Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 31: Hurrah for the Race of Werewolves

You may not think you know the work of Guy Endore, but chances are you do. As a screenwriter, he worked on Tod Browning's The Devil Doll and The Mark of the Vampire, The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff, and has an adaptation credit on Karl Freund's Mad Love (coincidentally, this block of Endore's screen credits makes up a full two-thirds of the Warner Brothers Legends of Horror DVD set). Though he didn't write the script, Endore's novel Nightmare (also known as Methinks the Lady) was turned into the Otto Preminger film Whirlpool, and, perhaps most famously, his novel The Werewolf of Paris (first published in 1933) was the inspiration for the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf, starring Oliver Reed.
That's quite a list for a guy nobody's heard of anymore. All his novels are currently out of print (of course), though I have heard news about a new, highly-overpriced edition of The Werewolf of Paris that is set to come out early next year. Well, I couldn't wait that long -- plus, I couldn't afford it. I've endured glowing references to Endore's best-known novel (Marvin Kaye chose it as his selection for Horror: 100 Best Books, for instance, and on the commentary track for The Mark of the Vampire Kim Newman and Stephen Jones both admit that, were they able, they'd pony up the dough to finance a truly faithful adaptation of the book, just so they could see it*) for too many years, and when the opportunity to finally put my hands on an old, rather unattractive copy of The Werewolf of Paris, I didn't hesitate. And here we are.
The story focuses primarily on two people, two men: Bertrand Caillet, a young man cursed at birth to be a bloodthirsty werewolf, and Aymar Galliez, Bertrand's uncle-by-proxy, and the only man who knows Bertrand's secret. Aymar is also the only man who can stop Bertrand's violence. The novel does not begin with either of these men, however, but rather with an unnamed American who lives in Paris and who one night, after witnessing debauchery and casual cruelty enacted by those around him, discovers an old manuscript in the possession of a hobo. The hobo agrees to sell the manuscript to the American, who discovers that it was written by a man named Aymar Galliez, and is, in essence, a memoir, and defense, of Bertrand Caillet, a French National Guardsman who was facing court martial in 1871. The remainder of the book is a sort of re-telling by the American of Galliez's memoir, filled out by the American's own research into the historical period Galliez and Caillet lived through.
As I said, Caillet was cursed at birth. His mother Josephine, a young servant of Aymar's mother, is raped by a priest named Father Pitamont, who himself is the member of a family with a long history of evil and bloodshed. Josephine finds herself pregnant by this encounter, and her son Bertrand, though seemingly normal for several years, has certain features that make Mme. Didier, Aymar's mother, fear for his future. For one thing, he was born on Christmas Eve, which Mme. Didier insists to Aymar is a bad omen. Further, even at a very young age, his eyebrows meet in the center. Lastly, and most importantly to anyone who knows their werewolf lore, he has hair on his palms.
And, indeed, poor little Bertrand is a werewolf, though he doesn't manifest as such until he's about ten years old, give or take. Not long after this, Mme. Didier dies (of natural causes), but even though she's no longer around to pour out her superstition to her son, Aymar does come to discover the truth about the boy, before the boy himself does. When the boy changes -- and feasts -- he's later aware of it only as a vague nightmare. Aymar, however, is completely aware of what's going on, though he neither knows how to convince anyone else of the incredible truth, or how to deal with it himself.
Eventually, Bertrand is old enough to pursue his own life, and he moves from his country home to Paris. Aymar had by that time enjoyed some success in keeping Bertrand's condition controlled, but now the boy, a young man now, is free to do what he pleases. And what he pleases is fairly awful. As he travels to Paris, he's left behind more than one corpse, more than one innocent man to take the blame, and evidence of violent and deviant sexual appetites -- he badly injured a prostitute, for one thing, and -- though Aymar isn't aware of this -- had consensual sex with his own mother. This last crime against nature is one of the earliest hints at how far Endore was willing to go, even in 1933. The sex in the book is not graphic, but it's still rather alarming; the violence, meanwhile, is casually brutal. There's a great deal of cruelty in this book.
There's also a great deal of humor. Endore doesn't waste a lot of time in revealing that The Werewolf of Paris is, among other things, a socio-political satire -- of an interestingly cynical and amorphous type -- but he also has some light-hearted fun with the basic idea of his story. When Aymar finally follows Bertrand to Paris, he wonders how he's going to find his nephew, and how he can possibly enlist the aid of the authorities:
Aymar's first duty ought, then, to have been a visit to the police. But of this he naturally fought shy. What would he say to the police? For example: "I know something. There is a man who on certain nights craves blood so that he turns into a wolf and goes out to kill his prey."..."What proof have you?" --"There was a silver bullet, which was shot at a wolf, and was found in his leg." -- "The mere sight of this bullet wouldn't convince us, but where is it?" -- "I haven't got it, but he was born on Christmas Eve and his eyebrows meet..."
And, in fact, Aymar and Bertrand do not meet again for the majority of the novel. While Aymar goes about his search, Bertrand desultorily lives the poor life of a National Guardsman, feeding his hunger, wracking himself with guilt, and falling in love with a rich young woman named Sophie de Blumenberg. Sophie is engaged to be engaged to a kind French soldier named Barral de Montfort. Barral loves Sophie without complication or selfishness, but he doesn't know that the outwardly sunny and endlessly happy young woman, like Bertrand, changes at night. Not into a wolf, but rather into a despairing and death-obsessed soul who lives her days at a fever pitch of brightness, to make up for the nights she dreads so much. When she crosses paths with the morose Bertrand, she notices that he's a kindred spirit (though why he is, exactly, she hasn't a clue), and soon this unhappy love triangle is going to be swept up by history, because the Franco-Prussian War, followed hotly by the Paris Commune, is on its way.
Because The Werewolf of Paris is also a historical novel, you see. Quite a lot is crammed into less than 300 pages, here, but it really is Paris in the midst of this particular, and particularly bloody, historical meltdown that interests Endore the most. He returned to France over and over again in his fiction (he also wrote novels about Voltaire, de Sade, and Dumas), so perhaps that explains that, but Endore was also a registered Communist, which would seem to make what I take to be the proto-Communist government of the Paris Commune to be catnip to a guy like Endore. Except it's not, really. Look, I'll admit right now that my understanding and even basic knowledge of 19th Century French history is, well, really shitty. But in The Werewolf of Paris, after the aristocratic Versailles government is pushed out by the Paris Commune, France transformed into a state not unlike what Russia would become after the Bolshevik Revolution. The proponents and members of this new French government are referred to as Communards, and even, once, Communists, and they are all utterly corrupt. They are violent, unjust, and power-hungry, yet they claim to be a government of the people, restricting personal possessions and separating church and state.
This last is obviously not solely a Communist measure, but, as with the Soviets, and as described by Endore, "separation of church and state" quickly became "persecution of Catholics", and Endore describes this aspect of the government thoroughly (and with some amount of creative license, I've gathered, though only in terms of creating specific incidents). Of course, the Paris Commune is eventually bloodily dismantled by an aristocratic rebel government -- mass executions of prisoners of at-best undetermined guilt is rampant on both sides, and bitterly described by Endore -- but this nightmarish cycle of bourgeois-socialist-bourgeois rule, with no justice or peace offered by anyone, would indicate that Endore was rather disillusioned with any form of politics whatsoever. His life, what little I've read about it, doesn't exactly bear this out, but the book is an intriguing window in any case.
Endore's relationship with religion appears similarly conflicted. Catholicism and Communism traditionally don't mix, and Bertrand is sired, after all, by an evil and lascivious priest (though what we're told about Father Pitamont's family history makes it reasonable to assume that he joined the Church primarily out of a desire to hide out), and yet Aymar himself -- a skeptic and rationalist -- becomes more and more enamored with the idea of religious faith, brought on in no small part by the proof of the supernatural that lived in his home, as his nephew, for so many years. Not that I think that Endore was entirely in the bag for Catholicism, or even faith -- late in the book, Aymar and an atheist doctor have a debate on the subject (and lycanthropy) that makes both men look more than a little absurd.
But then again, the doctor in question is a human monster, and Aymar, we know, is a decent man. So there's that. And what that is, is actually the core of the book. Not faith, but rather human, non-supernatural evil. When the Paris Commune has collapsed, and Aymar finds himself, with bitter amusement walking through the streets of a hellish Paris, he can't ignore the irony of his quest to apprehend or kill Bertrand, while missing for so long the fact that Bertrand's hidden crimes, while horrible, ultimately pale next to the massive evil that was in front of him the whole time:
Bertrand, it now seemed to Aymar, was but a mild case. What was a werewolf who had killed a couple of prostitutes, who had dug up a few corpses, compared with these bands of tigers slashing at each other with daily increasing ferocity! "And there'll be worse," he said... Instead of thousands, future ages will kill millions. It will go on, the figures will rise and the process will accelerate! Hurrah for the race of werewolves!
And what of Bertrand? If I have any major criticism of The Werewolf of Paris, it is that the actual, non-figurative werewolf drops out of the novel for long stretches (strangely, his actual transformations are never described), but when he does return as the center of the novel, Endore makes it count. Despite the passage quoted above, Aymar does understand the need to bring Bertrand to heel, and when he does, and what follows, is very nasty, very mean, very sad. And probably just, at least in part, but justice can be awfully pitiful sometimes.
*No they didn't. They just said they'd love to see a faithful adaptation. My brain makes me look foolish. Again.


Greg said...

Happy Halloween to you and yours! And congrats on making it through all 31 days without missing a post. Pretty amazing. This last one actually sounds like the one I would like to read the most and you're right, I'd never, ever heard of the author before while being quite familiar it seems with his work.

My favorite cover is the one where he's kneeling over the comely lass in the red dress with the gaping cleavage. It's real classy-like, you know.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Greg. The truth is, I'm very glad this is over. I don't really know why I decided to do it again, but I'm reasonably pleased with the last entry, so I do feel some satisfaction mixed in with the immense relief.

All those covers are great, I think. I couldn't find an image of the edition I have, which is from 1976 and looks like it belongs to an awful vampire romance, or something. From the 70s.

Anyway, thanks again, Greg, and I hope you had a spooktacular Hallow-scream!

Tom Carson said...

Well, Mr. Ryan, you finally got me -- and on your very last day, too. I'm not the horror fiction fan you are (that's my wife's department), but now I want to track down Endore's books.

It does sound like either you or he is a mite hard on the poor old Commune, though, whose gallantry was all in its ineffectuality. (They never ruled France -- just Paris -- and the federal gov't that crushed them wasn't a rebellion.) If Endore has gotten you curious, you might be interested in Alistair Horne's THE FALL OF PARIS, especially since Horne is a bona fine conservative who's appropriately disgusted by their stupider excesses but ends up smitten by the romanticism of the thing just the same.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Tom! I did admit that my grasp of 19th century French history was pretty shitty, mind you, so I hope I didn't come off too bad. I did wonder whether the Commune ruled France or just Paris, but Endore wasn't clear. And as for my own research...pfft! Who needs that!

Thanks for the recommendation, though, because Endore did pique my interest in that whole mess, so I'll look for Horne's book.

As for Endore's books, I have tracked down three at reasonable prices through Amazon's used book wing: along with WEREWOLF OF PARIS, I got METHINKS THE LADY and SATAN'S SAINT, his book about de Sade. And actually, outside of WEREWOLF, it's not hard to find them for good prices. With WEREWOLF, though, you have to strike when the iron's hot.

Arbogast said...

I have a Citadel Underground trade paperback edition of The Werewolf of Paris from 1992 - got it at a bookstore in Manhattan where a friend worked, so I got it with an "emp" discount. That's bookstore trade talk. The cover price was $10.95, which seemed pretty princely to me back in the day, so I was glad to get, what, a buck off or something like that. I've retained very little of my one reading of this, so I need to go back to it one of these days. Like I need to do a lot of things.

The great thing about Hammer's adaptation is that the sets were built for a project called Rape of the Sabine that never got made, which is why this 19th Parisian werewolf story is set in, what, 18th Century Spain.

Mr. Cavin said...

I know I'm totally way late, but I had to, one: read the first two or three paragraphs of this back when it was first posted; two: track down and buy a copy of the book (for seventeen bucks on Amazon Marketplace, hardcover, 1933--you really have to skip way past the hundred-dollar trade paperbacks from the sixties for some reason); thee: carefully read it from cover to cover when I finally had the time; and then, four: come back and finish reading your post. Apparently, all that takes over a month.

This is a thank you card.

I'm glad I took my time reading this, and that I followed the time line above. I was happier meeting this book cold, I think, and then reading your excellent review later.

I was very impressed with the book's understanding of werewolf folklore and its incidental asides to the nature of predation in general. I was vastly impressed with the novel's understanding of the effects and feel of anxiety, mania, and depression. This werewolf book had very yellow wallpaper. Also, while my own understanding of nineteenth century French history is pretty shitty, too, I felt that Endore set out the Prussian invasion of France, the strife of war coupled with the demoralizing social impact of ceding Alsace to Germany, and the repercussion of civil war that drove France's aristocratic government to Versailles (and created the brief Commune in Paris) very clearly. The history did not feel tedious at all as it served as both the casual backdrop of the kind of strife in which werewolf legends and rumors are often found, as well as the nerve center of a novel whose ultimate goal is to illustrate that bloodlust and violence are ultimately fatal infections unto themselves. I feel that once I've cleared my head of Edore's artistic interference, I'll have managed to gain some passing understanding of this interesting era, too.

But anyway. Thank you so much, Mr. R., for bringing this wonderful book to my attention. Also, I'll be taking Mr. Carson's advice about the Fall of Paris. Sorry for the long card.

singapore florist said...

which one of these adapted into a film?