One of the standard criticisms of supernatural horror literature is that it is unreal. Why this isn’t a criticism of all literature is a good question, but supernatural horror literature is condemned for presenting us with unreal horrors when so many real horrors abound in the world. Well, hang on to your shoulder straps, boys and girls, because Guy Endore is going to take you on a ride that turns that criticism upside-down. We’re talking about his best-selling novel, The Werewolf of Paris.
The biggest problem with this book is that it’s too well-written. There is no shocking language at all, not surprising since this was written in 1933. It’s the events that should shock you. But the novel is so low-key that the reader takes on the entire range of crime, from murder and rape to more enduring forms of cruelty, with hardly a shudder. Endore was also a Hollywood screenwriter, but there was no way under the Hays Code to turn this novel into a movie. Even today, a faithful adaptation would be at the very least a hard ‘R,’ and quite possibly the disreputable NC-17. It did get filmed once, in 1961, as The Curse of the Werewolf. I’ll track that down and watch it soon to see how badly they bowdlerized the novel.
So what’s it about? Degenerate scum priest rapes peasant girl and produces a son tainted with lycanthropy. The reader figures this out pretty quickly. Jump scares aren’t this novel’s style. It’s watching the boy’s family deal with his growing problem, and then following young Bertrand into the violent and chaotic war-torn Paris of 1870-71 in which the novel hits its stride. Gee, character development: probably the greatest weakness of the supernatural horror genre, and yet it’s the substance of this book. What do you do when your child likes to go out and slaughter creatures with his teeth? How much attention would a werewolf get in a land convulsed with violence?
There are no good people here, just real ones. Everyone’s wrestling with their problems. A lot of them are trying to do good, but their own natures and events sometimes conspire to twist their actions to wicked ends. Endore’s no optimist. But, give him credit, he can sympathize with human failings at the same time that he condemns them.
The Werewolf of Paris lures you in with a horror story about a werewolf. And then it actually gets horrible. You’ll finish the book a sadder and wiser person. Me, I kept thinking this novel reads more like it was written after the Second World War than before, when people clearly knew that their fellow man could set up extermination camps and slaughter millions. But no, it was written in 1933, from the safety of the United States.
This book was my “moldy oldie” for Halloween: my annual reading and reviewing of a supernatural horror book that has been mostly neglected. Unlike several of them, I can truly say I enjoyed this book. I thought Endore was about to go Hollywood on me when he introduced the aristocratic Sophie, but, in the end, she took her (im)proper place in this horror story.
Sadly, the edition I used, a 2012 reprint from Pegasus Crime imprint, apparently was created by someone running a scanner with optical character recognition software over an older edition, and then not proofreading the result. There are some obvious typos, and a few words mangled out of recognition.
For my non-American readers, the rating system in the United States is a series of letter codes. ‘G’ is family fare. ‘PG’ and ‘PG-13’ allow increasing levels of violence and sex. ‘R’ is the last “respectable” rating in the series, awarded for serious violence, extensive nudity, and stylized portrayals of sexuality. ‘NC-17’ is for movies so hardcore in their violence or sexuality that many theaters won’t show them.
France and Prussia (think Germany) went to war in 1870, and the Germans besieged Paris. Meanwhile the existing French government broke down. A very leftwing government, which became the Commune, took over in Paris, while a reactionary government controlled the rest of France. After the French admitted defeat and the Germans withdrew, the National government besieged the Communards and defeated them. Endore explains a lot of this, not just to give you background, but because the violence of war is a counterpoint to Bertrand’s story.
Well, I try to make it annual. Some years I’ve just been too preoccupied.