Like those other horror classics, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” this notorious novel doesn’t just aim for rawhead-and-bloody-bones gruesomeness. Instead, it raises all sorts of wholly modern questions about personal responsibility and the intricate relationship between sex and violence. It covers every aspect of human bestiality, whether manifested in family feuds, warfare, political revolution, clerical pedophilia, incest, cannibalism, sado-masochistic sexual practices, miscarriages of justice, or the callous abuse of the demented. There’s an old Latin tag “Man is wolf to man” — and “The Werewolf of Paris” proves its universal truth. But don’t worry, horror fans: At the book’s center lurks a shape-shifting monster who rips and devours human flesh.
The novel opens with a graduate student in Paris being disturbed in his work by a young woman visiting from America. Eliane soon compels the unnamed narrator to take her to all the hot spots, where she downs bottles of champagne and grows increasingly abandoned in her behavior. Finally, late at night at a restaurant near the Les Halles meat market, Eliane — feeling “hot” — strips down to her underwear and offers herself to anyone who will have her, eventually going off with a complete stranger.
This and his own encounter that night with a prostitute lead the narrator and a new acquaintance into a discussion of sexual insatiability as evidence of “possession by the spirits of beasts” and by the spirit of the wolf in particular. “The word wolf is to be recognized in the Latin vulva, and in the word lupanar, a brothel, lupus being Latin for wolf. You know the Roman festival the Lupereales. It would correspond to our carnival and was characterized by a complete abandonment of morals.”
As the narrator continues his walk home, he happens upon some trash collectors who have found a hand-written manuscript. He glances at its pages, and the words “lupanar” and “wolf” catch his attention. Written by a 19th-century hack named Aymar Galliez, the largely biographical document offers “an unsolicited defense” of Sgt. Bertrand Caillet at the latter’s court-martial in 1871.
Galliez’s memoir begins when a young country girl named Josephine comes to live with the writer’s aunt. She is just 14, but she attracts the attention of the local priest, Father Pitamont, whose family has long been linked to wolfish savagery. During a violent thunderstorm, Pitamont rapes the girl, an act that “unleashes” something inside her, transforming the hitherto demure servant into a promiscuous slut. As the household maid says a few months later, “Everybody, simply everybody has had her.” When taken to task by her employer, Josephine replies: “I like it so, madame. Must I really stop? I’ve tried very hard not to do it, but I can’t stop myself.”
Nine months after the rape, a baby is born at midnight on Christmas Eve. Almost immediately, Josephine reverts to her previous innocent self, losing all interest in sex and focusing her attention wholly on little Bertrand. The child possesses great strength and vitality, gentle but unsettling brown eyes, hair on his palms, eyebrows that meet and the habit of howling wildly when people are about to die.
By now, most of the household has moved to the country, where Bertrand grows up. The boy is picky about his food, often refusing to eat cooked meals. He also suffers from strange nightmares. One day Bramond, the local forest ranger, discovers two lambs, both dead, one dismembered. “The last wolf sighted in this region had been slain over twenty years ago, so that the appearance of a wolf in this quarter of the departement was considered unusual to say the least.” More deaths occur. Bramond hunts the wolf, eventually glimpses it one twilight and takes a couple of shots but seems, incredibly, to have missed. That night, he reflects on all that has happened and melts down his wife’s crucifix to make a silver bullet.
I’ll stop right there.
Much else occurs, some of it horribly gruesome, before the grown Bertrand makes his way back to Paris. When the Franco-Prussian War breaks out soon afterward, he promptly enlists in the national guard. As usual, during such crises, social norms tend to be ignored or turned upside down. As her war work, for example, an aristocratic young beauty named Sophie de Blumenberg serves food and drink for a few hours each night at a canteen frequented by soldiers. She is, of course, properly engaged to a handsome, high-minded nobleman who rather bores her. She is also, far less properly, half in love with easeful death, her dreams revealing a hunger for rough sex and violence. One night at the canteen, Sophie notices Bertrand, and he notices her.
I’ll stop right there again — except to say that what follows might not be out of place in “The Story of O” or “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “Her body tensed and then seemed about to dissolve in liquid. . . . If only he would press harder. If only he would crush her. Tear her! Mutilate her!” That’s just the beginning of high-born Sophie’s transformation.
Meanwhile, Galliez has come back to Paris, searching for Bertrand and discovering signs of his presence in the desecration of dead bodies, the dismemberment of a prostitute and several other vicious crimes. But in the days of the Siege of Paris, the Commune and the government’s eventual reprisals, when people were reduced to cooking rats and when street justice led to the execution of thousands, who’s going to get overly excited about the half-eaten corpse of a baby or a few missing body parts? Besides, is Bertrand really all that different, or any more culpable, than the murderous and morally flawed people all around him?
Throughout his narrative, Endore repeatedly addresses such ethical questions, even as he speculates about inherited traits and propensities. Is Bertrand responsible for behavior he loathes but finds almost impossible to control? Does Sophie’s sexuality derive from the bizarre circumstances of her conception? Are the two young people victims or monsters? Or are they simply insane? In short, how much is this novel a variation on “The Bad Seed” and how much on “Psycho”?
Perhaps its closest analogue may actually be still another classic about the savage demons inside us all, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” However you interpret the rich ambiguities of “The Werewolf of Paris,” the book invokes the emotions we associate with tragedy: terror and pity. Yes, there are info-dumps summarizing the history of lycanthropy and long sections that seem to be little more than potted accounts of revolutionary violence. But Endore stresses how much we are all the playthings of dark impulses beyond our understanding. The insidiousness lies in the pleasure we find in surrendering to those impulses. For, it would seem, only when we let loose the beast within do we experience a secretly longed-for ecstasy.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS
By Guy Endore
Pegasus. 294 pp. $24.95