I am, I don't like too much horror but this sounds unsettling and more my cup of tea. I wonder when the first werewolf literary story (as opposed to the folklore) was written?

    1. The myth is old, so that's a hard one. Is little red riding hood a werewolf story? And there's Lycaon in the Greek myths, and Grendel in Beowulf doesn't seem miles away from a werewolf (or at least werewolves wouldn't seem out of place in Beowulf). The earliest story in this collection is from 1831 which I guess might be the beginnings of the modern werewolf.

      I'm quite squeamish too, but found nothing very disturbing here - just the slightly creepy stories that make winter nights fun, and it's a great collection for exploring the different uses the werewolf has been put o in literature.

  2. Coincidentally, I have just read "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling. That was not my introduction to Kipling, because I also read the "Just So Tales" when I was young. I certainly enjoyed "Kim", though it is true that it is pro-imperialist. But his attitudes to the peoples of India are more complex than that, and the introduction of the edition that I read explored that in some detail. I would certainly recommend "Kim" if you want to read more Kipling.

    1. I do. The imperialism doesn't worry me in that context - it's not as if it didn't happen, or as if those attitudes aren't worth exploring and understanding seeing as they've shaped who and what we are. Something with a good introduction sounds like the way to go.