Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 15, 2014


The Werewolf:  In Legend, Fact & Art by Basil Copper (1977)

Following the success of his 1973 book The Vampire:  In Legend, Fact & Art, Basil Copper decided to continue the theme of writing companion volumes about legendary monsters, beginning with the werewolf.  For reasons unknown Copper never published a third volume.

Copper plays a bit loose in his definition of lycanthropy, adding information about a number of different man-into-beasts throughout the book.  (He considers Elwart T. Jones' How Now, Brown Cow to be a novel of lycanthropy, for example; the book is actually about a lady who turns into a cow.) 

The werewolf as an archetypal model is found in many ancient civilizations where natural things were often given supernatural origins.  They have been used as demonic symbols to bolster the authority of the Church.  People who confessed to being werewolves (or witches, or warlocks, or even vampires) did so under psychological duress, often believing their confessions to be true.

Then, too, the deprivations of real wolves were sometimes credited to werewolves.  A person with excessive body hair may be accused of being a werewolf.  There are psychological abnormalities that might make one act like a wolf.  Copper also uncovers a rare type of genetic porphyria, dubbed "the Werewolf Disease," that may explain the prevalence of so-called werewolves in certain areas of Europe.  And there are recorded examples of feral children -- those supposedly raised by animals -- who never gain most human attributes.  The werewolf legends can be traced to these sources.

All of this makes fascinating reading, but for those who appreciate Copper's other books -- particularly his horror and gothic stories -- his examination of the werewolf theme in literature is telling.

Prior to the nineteenth century, literature has generally overlooked the werewolf, the exceptions being works such as William and the Werewolf in the fourteenth century.  Maturin, Weber, Marryat, Dumas, and Sutherland Menzies all briefly touched on the theme, but it was penny-a-worder George W. M. Reynolds who brought the theme full flower with his Wagner, the Wehrwolf, published over a year and a half as a 77-chapter penny dreadful.  Dreadful, indeed, but it remains a fascinating read.

For Copper, though, the werewolf novel reached its literary peak with Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris (1933).  Copper spends over 20 pages and two chapters gushing over this novel like a fannish schoolboy, liberally sprinkling superlatives throughout his discussion of the book.  It's a good book, no doubt, but many of the things he raves about can be found in his own work.  Objective?  No, but telling in how Copper approached many of his horror and gothic stories.

Copper then spends some time discussing individual stories by Stevenson, Bierce, Blackwood, and Gilbert Campbell before moving on to the werewolf in the cinema, particularly The Werewolf of London, The Wolfman, and The Curse of the Werewolf.  The latter Copper found to be extremely gush-worthy; no wonder, it was based (loosely) on Endore's novel.

All in all, The Werewolf:  In Legend, Fact & Art is a mixed bag, a journey through werewolf lore perhaps tainted by the author's preferences.  I prefer to think of this journey as Copper's personal one, along the same line as what Stephen King did in Danse Macabre.  For all its flaws, the book is interesting and will lead the reader to a number of good works, both fictional and non-fictional, on the subject.

No comments:

Post a Comment