ONCE UPON A time in Wyoming, I watched a pack of wolves hunt and kill. I stopped the car and got out because a row of people were standing by the road, staring out over the scrubby hills of Yellowstone National Park. At first I couldn't see anything, but then a flicker of movement in the far distance, black against a pool of snow, caught my eye. Something – several things – were running very fast indeed.
Next to me were a huge man and his little wife. They were serious wildlife watchers, with several pairs of high-powered binoculars and a lens on a tripod. The man said grudgingly that I could take a look through the lens, as long as I didn't touch it. The flickers turned into a line of tiny wolves racing after an elk. They twisted and turned, sometimes I lost them altogether, but they always reappeared. After a few minutes they took down the elk and it was all over. I could see them gathered round the body but no blood, no tearing and devouring, even with the lens it was too far away.
What I remember is not so much the sight of the wolves, which was thrilling in a way a wildlife documentary never is, but the way the man standing next to me made me feel angry. The whole time he was shouting. Go, Alpha, Go. Don't let that runt in front, he's no killer, he don't know what to do. Get in there. Yeah. DON'T TOUCH IT (that last was to me). She's ruining it (to his wife). Yeah, Alpha's in front. YEAH.
I was angry with the man because on some level he thought he was a wolf, which was clearly ridiculous. But what made me even angrier was that he thought I wasn't a wolf. I couldn't share the excitement of the kill. I was just some bumbling fool who might mess up his equipment.
What a day, he said at the end. What a day.
Not much of a day for the elk, said his wife.
About the same time, I was beginning to write a novel about a teenage boy who turns into a werewolf. I was having trouble finding a form that would embody the impulse that originally led me to start. That impulse is still there, still strong.
I don't remember when I first heard werewolf stories, it's like they were always there.
The teen werewolf idea surfaced after my son turned fifteen. One moment, he was a sweet blond child: the next, a huge, shambling creature in bare control of his lengthening limbs. Dark hair was sprouting everywhere, the voiced yodelled between treble and bass, conversation was reduced to grunts. He smelled different. He spent most of his time in his lair. He didn't howl, but his guitar did it for him. It was only to be expected and I joked about it with his dad, as parents do, but there was something frightening about it.
Don't get me wrong. People think my son is a pretty nice, gentle person. People think that about me too, I suppose. I know they are right. I also know that if I had to, I would kill to protect him.
A CONTEMPORARY WEREWOLF story was not, I admit, an original idea. As I'm sure you've noticed, werewolves are busting out everywhere in popular culture, a close third behind vampires and zombies. The werewolf has invaded Hogwarts. Buffed and handsome, he has presented as a rival for Bella's affections in the Twilight series. In films and on TV we've seen werewolves as teenage jocks, bikie gangs, flatmates to vampires, enemies of vampires, presidential aides, corporate raiders. While we're short of a classic novel in the way Dracula is the classic vampire novel, there is no shortage of werewolf literature. Recent works include Glen Duncan's gory and sexy The Last Werewolf (Canongate, 2011) and his follow-up Tallula Rising (2012); and Benjamin Percy's apocalyptic thriller Red Moon (Breakneck Books, 2007).
The first thing I noticed when I looked up werewolves in legend and history (the two are so closely intertwined it's sometimes hard to separate them) is they are everywhere, and they go back thousands of years. Virtually every place in the world that has had wolves, or similar creatures, has stories about people who change into them, and back. You become a werewolf through sorcery, either your own spells or through a curse from another, or a punishment from a god. Sometimes it runs in the family. You put on a belt or a hide, you perform a ritual inside a circle, you take off your clothes, you drink from a certain stream or pick a certain flower, or you turn your skin inside out. Then you're a loup garou, a brouch, a lupo, a vargulfr, a varulf, a vulkolak, a versipellis, to give just a few of your names. You retain your human reason but your nature is bestial and your bloodlust insatiable. You run like the wind, you have prodigious strength and size, you may kill and devour men, women and children in great numbers, including your own family. You may either suffer or enjoy your new role, but one thing is certain: you are terrifying.
Mankind is locked in battle against you. Men will try to remove your magic belt or wolfskin, steal your clothes where you have left them, force you to drink a newborn's blood, flog you until you are covered in blood, or draw your blood, which is black. They will exorcise you with cauldrons of water that have been boiled with live toads inside. If they even suspect you of being a werewolf they will cut you open to see if you have hair growing on your insides. Or they spot you through telltale signs: you are the wolf with human eyes, a human voice, with a constant thirst, with no tail. If you are wounded or lose a limb in wolf form, your deformity will betray you when you become human again. They will kill you with swords, knives and guns; they will capture you, torture you and burn you alive.
As I trawled through the stories, I gradually discovered I was on the werewolf's side. I tut-tutted at myself: this was absurd, futile and totally unethical. Here was a creature by definition savage, ruthless and devoted to ripping humans into little pieces. But for some reason my hunch was important. I felt indignant and protective, like the counsel for the defence. Or maybe like the man at Yellowstone, cheering on the Alpha male and his pack. Or maybe the demonic equivalent of Brian's mother in Monty Python's Life of Brian: he's not Satan, he's just a naughty boy.
And as I discovered, I could make out a case for a werewolf hero. But it was very difficult, and both legend and history were stacked against me. And however good you make a werewolf, he's still immensely frightening.
THE EARLIEST MANIFESTATIONS of werewolfery are not evil. Many cultures around the world had and still have shamanistic beliefs and rituals about the power that is bestowed on you when you leave your body and enter the body of another being, and the wolf is one of the most potent animal totems. This shapeshifting is seen as either literal or psychic, and it's often thought to bring great benefits. There was a wolf goddess cult in ancient Rome – Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf mother. Native Americans believe the Wolf is the Grand Teacher of mankind. I like this quote from the shaman Ghost Wolf: 'Wolf will look deep into your heart and share the greatest of knowledge, but will demand full participation and absolute sincerity. Wolf will rekindle old memories within your soul.'
How did this formidable but largely benevolent deity or sacred being become a totally hellish creature? In Europe, the Church outlawed werewolves. Outlaws can be attractive characters – think of Robin Hood or Ned Kelly. But not the werewolf. For hundreds of years, and sometimes to the present day, he was seen as a real creature, possessed by an evil spirit and damned beyond redemption. He was methodically hunted down, tried, tortured and murdered in the most ghastly manner.
Montague Summers, an occultist who published his book The Werewolf in Lore and Legend as late as 1933, believed his subject really existed and was 'one of the most terrible and depraved of all the bond-slaves of Satan. He was even whilst in human form a creature within whom the beast – and not without prevailing – struggled with the man.' That 'not without prevailing' sets the tone: here is a being where the evil within will always triumph. I wanted to argue that he didn't choose to become what he is, but there's an answer to that too. Sometimes the man is already so depraved, he deliberately becomes a werewolf through sorcery, and he relishes his savagery. Or it's Satan's reward for his good service.
Was he sexually evil too? There's a famous woodcut of a huge man-wolf beast carrying off a revealingly clad maiden in its jaws, but the rape element isn't played up much. Maybe the werewolves were too busy with death to worry about a fate worse than death. Sexy werewolves are more of a twentieth-century invention. Which is odd, because surely they've always been sexy? The wolf is a dazzlingly beautiful and seductive animal. The killing and the visceral stuff is the ultimate release of inhibition, an ecstasy similar to orgasm. Whether you're attacker or victim, you don't care any more about anything. People in the jaws of a wild beast are said to go into a euphoric trance. Women's fantasies of rape are about giving up control, responsibility. The church must have been very successful in repressing all that.
The werewolf hysteria of the past is similar to the witch trials or the Inquisition, though less well-known. It's classic projection: apparently we were so frightened of sin we had to find some vessel into which we could dump all our badness. The scale staggered me: in France, where the cases were best documented, between 1520 and 1630 there were about thirty thousand declared cases of werewolfery. A law was passed allowing citizens to bear arms, assemble and chase and kill suspected werewolves. The vast majority who made it to court confessed to their crimes, often in elaborate and grisly detail that included accounts of black sabbaths and traffic with the Devil. The confessions were no doubt helped along by the wheel or the rack. The condemned men, women and children were often burnt alive because it was believed animals reverted to their human form in the flames, which would also stop them becoming vampires after they died.
If the stories are true, some of the so-called werewolves were appalling criminals. One German, Peter Stump, would nowadays be demonised as a cannibalistic serial killer: he was accused of murdering thirteen children, raping his own daughter, killing his own son and eating his brains. His execution in 1589 was just as barbarous as his own deeds: 'flesh of divers parts of his body' was pulled out with hot tongs, his limbs were broken on a wheel and his body was burnt. His poor daughter was also executed. As usual, it suited the narrative that Stump should accept his fate: he asked for his body not to be spared torment so that his soul might be saved, though probably nobody had much hope of that.
For every serial killer, there were probably hundreds or even thousands of more or less innocent victims of the hysteria, targets of informers' revenge, or just plain unlucky – it took very flimsy evidence to get a conviction. And some monsters, such as the Beast of Gévaudan, said to have killed more than one hundred people by ripping off their faces, were probably unusually ferocious wolves whose exploits were wildly exaggerated.
The villain for me in the werewolf trials is not Stump but a French judge, Henri Boguet, a methodical fanatic who carried out a sustained campaign of torture and terror. There's a woodcut of him among dozens of naked men bound to wheels: he walks around questioning each prisoner while the scribe takes down the confession. It's a perfect illustration of the banality of evil.
I WONDERED FOR a while if I would find a heroic werewolf among the trial histories. After all, these were persecuted and horribly wronged victims. I wanted them to be at least potentially heroic, but they were the opposite. There was something vaguely repulsive about all of them, even allowing for the propaganda of the scribes. One famous teen werewolf of the day was Jean Grenier, a thirteen-year old lad who boasted of having killed and eaten young girls, encouraged by the Lord of the Forest, a Satanic being who seemed to lurk in all the confessions. I felt sorry for Jean but I couldn't like him. He was ugly, bestial, weak, snivelling: he reminded me of Gollum. Remarkably, the judge decided he was too stupid to be a werewolf and condemned him to captivity in a monastery, where he died some years later. Maybe it's the way the stories are written, but it's almost impossible to feel much pity for the trial victims.
So are there any stories of heroic werewolves? Among the scores I read, I found just four basic tales, with variations. The Livonian werewolves, on trial in 1692, claimed they were the 'Hounds of God', who went down to hell to battle with witches and demons and were welcomed into heaven when they died. The man who told this story was let off lightly, with ten lashes for idolatry and superstitious belief. There was a touching fragment about a wolf who asked the priest to bless his dying wife – when his claw lifted her pelt, the priest saw the woman's body underneath. In the story of William and the Werewolf, a king's little son is abducted and cared for by a wolf. William grows up and goes through many hair-raising adventures, always helped by his wolf guardian, who behaves like Lassie the loyal wonder dog and is of course a human under a spell. Eventually the spell is lifted, all ends happily and William becomes a warrior with a wolf on his shield.
The longest and most detailed story was the Breton tale of Bisclavret, an enchanted young man who every now and then has to go and take off his clothes and become a wolf. He keeps this a secret from his wife, but she spies on him and steals his clothes so he is trapped in wolf form. Meanwhile his treacherous wife marries her lover. The wolf hunts in the forest until one day the King's hunting party pursues him. When the hounds are about to rip him apart, he comes to the King's stirrup and fawns upon his foot. Amazed at his tameness, the King takes him to court, where he becomes the royal pet.
The wolf is always tame and gentle until he comes across his false wife and her knight. He attacks them and bites off the woman's nose. But the king doesn't punish his wolf; instead, he locks up the couple and questions them, and the terrified lady confesses all. The wolf is left in private with his clothes, he changes back into a man, the King restores his land and banishes the faithless wife and her lover.
There are elements of this story that bother me: the way the wolf cringes to authority, and the blatant misogyny (there's a more brutal Arthurian version with two treacherous ladies and much worse punishments). Above all, what strikes me is that the King believes his wolf must be in the right, and the people he attacks so horribly must be in the wrong. It flies in the face of practically every other werewolf story, and certainly the accounts of the trials, where everyone instantly believes the alleged werewolf is guilty, including the accused himself. There's a welcome lifting of the pall, a feeling that good behaviour will win you respect and trust.
But there's a cost: the wolf has to bury his wild nature and become tame. Is it true, then, that the only werewolf you can admire is either dead or has his wolfishness suppressed? Does he have to become a humble, doggy pet, like Bisclavret; or a sniveling wretch, like Jean Grenier? Where is a figure like Tony Soprano, or Dexter the serial killer, or Walter White, the meek family man turned drug lord in Breaking Bad – a powerful and frightening hero who does terrible things, but you're still barracking for him? A creature who wrenches you into a vile world that on some atavistic level you know only too well?
WE HAVE TO wait for the twentieth century and Hollywood to see another version of the heroic werewolf – or at least a creature that arouses pity as well as horror. The movie industry has invented or popularised new werewolf myths: that it's a contagious condition passed on by bites (why would a werewolf stop at a bite, one wonders?); that transformation only happens at the full moon; that the next werewolf is marked by a sign, usually a pentangle; that a werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet, and so on.
Above all, the movies have given us the wolf man, a hybrid creature part wolf and part man, when the traditional werewolf is either fully human or fully animal. And almost for the first time, we are not witnessing the creature as Other, the horror that is not us. We are in his head, in his body, we know how he feels. We see him change. We know for sure something always implicit in the werewolf myth, something that over hundreds of years has been played down, or flatly denied, and never before so clearly shown: the horror is within all of us.
Of course the quality of werewolf movies varies wildly, from chilling artistry to jokey schlockery and exploitation. My favourite is The Wolf Man, the eerily poetic 1941 classic that established the genre. Lon Chaney Junior plays Lawrence Talbot, a mild-mannered young fellow who comes back to his ancestral home in a curious black-and-white fairy-tale version of Wales. Lawrence has a thing for a young girl in the village, but you know she will fall for the handsome regular guy. There is plenty of anticipation of bad magic to come with sinister gypsies, a mysterious old rhyme, a silver-headed walking stick; and rather like King Kong, the girl is spared but it all ends very sadly when the wolf man – spoiler and psychologist alert – is killed by his own father.
After he is bitten by a werewolf, Lawrence is transformed into a creature half-man and half-beast. We see it happen via make-up and time-lapse photography, primitive compared to modern digital horror but strangely effective because it is so low-key. There is a moment where he's looking down at his bare feet and suddenly they are covered in a fungus-like fur. Somehow I find this much more repulsive and shocking than the cracking bones and emerging snouts and fangs that characterise later werewolf films. Lawrence finds it pretty horrible too. After the transformation he doesn't remember anything – until he sees the footprints leading to the window.
The closest analogy to Lawrence's plight is the onset of a terrible disease, and this is another version of werewolfery with ancient origins. From the earliest times, doctors were keen to observe, diagnose and cure something called lycanthropy, which was described either as a supernatural affliction or as a mental or physical illness where the patient had delusions he was a wolf, or showed compulsive ghoulish or wolf-like behaviour. There were attempts to link it to recognised diseases: porphyria, hypertrichosis, rabies. None of these seemed an exact fit.
Sigmund Freud introduced us to the most famous Wolf Man in science, one of his patients, and psychology and popular media offered us a number of absorbing twentieth-century case studies of people convinced they were wolves, sometimes leading to uncontrollable outbursts of violence. It was claimed in a 1991 book that an Englishman, Bill Ramsey, had to be forcibly restrained, tried once to kill his wife in bed when the mood came upon him, and could only be cured by exorcism. Also in Britain in 1975, a seventeen-year-old boy convinced he was a wolf tried to kill himself. I became fascinated by the sad, creepy absurdity of a growling woman who offered herself doggy-style to her own mother for sex and claimed to be looking for a 'hairy man' who could satisfy her. When she looked in the mirror, she saw one normal eye and one evil wolf's eye that wanted to destroy her. Somehow the idea of one evil eye seemed much worse than two.
LATELY I'VE FOUND some more sympathetic contemporary portrayals of werewolves very close to home. Australian women are drawing on European heritage to imagine female creatures (most werewolves are unmistakably masculine). Anna Dusk's exuberantly murderous novel In-Human (Transit Lounge, 2010) introduces us to a Tasmanian teenage girl werewolf, inspired by the power of her menstrual blood. A new young adult novel, Waer, to be published shortly, is set in a fantasy world of werewolves, thieves and magic. Significantly, perhaps, its young author, Meg Caddy, has been working on the book since she was fourteen.
Dusk is also an artist who uses the wolf theme in her work; and another Australian artist, Jazmina Cininas, has produced a series of woodcut images of wolf-girls in the style of traditional fairy-tale illustration with the charming name The Girlie Werewolf Project. The wolf in popular mythology parallels constructs of women, she says: 'Its classic identities as either the selfless nurturing mother (as in The Jungle Book and Romulus and Remus stories), the diabolical werewolf, and as the ravening man-eater respectively mirror the chaste wife, heretic witch and femme fatale archetypes traditionally reserved for representations of women.'I don't know yet if this heralds a new approach to the legend. I am still exploring, in the hope of reconciling different levels of human nature and rekindling what the shamans might call the old memories in my soul. I think my search for a heroic werewolf came out of a deep-seated mix of pride and fear at the physical changes in my teenage son; the darker impulses in my own wolf-mother psyche; and the bloodlust of the man in Yellowstone. I hated that rude aggressive man because he shut me out of the wolf club, but I honestly didn't care if it was a bad day for the elk.
How pervasive and deeply stirring the werewolf myth can be, even now. Our own visceral knot of savage emotions still simultaneously terrifies us and fascinates us.