Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Werewolves and War...

It’s very interesting to see how memories from our childhood get so intertwined with current events of the time and the strange bedfellows these connections create. Here’s a good example, a couple of weeks ago I was in McKay’s Books here in Nashville -- the local supermarket/dumping ground of used and no-longer-loved books. Now while the majority of what shows up at McKay’s is of recent vintage, some really oddball items can turn up at times, and so it was with this little gem that I found on the shelf for a mere six bucks.

The Book of Werewolves – Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould is a collection of European folklore and legends concerning werewolves (well, duh…) that was originally published in 1865. This edition, a facsimile reprint of the first edition, was published in 1973 by Causeway Books, a small press out of New York who’s other publications included (according to the back of the dustjacket) such titles as Your Psychic Powers and How to Develop Them, The Book of Vampires, and Oragenitalism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation – all the fun stuff in other words.

Although Causeway Books were not carried on the spinner paperback racks of the drugstores I frequented as a kid, I did see this particular book for the first time around the start of 1975 when we would shop in Bowling Green or some other city that had an actual bookstore with a remainder/discount books section.

I was, of course, immediately drawn to the book, both by its title and the spectacularly creepy illustration featured on the dustjacket. Plus the 19th Century text contained within made it look just like a book that Carl Kolchak might have consulted on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, my favorite TV show, which was then limping toward the end of its first and only season. After all, what would I do if a werewolf showed up in Dunmor, Kentucky? I needed to have knowledge and be prepared!

But despite these rock-solid reasons for purchasing the book, the creepiness that attracted me also worked against me, and the price tag, probably a whopping $2.99 or so after the markdown, also held me at bay. So even though I saw it on more than one occasion I continued to pass it by. However, fate had other plans…

In April of 1975, we left Kentucky for week’s trip to Connecticut to visit my dad’s brother and his family. When we got there I was to stay with the youngest  of Uncle’s kids, Andy, who was already a teenager and a horror fan. Andy had a collection of Warren Comics magazines Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie, and for me, being just a few weeks away from turning 12, staying in his room in the basement was awesome indeed. But best of all, Andy also had a certain yellow and black book – The Book of Werewolves.

So here was my chance to read this intimidating tome with absolutely no cash outlay. Over the three or four days we were there I spent time in the mornings and evenings plowing through as many pages as I could.
"You mean the movie lied?"
The first thing I discovered was that traditional werewolf legends were quite a bit different from the “facts” as presented by the spinning, neon Universal globe. There were no tortured souls, cursed to become ravening wolves when the autumn moon is bright. Instead the stories I read dealt with no-goodniks who donned the skin of wolves for transformations or wanton females who rubbed their naked bodies (hot-cha!) with magic wolf grease before their murderous rampages – with their main victims being, more often than not, babies(!).

But while I devoured the tales of lycanthropy, real world tragedies were about to intrude upon me. I can distinctly remember sitting in my cousin’s bedroom the morning of the last day we were there and reading about werewolves with the radio on. When the radio cut to a newsbreak the main story of the day was the end of the war in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon -- forever cementing in my mind a link between the end of the Vietnam War and tales of bestial and murderous transformations.

Of course there’s probably a great metaphor here about the transformation of the American psyche in the wake of Vietnam. Or perhaps the shattering of illusions about Hollywood werewolf lore and the American self-image of righteousness,  but for right now I think I’ll just settle down with the good Reverend for tales of wolfish horror and baby-eating and finish reading the book I started over 36 years ago.

1 comment:

Rod Barnett said...

I'm fascinated by the possibilities inherent in linking the Vietnam War and werewolf legends. There are many stories I can imagine.