Regarded as the Dracula or Frankenstein of werewolf novels by the few who have read it, Guy Endore’sThe Werewolf of Paris is the story of Bertrand Caillet, a young man from the French provinces who is born into the world as a werewolf. After ravaging his hometown, Caillet travels to Paris as a student, but ends up becoming ensnared in both the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune. In Paris, Caillet is shadowed by his “uncle” Galliez–a cantankerous veteran of the 1848 revolution who knows full well Caillet’s true nature. While Galliez tries to stop Caillet from his continuing attacks and Caillet tries to use romantic love as a way to transcend his lycanthropy, France descends into revolutionary madness, thus turning the novel into a story about supernatural and historical bloodletting.
The Werewolf of Paris is better known as The Curse of the Werewolf—the 1961 Hammer film starring the notorious party animal Oliver Reed as the titular lycanthrope. The film adaptation of Endore’s novel is far from faithful. The novel’s setting of 19th-century France becomes 18th-century Spain, while the relationship between Galliez and Caillet morphs from one of conflict and resentment to a tragically loyal bond. Such transformations were necessary. After all, it’s unlikely that audiences in 1961, even the most forgiving teenagers available on both sides of the Atlantic, would’ve liked to have seen Endore’s novel transferred onto celluloid without dramatic changes.
Like the Columbia-educated Brooklynite Endore himself, The Werewolf of Paris is a visceral, almost primal novel that includes loud political denunciations. At the top of Endore’s hit list is the rich, who are closely followed by the Roman Catholic Church. Endore–a longtime member of the American Communist Party who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood–cannot resist a good dig at both the French aristocracy and its bourgeoisie, whom Marx characterized as a “financial aristocracy” in The Class Struggle in France, 1848-1850.
The march through the regal city of Versailles, between lanes of closely packed people, a fanatic multitude, void of all sense of balance, void of pity and of intelligence. The city of the rich here demonstrated that it, too, could form mobs as mad as those of the poorest quarters of Paris. No bare, dirty or calloused fists were shaken at the cohort, but neatly gloved hands, hands of demimondaines in lace gauntlets, and hands of bankers in yellow kidskin.
This is the main thrust of The Werewolf of Paris–politics and history first, horror second. Since The Werewolf of Paris was published in 1933, such pronouncements would’ve been cheered by large segments of the reading public. Indeed, on April 10, 1933, The New York Times noted that “a record 4,030 copies” of The Werewolf of Paris had been sold in a mere twelve days. Yet, The Werewolf of Paris has little to do with the Great Depression, nor does it have all that much to say about werewolves. Similar to Count Dracula, who, like a shadow, lingers away from the page for most of Bram Stoker’s novel, the werewolf in The Werewolf of Paris takes a noticeable backseat to Endore’s presentation of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune.
La Monde Diplomatique writer Carl Grey Martin correctly summarizes that Endore had a deep interest in the revolutionary moments of the 19th century. In The Werewolf of Paris the critical years of 1848 and 1871 inform a majority of the book’s action, even despite the fact that the book is supposed to be an eyewitness manuscript presented to the reader by an unnamed American doctoral student living in 20th-century Paris.
1871 is especially important, for this is when Endore’s “race of the werewolves” was born among the intrigues of the leftist-proletarian Commune, then baptized by the repressive violence of Adolphe Thiers and the forces of the French Republic. Against such purely human slaughter, the deeds of the werewolf Bertrand Caillet seem minor.
Endore’s characterization of history as red in tooth and claw (especially towards the poor) goes hand-in-hand with his mixing of fact and fiction throughout The Werewolf of Paris. Historical figures such as Thiers, the far-left revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and the painter and Communard Gustave Courbet co-exist and interact with Galliez and his doomed nephew Calliet. For his own part, Calliet, a sadistic ne’er-do-well who joins the National Guard as a way to make a little money without many responsibilities, bears more than a striking resemblance to Sergeant François Bertrand, the so-called “Vampire of Montparnasse.” Like the fictional Calliet—a who as a werewolf raids cemeteries in order to find easy meat–Bertrand was a sergeant in an infantry regiment who was convicted of grave desecration in 1848 after numerous corpses in Paris were found mutilated. During his defense, Bertrand claimed that he was seized by a certain type of madness that told him to rob graves for their human contents. Similarly, Calliet first suffers from realistic dreams that are full of murder and bloodlust. Then, when he realizes that the dreams are actually real, he suffers violent urges that can and do turn him into a snarling animal.
In regards to the fantastical, The Werewolf of Paris fails to call forth the supernatural in any way that would be familiar for most horror readers. Caillet’s lycanthropy is portrayed as a mental disorder rather than a spiritual affliction, and his transformations stem from his mental disquiet rather than the cycles of the moon.
Caillet’s affliction was caused by a priest named Father Pitamont, who raped Calliet’s teenaged mother during a rainstorm in Paris. This blasphemous event was seconded by Caillet’s birth, which fell on Christmas Day. These two perversions are what create the werewolf curse. Essentially, they combine the ancient (the peasant fear of a child being born on Christmas) with the modern (rape and molestation allegations against the Catholic Church), thus forming a neat precursor to the novel’s primary oddity: the appearance of a figure from medieval superstition in the middle of modern history.
For all of its historical and social commentary about the great class struggle, The Werewolf of Paris presents a weak werewolf story that cannot compete with other horror heavyweights, past or present. This is, after all, a political statement masquerading as the fantastique. The werewolf Caillet loses his exceptional status due to his surroundings, which are themselves historically exceptional. When the normal world is full of barricades and tit-for-tat massacres, a werewolf can only find logic in a looney bin before calling the whole thing a mistake. By the end, all we are left with are a series of gruesome images that are swallowed up by the bigger events happening around them. Politics and history trump story and monster. Werewolves cannot compete with history’s horrors.