A Very Brief History of Werewolves

And 10 werewolf books that don’t bite (hah!)

Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re talking all things werewolf. Where do werewolf stories come from? And what are werewolves, anyway?

A werewolf is a man (rarely, a woman) who turns into a wolf at night and hunts animals and/or humans. In parts of Europe and Northern Asia, the creature is believed to be a bear. In Africa, it’s a hyena or leopard, and in India and China, it’s a tiger. You can be turned into a werewolf (bear, hyena, or tiger) via a bite from another werewolf, or the gene can be passed down from your werewolf parents. Some people throughout history have truly believed they are werewolves – and these people were subsequently diagnosed lycanthropy. Lycanthropy is a mental illness that typically only appears in people who believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. It’s often linked with belief in animal guardian spirits, totemism, and witchcraft.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.

Stories involving these half-man, half-wolf creatures go way back. Ancient Greece was rife with werewolf tales. The legend of Lycaon tells of a man who angered Zeus enough to make the god turn Lycaon and his sons into wolves. If you’re an etymology nerd like me, you might have noticed what “Lycaon” and “lycanthropy” have in common – the root “lykos”, which is Greek for “wolf”. Go figure.

In Nordic folklore, the Saga of Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who don wolf pelts that turn them into wolves for 10 days; they then go on a brutal killing spree in the forest. The father eventually deals his son a lethal blow. Luckily, with the help of a raven’s healing feather, the son is able to survive.

The first ever werewolf story is arguably The Epic of Gilgamesh – which is literally the oldest known Western prose. Like, ever. It dates back to 2100 BC and includes a female character who allegedly turned her ex-lover into a wolf. Much later came Leitch Ritchie’s The Man-Wolf in 1831, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Wolf Leader in 1857. Some scholars claim Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) has implicit werewolf subtext. Food for thought.

Were there any real werewolves? Obviously (and sadly), no. But there have been several fascinating cases of mistaken identity throughout history. In 15th century Germany, Peter Stubbe allegedly turned into a wolf-like creature at night and killed and ate many citizens of Bedburg. When Stubbe was arrested, hunters claimed they saw him shape-shift from wolf to human. He was tortured into confessing to killing and eating numerous animals, men, women, and children. Stubbe also allegedly claimed to have a belt that gave him the power to turn into a wolf. The belt was never recovered.

Picture it: France, 1521. Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun alleged to have an ointment that turned them into wolves. They confessed to murdering several children while in “wolf form” and were burned at the stake for their crimes.

There were also several cases of feral children that sparked werewolf rumors. The most famous of these is Peter the Wild Boy, a child discovered in a German forest in 1725. He was thought to be a werewolf, or at least raised by wolves. He was eventually adopted by King George I as a “pet” (this is the source’s term, not mine). After recent study of medical notes made about Peter during his short and tragic lifetime, it is now believed he had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome- a condition that causes distinct facial features, difficulty breathing, and intellectual challenges. As it turns out, there are several medical conditions that are similar to werewolf-ism. Lycanthropy (we talked about this before), hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth), and rabies.

Let’s check out ten werewolf books that don’t bite (yes, I used the joke again). I haven’t read enough werewolf literature and, as we dive headfirst into spooky season, some of these will certainly be added to my To Be Read Pile.

The Devourers by Indra Das (2015)

Das’ stunning debut has been compared to the work of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood. It takes place in both 17th century and modern Kolkata, India. A stranger tells professor Alok Mukherjee a tale about shape-shifters that feed on human souls. Skeptical but intrigued, Alok translates and transcribes a collection of skin-bound notebooks to learn the rest of the fascinating tale. It’s been called “violent and vicious” by more than one source.

The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas (1857)

In French, Le Meneur de loups, this book is allegedly based on a folktale local to Dumas’ hometown of Villers-Cotterets. Peasant man Thibault encounters a huge wolf, walking on his hind legs, who eventually offers him vengeance upon his enemies. Thibault enters a partnership with the wolf-man and finds that he is able to command the local wolves, hence gaining his own reputation of being a werewolf.

Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King (1983)

Would it really be a list of horror books if there wasn’t a King entry? This is a novella featuring illustrations by comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. It tells a rather classic story of a werewolf that haunts a small town during the full moon. Marty, the wheelchair-bound, 10 year old protagonist, encounters the werewolf on the Fourth of July. The townspeople don’t believe him, but Marty vows to find out what – or, who – the werewolf really is.

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore (1933)

This story is told through the lens of an American doctoral student who has found a French court document regarding the strange case of Sergeant Bertrand Caillet. According to the court document, Caillet was born into a cursed and tumultuous family and claimed to have nightmarish recollections of sadistic and sexual violent instances, within which he has transformed into a wolf. It’s a thinly veiled political commentary about the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, but is still a must-read for werewolf literature fans.

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy (2013)

A thriller set in the American west, this book follows several point of views of people who are confused and slowly changing… but into what? In Percy’s werewolf reality, the threat of the beasts has so far been controlled by laws, violence, and drugs. As the night of the red moon draws near, more people are changing, and the horror will eventually culminate in an epic battle for humanity.

The Book of Werewolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865)

This is a collection of werewolf lore written by a man often described as “eccentric”. It covers over 1,000 years of lore, ranging from the berserker of Norse legend, French folklore, as well as some modern (for the time) accounts of cannibalism, madness, disease, and various crimes. It is regarded as the first serious academic study of werewolf and shape-shifter folklore by most cryptozoologists.

Cabal by Clive Barker (1988)

Horror literature icon Clive Barker tells the story of Boone, a young man with an unspecified mental disorder who is told by his psychiatrist that he is responsible for a series of brutal murders. Following a suicide attempt, Boone begins a search for Midian, a semi-mythical city that he has seen in his dreams that is supposed to offer sanctuary to monsters like him – the Night Breed (aka werewolves and the like).

The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman (1896)

Housman’s first novel is described as a gruesome, erotic fantasy. Housman was a leading figure in the suffragette movement of the time. This story follows a woman named White Fell who struggles to maintain her role as a dutiful wife and successful woman because, well, she’s a werewolf. It’s widely regarded as an allegory for the conservative ideas of the time and their distaste for the New Woman and her strength and progress. Suffragette feminism and werewolves? Hell yeah.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (2012)

This first book in a wildly successful trilogy follows Jake Marlowe, the last werewolf in the world. He is 200 years old and just your regular guy – he loves a good scotch, is super horny, and goes crazy with hunger for human flesh on the night of every full moon. While Jake is losing his will to live, there are two dangerous organizations – one new, one ancient – that want to capture him alive. But… why?

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones (2016)

A finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, this spellbinding horror tells the tale of an unusual boy and his family that live on the fringes of society – for the outside world fears them. At its core, it’s a coming of age story, as the boy learns if he belongs in the shadows of regular society, always on the run in the night, or if he will make his way into the world, carving out his own place, away from the mongrels like him.

Well, there you have it. 10 werewolf books worth checking out as we inch our way into spooky season and, inevitably, Halloween. If you like this type of post, I did the same one with vampires not too long ago. You can check that out here: http://www.littlebookblogofhorrors.com/2021/09/a-very-brief-history-of-vampires/. Do you have any suggestions for the creature I should study next? It might be hard to find 10 Chupacabra books, but I’m up for the challenge…

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

History.com Editors. “Werewolf Legends”. History, 21 Aug, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/history-of-the-werewolf-legend

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Werewolf”. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/werewolf

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code ยง 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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