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A Second Glance: ‘Wagner the Werewolf’ (1847)

Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing.  It’s impossible to see everything and as a result some things fall through the cracks.  Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time.  Whatever the case these bits of pop cultural refuse were forgotten and are well overdue for A Second Glance.

Last time on A Second Glance: The Wrong Guy (1997)

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George William MacArthur Reynolds is mostly forgotten in the modern era but in Victorian England he was a prolific writer and journalist, producing numerous novels and serialized stories of various levels of clout.  He was compared to Charles Dickens, one of his contemporaries, but while Dickens is still known and loved in the modern era George W. M. Reynolds is largely unknown.

For a time Reynolds wrote Penny Dreadfuls – a type of serialized novel released in weekly installments for a penny each, usually depicting stories of a lurid, violent, or just generally sensationalist nature.  They were printed on cheap pulp-wood paper, generally written in simple language, and marketed to men and boys of lower class and education; similar to the American dime novel or the more modern pulp paperback novel –  one such story was Wagner the Wehr-wolf.

Wagner starts out as one would expect: a lonely cabin deep in the Black Forest in the 16th century is home to a decrepit old man, Fernand Wagner.  As the bedridden elder waits in vain for his granddaughter who has abandoned him to fate he is greeted by a man named John Faust.  Faust is the lead character of another of Reynolds’ stories, Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals which concerns a take on the classic Faustian legend of a man selling his soul for wealth and power.  Faust offers Wagner a deal similar to his own: Wagner can become young, extremely wealthy, and amazingly intelligent if he agrees to travel with Faust for eighteen months and to live out the rest of his life as a werewolf.  Wagner, on death’s door and filled with desperation and loneliness,  agrees to Faust’s bargain.

Now the set-up seems simple enough and one could easily imagine the predictable trajectory of the story from this point on but they could not be more wrong.  The book skips over Faust and Wagner’s travels completely.  Wagner focuses on a truly massive cast of characters all weaving in and out of the story as it unfolds slowly.  Fernand Wagner does pop back up shortly in the beginning but disappears for longs stretches of narrative, only actually doing anything of note in the second half of the book toward the climax.  Even Wagner’s titular werewolf curse isn’t what one would expect; he only transforms a handful of times and the wolf simply runs at an absurdly fast pace causing bystanders to fall in fear or from contact, typically bashing their heads open on the ground.  It is one of the first literary uses of the werewolf myth but the entire werewolf aspect and even Fernand Wagner himself could be completely removed from the story with little to no effect.

What Wagner the Werewolf is really about is the people of Florence, mostly the nobles and upper class.  There’s the deaf Nisida and her brother Francisco heirs to the count of Riverola, a group of bandits, the Grand Inquisitor of the church, an unfaithful wife and her dashing lover, a Jewish jeweler who takes the brunt of the ludicrous of prejudices against his people during the time, a young man who went as an emissary to the mid-east and has converted to Islam and commands an army, and the actual devil himself.  Wagner sounds like a Gothic horror novel, and it is to an extent, but it comes across as more of a Victorian era pulp-novel Game of Thrones.  There’s romance, there’s tragedy, backstabbing, politics, hatred, and ugliness.  The characters all fill a dingy grey area on the morality scale, the hero of one chapter may be the villain of the next and no character embodies this more than Nisida who is as much the story’s hero as she is the villain.

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The prose is laughably over-the-top.  Nobody has a face, they have a “countenance.”  People don’t talk with urgency or volume, they “ejaculate.”  All gazes are piercing, all attractive women are “beauteous” with “alabaster” skin.  Those words are used and overused on almost every single page.  The set-pieces of the story are at times laughable.  There’s a nunnery with a secret basement (reached by a sort of lift-chair contraption that creates the illusion that the person sitting in the chair is traveling several miles underground) where wicked women taken in the night are imprisoned and punished for their various ways.  There’s a Mediterranean island rich with fruit and fresh water but the jungle in the center of the island is dense with pythons that will swallow a man whole.

Surprisingly for a novel of this era, Reynolds’ story is quite progressive.  The author clearly has no love for the Catholic church and he has some very stern things to say about wealth, religious persecution, and misogyny (I remind that this was written in Victorian era England, a period not known for its liberal ideals.)  Reynolds mocks the way the church and polite society treated women and outright derides the superstitions based around the Jewish people.  He even hand-waves the popular perception of Muslims and actually uses them as a cavalry of sorts toward the climax of the story.

Wagner the Werewolf is a bizarre book, absolutely not what anyone would be expecting from a Penny Dreadful, particularly one with that title.  It’s a long book but its simplified writing style makes it a very easy read.  The progressive elements are smart as are the portrayals of all the characters who first come off as simple good or evil archetypes but almost all show real depth by tale’s end.  The pulpier elements of the story inject a much needed sense of fun into a story that, by its end, seems a tad overlong.

Hardcover and paperback editions of Wagner the Werewolf are available but since the novel is in the public domain it can be found online to read for free, Amazon even offers a free Kindle edition so you can check it out without committing if you’re unsure it would fit your tastes.

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