Bark at the Moon
The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-shifting Beings (2nd edition)
US: Sep 2011
The best thing about reviewing a book about werewolves is getting to write about werewolves.
I would like to see these creatures of the night, furry, ferocious, often feeling cursed and lonely, become the new vampire…I mean the new zombie. But it’s not happening. They haven’t had a decent movie since the ‘80s with An American Werewolf in London and the original The Howling. No, Wolf does not count though it was OK.
Nor does their appearance in Twilight and True Blood, where they play second-fiddle (and hirsute proletariat) to the blood-sucking, undead Abercrombie models, count. Even in Underworld, where they are the heroes, the vamps still take up all the air in the room. Which is weird for creatures that don’t respirate.
Luckily for Lycanthrope fans like me, this hasn’t been a bad year for howling at the moon. Despite the egregiously bad The Howling: Reborn , we also had Glen Duncan’s celebrated lycanthropic literary fiction, The Last Werewolf, and now Brad Steiger’s generally strong The Werewolf Book has gotten a second edition.
Steiger’s work is well known to both fans of horror and cryptzoology. A sometime writer for Fate magazine, he’s also published a boatload of materials on everything from ghosts to bizarre stories of survival. Steiger’s been exploring paranormal themes for over half a century in fact, and so would seem a pretty good guide to explaining what that sound was we just heard coming from that dark corner over there.
Steiger’s The Werewolf Book aims at a comprehensive look at this particular creature of the night, and tries to bring in as many of his shape-shifting cousins as possible. And there’s a lot more here than Lon Chaney, Jr. We learn about the Santu Sakai, the alleged “mouth men” of Malaysia who are half-human, half-beast. He pulls in plenty of medieval legendary material, as well, with entries on the Old Man who wandered out of the Brandsleber Forest killing sheep at a place now called “Werewolf Rock”.
If you love the werewolf primarily as a pop culture icon, have no fear (except of the FULL MOON!!!) because Steiger has you covered, at least on the key icons. Lon Chaney Jr. gets a sizeable entry, as does An American Werewolf in London. But at least some of the lesser known aspects of pop culture shape-shifting also get a mention. Did you know about the werewolf role paying game? Steiger will describe it to you.
This is not a gigantic book, especially for an encyclopedia of this reach. That’s generally OK because Steiger knows enough about the world of shape-shifters to keep the entries short that need to be short. A few sentences are probably all the world needs on the execrable 1973 film, Werewolf of Washington.
However, I do have some concerns about what he decided to include and what never gets considered. The Beast of Le Gévaudan gets some discussion, but note that there is no single article on the larger world of “werewolf trials” that occurred in 16th and 17th century France, a phenomenon associated with the larger story of the European witch hunts. Stories of the paranormal are fascinating for what they tell us about the societies that produce them. So is the fact that such beliefs can, and often have, resulted in the trial and execution of thousands of people.
Pop culture references to the werewolf also needed more attention. Steiger is fairly comprehensive when it comes to film but less so when it comes to novels and to comic books. It’s too soon to get The Last Werewolf in here, but what about Toby Barlow’s celebrated 2008 Sharp Teeth, an astonishing and critically-acclaimed epic poem (!) about werewolves in L.A.? Also, only a few sentences on Marvel’s “Werewolf by Night” in very short entry on the very long subject of werewolves in comic books?
These elisions would seem much more minor were it not for some of the odd choices made about what to include, instead. There’s a somewhat lengthy entry for “Jack the Ripper”, for example, that essentially tells you what you probably already know about Whitechapel’s famous murdering maniac. But what does this have to do with the world of werewolves and shape-shifting? Nothing at all, and Steiger barely pretends to make a connection (he refers to the “werewolf-type” killings of Jack).
Some of these ancillary entries, especially when related to history and the development of folkloric ideas, hurt the effect of the book. A long essay on demons (which the author justifies by simply saying that they are “the ultimate shape-shifters”) has nothing to say about how magistrates in the early modern era believed that human beings could and did make pacts with demons in order to become werewolves. Or about the innocents who died because of these unverifiable beliefs.
Moreover, his primary source for 20th century theological understandings of the demonic is a single scholar who happened to take belief in such entities seriously (as opposed to that large company of theologians who did not). Finally, Steiger’s source material is frankly shoddy here, and in other entries. His sources for this article include his own work, a book published in the mid-‘60s and an article from the National Inquirer that purports to explain how many mental patients are actually demon-possessed (a theory about people who suffer from mental illness that we should probably not go back to, thank you very much).
Books can sometimes be problematic, even deeply flawed, and still a lot of fun to read. This is certainly one such book. Werewolf fans like me will probably want to pick it up. But werewolf fans like me who tend to be completists when it comes to pop culture material and interested to see that history and culture get a fair rendering will find themselves disappointed and maybe a little irritated. Sadly, the werewolf renaissance has not yet found its champion.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article