February 26, 2011

The Tragedy of Werewolves

Clare B. Dunkle's tour continues!  I reviewed BY THESE TEN BONES on Tuesday and now Clare is here to talk about why she's fascinated by werewolves. She has a unique way of approaching the folklore.  You can also find her at Mundie Mom's on Monday. You can also check out her interview with the Ravenous Reader.


Shapeshifting may have its dangers, but I’ve always thought of tragic werewolves as the “true” werewolves. These are the werewolves, remembered in folktales across Europe, who become killers through no fault of their own. Such werewolves have either been bitten or, in Italian tales, have been born on Christmas Day, and doomed by this accident of nature, they are a massacre waiting to happen. Sooner or later, changed into wolves, they kill the people they love best. According to some folktales, they kill their parents, but most often, the victim is a young bride.

My lifelong fascination with the werewolf has paralleled my lifelong dread of something disturbingly real: the deadly disease of rabies. In both cases, the fatal affliction strikes at random. In both cases, it may be transferred through a bite. In both cases, the victim changes from a loving human being into a menacing monster ready to injure or kill. (Even in our sanitized modern times, rabid humans must be tied down in restraints.) Rabies and lycanthropy are two sides of the same coin.

As a small child, I was afraid of rabies. The United States went through a spike in animal rabies cases when I was in grade school, so adults warned us children in the direst tones about the dangers of this illness. We heard about rabid skunks and bats and occasionally even saw them; I once spotted a skunk roaming about in the daytime, a sure sign it was rabid according to my mother. (This isn’t true, but it does point out that not all folklore is ancient.) And, once or twice a year, my classmates and I heard about some poor boy or girl who had made the mistake of picking up a bat or playing with a kitten and who had gone on to die in agony. Rabies stories produced in me the same morbid thrill that werewolf stories had produced in my distant ancestors.

Family history brought this disease uncomfortably close. Many times, my grandfather regaled us with the story about the day his favorite dog had turned rabid. Grandpapa was the seventh son of a seventh son, a poor sharecropper’s child. “As the youngest boy,” he would tell us, “I had to get up first to light the fire, and every day, our big shepherd cross would be so glad to see someone downstairs, he would be all over me. That morning, he jumped up and licked me all over my face. And that afternoon, he went mad.”

I can still feel now the shiver of horror I felt as a small child. In my mind, I could see it all: the beloved pet, now savage and drooling, ready to tear his family apart. The stern patriarch, my great-grandfather, with his rifle in his hands. And then: the questions. The realization. The worry and fear. Grandpapa has been directly exposed—his eyes, nose, and mouth so many gateways to the dog’s saliva. In that time and place, they are powerless to save him. All they can do is wait.

To this small child, already an avid reader of folklore, that story was mythic. It buried itself into my consciousness beside the stories of Cuchulain and Tam Lin. It held all the terror and passion of Beth Gelert. My own grandfather had almost become a werewolf.

By These Ten Bones

Consequently, it was this family story that shaped my thinking most when I set out to write BY THESE TEN BONES. The werewolf in my story isn’t a monster, he’s a victim—a patient with a deadly disease. The unseen pathogen within him provokes violence wherever he goes. To be a werewolf is to be infected with madness and death.

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