When I stumbled upon this book title while searching through Amazon, I thought, “Now here’s a book that should be really up my alley.”
It manages to combine my childhood interest in classic horror movies and werewolf stories, with my interest in the Paris Commune. You wouldn't think those two things would go together, but Guy Endore does a good job of combining them into a fascinating story.
Unlike the works of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, the werewolf legend has no one classic definitive novel that it is based on. But if there was a novel that was responsible for entrenching the werewolf into popular culture before the Universal Monster movies, this would be it.
It was first published in 1933, and was shortly thereafter the inspiration for the movie “The Werewolf of London” (a movie I actually saw as an adolescent, when it was re-run cable), although the Hollywood version shares almost no similarities with the book other than the parallel structure of the title.
It was filmed again a few years later as “Curse of the Werewolf” (which I haven’t seen, but which is apparently not much more faithful to the original book than “The Werewolf of London”). This book had little to no direct influence on the Lon Chaney Jr. “Wolfman” movie, but perhaps indirectly paved the way by helping to make werewolf movies fashionable at the time. (Or at least you can find some people on the internet arguing this. I’m no expert myself.)
The Paris Commune seems like an odd choice at first to set a werewolf story, but as you read through the book you find it works on a number of levels.
First of all the 19th Century time frame gives it a classic Victorian Era setting contemporary with the “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” stories.
Secondly the starvation accompanying the siege of Paris, and the massacres during the following civil war give the book an additional macabre tone that adds to the grimness of the story.
Also the social upheavals and chaos of the Paris Commune create an explanation as to why the werewolf attacks went largely unnoticed by the public and undetected by the police.
And the fanatical anti-clericism of the Paris Commune’s leaders means that even when they come face to face with evidence of werewolf attacks, they refuse to believe in medieval Catholic superstitions. (Like most Western horror stories, this book makes use of old church superstitions as its basis).
Lastly, and most importantly, the fall of the Paris Commune becomes very important to the theme of this book. This is revealed when the focus of the book shifts in a subtle, but very clever way, at the end. Up until the end of the book the reader is only concerned with the story of the werewolf, while the events of the Paris Commune are going on in the background.
At the end of the book, the writer takes a moment to examine the great massacres that were inflicted during the civil war, and suddenly the reader is confronted with the question of whether the handful of deaths caused by a werewolf really matter when confronted with the huge amount of evil humanity is capable of all by itself.
Aymar soon discovered that he was talking nonsense. The Commune shot fifty-seven from the prison of La Roquette. Versailles retaliated with nineteen hundred. To that comparison add this one. The whole famous Reign of Terror in fifteen months guillotined 2,596 aristos. The Versaillists executed 20,000 commoners before their firing squads in one week. Do these figures represent the comparative efficiency of guillotine and modern rifle, or the comparative cruelty of upper and lower class mobs.
[The werewolf] 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, and again he had that marvelous rising of the heart. Instead of thousands, future ages will kill millions. It will go on, the figures will raise and the process will accelerate! Hurrah for the race of werewolves.
(This seems very prophetic indeed when you consider the book was published in 1933, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot, Communist China, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera).
Guy Endore was an established historical novelist in addition to being a horror writer, and he had written historical novels about Dumas, Voltaire, the Marquis De Sade, and others. So he is very much at home writing about a historical time period, and his novel is dotted with names and events from French history.
Many actual historical figures from the Paris Commune, like Raoul Rigault, the Commune’s head of police and Gustave Courbet, the Commune’s head of art, make appearances in this novel. The Picpus affair, in which the Commune discovered what appeared to be a secret prison and a secret graveyard in a Catholic Church (an issue still somewhat controversial to this day) is covered in detail. And Rigault’s famous conversation with a Jesuit priest is also faithfully recorded:
Rigault examined them personally.
“What is your profession?” he asked a Jesuit.
“Servant of God.”
“God? What is your master’s address?”
“He is everywhere.”
“Write,” said Rigault to one of his secretaries. “So-and-so, styling himself servant of God. Citizen God, a vagabond without fixed address.”
Guy Endore was a leftist, and blacklisted by Hollywood during the Red scares of the 1950s. This is perhaps yet another reason he chose the Paris Commune as a setting for his book. And yet he is not overly sympathetic to the Commune leaders, and tends to portray them mainly as out of control madmen and ego maniacs. However, as shown in one of the above quotations, he does make a clear distinction between the relatively little amount of blood shed by the Commune, and the large scale massacres conducted by the forces of Versailles.
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