Book Review: The Best Werewolf Short Stories 1800-1849

I’ve been a fan of werewolves since I was old enough to pronounce the word, and I’ve been bored with the “classic” werewolf stories of old for nearly as long. My elementary school library had two books about werewolves, both of them mainly concerned with Peter Stumpp and La Bête du Gévaudan. Those were not interesting subjects for a young werewolf fan who had just watched “An American Werewolf in London”. I learned to associate werewolf legends and tales from before 1930 with tedious history lessons, crazy guys with beards and religious persecution, and only recently have I unlearned that narrow point of view, thanks largely to the classic werewolf anthology The Best Werewolf Short Stories 1800-1849, edited and introduced by Andrew Barger.

I think this is a great little book, and you’ll probably feel the same way if you agree that reading and knowledge are awesome. The five stories in this anthology contain the seeds of werewolf myths we accept (and in some cases defend) as canon today, so I’m not in a position to review their contents as I would modern fiction. That would be like a gaming site reviewing the original Pacman or Donkey Kong according to today’s standards, and like Tycho, I’m more inclined to take off my hat in reverence than scrutinize the seemingly rudimentary nature of the work. It comes as a relief, though, that these five tales are entertaining and interesting on the merits of the storytelling alone.

My favourite story of the lot is also the first: “Hugues the Wer-Wolf” by Sutherland Menzies. According to Barger’s introduction, this is the first known werewolf story in which the now-classic “cut off a werewolf’s paw and look for a human missing a hand the next day” gambit is used, although the titular werewolf fakes his way through the limb-counting in a way that I’d never heard of before. “The Man-Wolfby Leitch Ritchie is the toughest read of the book if you’re not wearing your 19-century glasses, but it was also the most fun, with some truly likable characters and subtle deadpan humour. Catherine Crowe’s “A Story of a Weir-Wolf” is a beautifully-described tale about love, jealousy, treachery and a young woman who performs a redemptive act so hardcore she makes San look like a trembling waif. The last two stories, “The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” and “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains”, were also good, although the former was a bit chaotic and tended to spin its wheels a bit, while the latter concerned an antagonist whose lycanthropy wasn’t strictly integral to the tale. Still, there’s virtually no filler, which makes “Short Stories” a short but satisfyingly dense and rewarding read.

Each story is introduced with a summary of Barger’s research concerning the tale’s history and literary background. These intros serve as bumpers and set the proper context for each story– without them, the varied styles and tones of the stories would make for a disjointed reading experience. Barger’s enthusiasm for the material is evident on every page: the commentary and the depth of the research which informs it makes it clear that he isn’t publishing this anthology simply to cash in on the current werewolf / monster craze. He posits that these stories have value, both as examples of writing from a nascent period of horror fiction and as the genesis of the ideas that form our modern vision of the werewolf. I agree with him. The lesson here? Don’t let your seven-year-old self dictate your reading list.

Buy, borrow or skip?

Buy if you’re a literary scholar, a student or a book geek like me and you have an interest in the history of werewolves. This is required reading.

Borrow if you found this web site while Googling “Warcraft Cataclysm worgen” or “werewolf costume” and you read all the way to the end of this review– we’ll make a book nerd of you yet.

Available from Amazon. Visit Andrew’s web site for more info.