BOOK REVIEW / Howls and laughter heard under a full moon: 'The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf' - Adam Douglas: Chapmans, 15.99 pounds

Click to follow
AT LONDON Zoo, the wolves are kept just inside the perimeter fence, allowing piquant comparison with their less restricted cousins trotting through the park a few feet away. With man's best friend taking the grotesque and monstrous forms it does today, who needs a canine enemy? The wolves look warm and wholesome behind the wire, compared with the beasts laughably termed 'domestic'. It is a different matter in the Swedish outback, where atavistic terrors seal the fate of any lone wolf unlucky enough to be caught in a Volvo's headlights, but for city-dwellers, the wolf is an object of sentimentality rather than fear.

The werewolf, too, has lost his power to terrify. Always a poor relation among horror monsters, he has been supplanted by Bigfoots and extra-terrestrials. Film audiences are terrified by beings like Freddy of Elm Street, supernatural versions of real urban psychopaths. A modern clinical survey found cases of lycanthropy, but they showed a certain lack of conviction. Patients were equally likely to believe themselves to be cats or dogs, and one claimed to be a gerbil.

Perhaps by way of compensation, Adam Douglas claims a lineage for the werewolf stretching deep into prehistory. He reveals a fatal weakness for the purpler extremes of the Man-the-Hunter school of anthropological fantasies. His account rests on the presumption that ancient men were profoundly squeamish, needing predator-animal cults to psych themselves up to kill game, and deriving the rest of their motivation to hunt from revulsion at the synchronised menstrual flows of their womenfolk.

Fortunately, this early section is an obvious example of a writer learning on the job. His handling of the book's core material is cool and measured, an essential requirement for such an extensive body of folklore. The first werewolf tale occurs as an interlude within a comic work by

Petronius, a Roman writing in the first century AD, who may have developed it from Arcadian myths. Its elements are almost uncannily familiar: a walk with a companion along a road under the full moon, an interlude among tombstones, the companion's sudden transformation into a wolf, and the persistence, after his resumption of human shape, of a wound sustained while in the transformed state. So is its distancing from untrammelled horror; the narrator begins by warning that some of its sophisticated audience will laugh at it.

A millennium and a half later, such cleverness had almost been extirpated in Europe. The cult of Christ the Lamb took hold in the 12th century; the wolf became correspondingly associated with evil and Satan, and the werewolf reached its apotheosis in the witch-hunting terror of the early modern period. A spate of werewolf trials took place in France at the end of the 16th century. The background was cataclysmic: civil war, religious massacres, peasant insurrections, plague and famine, with the latter testing taboos against cannibalism. Douglas makes it clear that werewolf lore was a means for the peasantry to articulate its fears of a collapse in the moral order.

In the Baltic lands, inquisitors discovered a very different species of werewolf. In 1692, an 80-year-old Livonian named Theiss maintained that he and other werewolves went to Hell, which lay at the end of the sea. Here they fought with whips on behalf of God, against sorcerers who stole the shoots of grain on which the following year's harvest depended. In Friuli, individuals known as benandanti took a more delicate animal form - mice, or butterflies - and armed themselves with bundles of fennel to do battle with witches wielding sorghum stalks. Douglas uses these charming accounts as evidence that pre-Christian shamanic practices persisted in the Christian era.

Douglas's account proceeds to Hollywood via Red Riding Hood and the modern wolf-children of India, about whom he maintains a judicious scepticism. His ending is downbeat: he notes the absence of a 19th-century werewolf story to match Dracula or Frankenstein, and admits that the cinema werewolf is unavoidably compromised by comedy. But that, thanks to Petronius, was where the beast came in.