BOOK REVIEW / History of howlers: 'The Beast Within' - Adam Douglas: Chapmans, 15.99

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Werewolves have come down in the world. Once, these dread creatures were considered high-toned enough to grace the pages of Petronius' Satyricon, Virgil's Eclogues and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. But that high literary tradition has been thinned out like the haunted northern European forest, and nowadays werewolves are mostly to be found in sleazy surroundings: tabloid novelty stories, silly movies, cheap novels.

In this regard, Adam Douglas's The Beast Within is an exercise in restoring lost dignity to the werewolf myth, tracking its bloodline back to palaeolithic hunting rituals and reappraising centuries of debate on lycanthropy and related topics, including Bruno Bettelheim on autism. Despite its wry asides and flip chapter-headings ('Barking Mad', 'Howling all the Way to the Bank'), Douglas's book can be serious to the point of solemnity, and is much stronger on the esoteric real-life aspects of the phenomenon than on its more vulgar fictional outbreaks.

If Division One novelists have largely disdained werewolves (admirers of Hermann Hesse might want to claim Der Steppenwolf as a partial exception), those further down the league have never lost faith. Not all of them have been unmitigated trash, either. Pulp efforts such as Darker Than You Think, The White Wolf and How Now, Brown Cow might be beyond the literary pale, but presentable fellows such as Bierce, Blackwood and Saki have also tackled the theme. Not a whisker of any of these can be found in The Beast Within, and though Douglas rightly mentions Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, he neglects Stevenson's other lycanthropic tale, Olalla.

Similarly, though his discussions of individual films can be deft, Douglas's chapter on werewolf movies is too brief, too brisk and too arch. Writing of Curt Siodmak, whose screenplay for Universal's The Wolf Man established the key components of latter-day lycanthropy, he sniffs: 'One likes to think that Siodmak was aware of the 14th-century Welsh tale of Arthur and Gorlagon, but it's a fond hope.' About as fond as the wish that Douglas might turn his analytic powers to bear on, say, the lyrics of Warren Zevon's gleeful song 'Werewolves of London' ('He's that hairy-handed gent / Who ran amok in Kent . . .'), or on the most famous loup-garou of our time: Michael Jackson, in the John Landis promo Thriller.

Fortunately, Douglas is on much better form when the recondite nature of his material allows him to relax, turn maverick, and ransack anthropology, psychology and other disciplines with admirable disregard for the territorial spoor of academics. His forays into the European witch-craze, the Celtic Wild Hunt and shamanistic shape-changing are well researched and written, and his speculations about the primal source of lycanthopy in a prehistoric 'killing fury arising from a human deliberately taking on the attributes of a wild animal' are more stimulating in their quiet way than a whole pack of howling big-screen theriomorphs .

Indeed, there are times when The Beast Within manages to rise above its ostensibly specialist brief and become a thoughtful essay on the ways in which our species has defined its relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom; hence its pages on feral children, on the story of Nebuchadnezzar, and on Pliny's Natural History. At these moments, the tone becomes philosophical enough to prompt one final regret: that Douglas fails to mention Amanda Prantera's extraordinary werewolf romance Strange Loop, the philosopher- hero of which is loosely modelled on Wittgenstein. Not even Curt Siodmak ever came up with anything quite that wild and woolly.