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Freaky Friday Meets Faust in Dumas’ Werewolf Novel

Alexandre Dumas’ Le Meneur de loups (The Wolf Leader), published in 1857, is one of the earliest werewolf novels. Prior to it, a werewolf story was included in the middle of English author Captain Marryat’s The Phantom Ship (1839) and English author George W. M. Reynolds provided a more thorough depiction of a character who turns into a werewolf in Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7). A few other pieces of werewolf literature, all by British authors, exist from this period, but Dumas’ novel may be the first werewolf story in French Gothic literature, and it does not appear to have been influenced by either Marryat or Wagner’s works.

The plot of The Wolf Leader is not complicated. What makes the novel interesting for me is how Dumas weaves in many Gothic elements that might be missed by someone who is not a serious student of the Gothic. I will summarize the plot here focusing on the Gothic elements worth noting.

The introduction begins with Dumas speaking in his own voice, telling how he heard this story from his father’s friend, Mocquet. Mocquet was superstitious and believed a local woman, Madame Durand, was a witch and was causing him to have nightmares. He held this low opinion of her because he said in her youth she was the mistress of Thibault, the wolf leader. By passing the story off as Mocquet’s, a real person he mentions in his Memoires, Dumas is using a literary device to make the story appear more authentic. Obviously, it is a supernatural tale that cannot possibly be true, but he can at least claim it is an authentic legend. Dumas says his father objected to Mocquet telling him supernatural tales, but when he was older and his father had died, Mocquet took him hunting and then told him the tale of Thibault.

Today, Dumas is best known for The Three Musketeers, but he was the author of many Gothic works, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), which plays with Gothic themes, as well as writing the play The Vampyre (1851) and using supernatural themes in his Marie Antoinette novels. The Wolf Leader, however, has received little attention by critics. According to Wikipedia, in 1951, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas reviewed the 1950 Prime Press edition and placed it among “Dumas’s drabbest hack-work.” However, Franz Rottensteiner described it as “considerably superior from a literary point of view.” I would have to agree with the latter. While the book has its faults, Dumas thought out the plot carefully and used many Gothic elements for his story. That it could be dismissed as hack-work, however, may result from its rather light tone. Despite the dramatic incidents in the book and the overall Gothic theme of redemption, the main character suffers no major feelings of agony and there is no intensely Gothic atmosphere, the result being that it reads almost like a spoof on Gothic literature, and if not directly mocking Gothic literature, it has a light and almost humorous tone at least in several of the scenes. In fact, despite the main character’s less than moral behavior, readers may find themselves cheering him on to his next adventure.

That Dumas is drawing upon Gothic literary traditions is obvious from the beginning of the tale when we are told Thibault is a shoemaker. Similarly, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker, and his profession immediately, therefore, tells us that Thibault is a Gothic wanderer figure, one who is or will be cursed. Of course, shoemakers are not supernatural and we could argue it is just a coincidence that he and the Wandering Jew were shoemakers, but given that just a few years earlier Dumas wrote Isaac Lacquedem (1852-53), his incomplete novel about the Wandering Jew, it is unlikely Dumas did not intentionally make Thibault a shoemaker.

Although a shoemaker, Thibault has received some education and traveled, which has given him a high opinion of himself. He has gotten permission to set up trade in the forest on the estate belonging to the Duke of Orleans. He is also unwilling to let others think they are better than him, despite the social disparity that exists in 1780, the year the novel is set, less than a decade before the French Revolution. Thibault’s troubles (or adventures) begin when he encounters the Baron of Vez, who is out hunting. When the baron asks him if he’s seen a deer, Thibault gives him saucy answers that result in the baron’s gamekeeper beating him. Afterwards, Thibault wishes for revenge and becomes determined to hunt down the deer before the baron can. Thibault issues this wish out loud and is heard by the devil or one of his minions, though Thibault doesn’t realize it at first.

Later, Thibault enters his goat shed and is surprised to find the deer the baron sought mysteriously tied inside. Thibault decides he will take it to the convent and sell it to the nuns to get money to buy a wedding dress for Agnelette, his beloved. However, before he can do that, a black wolf enters his cottage on its hind legs and speaks to him. The wolf explains that it brought Thibault the deer at his request and it offers to help Thibault get revenge on his enemies, the baron and the gamekeeper. To seal the pact, Thibault and the wolf exchange rings. Soon after, Thibault is astounded to hear the gamekeeper has died and his wish has come true. However, the baron is also ill and Thibault is forced to let the baron’s men kill his goat to make a healing potion for the baron. And so it goes with everything Thibault wishes. He wishes ill on his enemies, and while what he wishes comes true, it also leads to something detrimental for himself.

Agnelette soon after confronts Thibault about how he got the gold ring he is wearing. Unable to tell her he received it from the wolf, he claims he got it for their wedding, but she knows he is lying since it is obviously too large for her. She then breaks off their engagement.

Meanwhile, wolves begin to follow Thibault everywhere and obey him. Part of the pact with the wolf was that the wolf would be granted a hair for his first wish, two hairs for the second, four for the third, and so on. For every hair the wolf takes, a red one takes its place until soon Thibault has a shock of red hair, which he tries to conceal by combing his hair in different ways. His hair is a sign he has been marked by the devil, rather like the mark of Cain, and eventually, Thibault can no longer hide it.

Thibault has several more adventures, mostly involving women he decides he would like to wed, which results in wishes to possess them and be rid of their current suitors. In one such encounter, Thibault wishes he could become the Baron Raoul, the lover of a countess. Consequently, he is able to make love to the countess when he and the baron switch places for twenty-four hours. This is one of the most interesting scenes in the novel and probably the first case in literature of people switching places in the style popularized by the Disney film Freaky Friday (1976). Another novel using this plot is Vice Versa (1882) by F. Anstey, a novel in which a father and son, through use of a magic stone, switch places. That novel is said to have been so funny that English novelist Anthony Trollope died while laughing over it. (A myth about his death, but one often repeated.) While both Vice Versa and Freaky Friday use the switched roles theme for comical means, Dumas uses it more seriously. Thibault, under guise of the baron, ends up being pursued by the Countess’ husband and wounded in a duel. Fortunately, the twenty-four hours of switching places ends just before the baron dies, so Thibault finds himself returned to his own body.

By this point, people have figured out that Thibault is in some way involved with sorcery. He wakes in his home in his own body only to find his cottage on fire and people shouting “Death to the sorcerer! Death to the were-wolf!” (Thibault has not become a werewolf yet, but that he leads a pack of wolves that terrify the villagers has earned him the name.) He escapes from his house but now feels like “Cain, a wanderer on the face of the earth.” Earlier in the novel, he also compared himself to Cain because he brought about the death of the gamekeeper. These references to Cain again relate to the Gothic tradition and particularly the mark of Cain that showed Cain was cursed among men.

Homeless, Thibault now begins to sleep in a wolves’ den with his wolf followers. People fear him as he begins having his wolves destroy property, leading to the bishop excommunicating him. Then one day, Thibault rescues Agnelette from a wolf. She is not grateful but expects he will kill her. He tries to convince her to leave her husband and be with him, but while she admits she still loves him, she refuses. He then tells her he wishes her husband were dead. Terrified because she knows his wishes come true, Agnelette runs to her husband who turns out to be fine, but after Agnelette tells him of Thibault’s behavior, he goes to report the behavior to the authorities and is accidentally shot on the way. Soon after, Agnelette becomes ill over his death.

By this point, a year has passed since the day Thibault made his pact with the wolf. He is now cursing all his ill luck and wishing he had never met the wolf. The wolf now appears and says Thibault can still enjoy everything he wants if he will only take the wolf’s form. No one will then be able to hurt him because his skin will be so strong. He will have to be a wolf by night but can be a man by day. The only catch is that he must be a vulnerable wolf for twenty-four hours once a year. Thibault agrees to the proposal because he is assured he will have unlimited power and wealth. Once the agreement is made, the wolf takes on the form of a man and Thibault becomes a wolf. (If the novel was influenced by Reynolds’ Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, this would be the only scene because in that novel Faust convinced Wagner to take his place as a werewolf.)

Immediately, Thibault finds himself in trouble because it happens to be the twenty-four hours when he must be a wolf. He is hunted by the Baron of Vez and his dogs. As he flees from them, he comes to a church where he finds Agnelette’s funeral in progress. At that moment, he blames himself for her death, feels great sorrow, and asks God to restore her to life even if it means his death.

The baron’s dogs now catch up to him and attack. When the baron arrives, he finds the dogs fighting over a bloody wolf skin, but there is no body to be found. The priest presiding over the funeral says he heard Thibault’s prayer of repentance and sacrifice and that saved him. The sacrifice, however, isn’t a true one since Agnelette died anyway. The novel closes by telling us that each year on the anniversary of Agnelette’s death, a monk comes to pray beside her grave. The implication is that Thibault became a monk.

The novel’s storyline has one plot hole in that it never shows us Madame Durand as Thibault’s mistress, although she is the person who supposedly caused Mocquet to have nightmares and tell the story in the first place.

The novel is interesting for blending the Faustian pact with other themes of the Wandering Jew and Cain. At one point, we are even told that Thibault’s thoughts were like those of Milton’s Satan after he fell. This statement reveals that Dumas probably knew Paradise Lost (1667), which was a major influence in the development of the Gothic novel in England as I have discussed in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

Is The Wolf Leader Dumas’ best work? Far from it, but it is a highly readable and enjoyable novel. It is somewhat predictable and far from as complicated and wide-ranging a plot as in Reynolds’ novel. But it is also interesting that while Wagner agrees to be a werewolf, he does not wish to kill people. Thibault has few qualms about hurting his enemies, although he becomes more careful about making wishes as the novel progresses.

Given that the novel was written in 1857 but set before the French Revolution, it might be interpreted as showing the uprising of the common man against the French aristocracy, especially since Thibault’s first assault is upon a baron. Thibault is also shown as climbing the social ladder as the novel progresses, especially in relation to the women he desires. He goes from loving Agnelette, a peasant girl, to imagining himself marrying a widowed miller’s wife, then a bailiff’s wife, and then a countess, even becoming a baron himself for a short time. In each case, however, the women ultimately reject him or make fun of him behind his back. His social climbing also is obvious from his increasing wealth through not having to work since the wolves provide him with meat that he often sells to support himself. His improved financial situation makes people suspicious of him and in time accuse him of sorcery. We might interpret the novel as showing he is punished for his transgressions against the social order and rising above his class. In the end, he regrets that he was untrue to Agnelette, the only woman he really loved and the only one of his class. Only when Thibault tries to save her and repents is he redeemed from his crimes. The story is thus both subversive in its attacks upon aristocracy and ultimately conservative by showing the dangers or sin of trying to move beyond one’s class. In the end, like Milton’s Satan, pride comes before the fall for Thibault.

However one wishes to interpret The Wolf Leader, it is a fascinating piece of Gothic literature that deserves more attention than it has received, especially in relation to its social implications and revenge theme, a theme that Dumas used to greater effect in The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was a diverse and powerful writer, and while his work is somewhat uneven in quality, his lesser-known works deserve reevaluation.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Alexandre Dumas, Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds, revenge tragedies, The Wandering Jew

New Book on Spring-Heeled Jack Explores Jack’s History, including Gothic Connections

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero by John Matthews is a fascinating look at a sometimes overlooked character who has had a significant impact on sensational and Gothic literature as well as the public’s imaginations and fears for nearly two centuries now. Matthews, who is perhaps best-known for his many books on the Arthurian legend, has compiled nearly every known reference and possibility related to Spring-Heeled Jack into this book.

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

Those not familiar with Spring-Heeled Jack will wonder why they have never heard of him. He first appeared in London and its surrounding areas in 1838 and continues to be sighted every few years, it seems, both in England and now the United States and perhaps even in a few other places around the globe. His origins lie in several startling attacks he made upon unsuspecting women in the early Victorian period. He is frequently described as dressed in black, wearing a cape, having long fingers, pointy ears, and eyes that glow red or blue. His most famous feature, however, is his amazing ability to spring or leap enormous distances, sometimes twenty feet from the ground to a roof or even thirty feet from one rooftop to the next.

In this encyclopedic book about all things Spring-Heeled Jack, Matthews begins by going back to the original sources. He quotes in detail the numerous newspaper reports of Jack and his attacks upon his victims. Most of his attacks were relatively mild, just appearing and frightening women, or mildly assaulting them, although in some cases, he attacks with knives, especially the men who pursue him.

Jack was likely some sort of criminal who developed a spring mechanism for his shoes, but just who he was has never been fully revealed. He quickly became a legend and soon many copycat crimes were occurring; some of these criminals were caught but others not. Jack also often acted like the typical highwayman who was a popular literary figure in the Newgate novels of the 1830s, and later, Jack the Ripper at least left behind one note where he signed himself as Spring-Heeled Jack, though as Matthews notes, Jack the Ripper was a serial murderer while Spring-Heeled Jack’s crimes are far less severe and seem mostly intended just to shock and frighten people. Nevertheless, the Ripper’s crimes took place in the 1890s, showing that Spring-Heeled Jack retained a hold on the Victorian imagination.

While the historical newspaper accounts are interesting, for me, what is more fascinating is Jack’s appearances in literature. Matthews details how Jack soon became part of popular culture. By 1840, there was a stageplay produced about him. In 1867, there was a penny dreadful published titled Spring-Heeled Jack—The Terror of London, and in 1878, another serial was published with the same name. The difference between these two works is significant. In the first, Jack is depicted as a demon figure. In the latter, he is a young nobleman deprived of his inheritance whose actions are based on his desire to get revenge on those who have cheated him; others copy his crimes, but this second penny dreadful makes it clear that Jack is a clever trickster type of hero. I find this transition in Jack’s character fascinating since I am a firm believer that the Gothic Wanderer figure in nineteenth century literature was eventually transformed into our modern-day superhero figure. In this version, Jack has the qualities of the Gothic Wanderer in being disinherited, although he is lacking guilt and commits no true crimes.

Equally fascinating is the possibility that Jack is an early version of Batman. Matthews notes that there is no evidence that Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, knew anything of Spring-Heeled Jack, but he provides plenty of evidence that bat-man figures were in the popular imagination well before Batman arrived on the scene. (More on that below.)

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

Matthews devotes a great deal of time trying to determine the origins of Spring-Heeled Jack as a fictional or popular culture figure beyond whether or not he was a true historical criminal. He digs back into mythology looking at Jack’s origin in devil figures (one of Captain Marryat’s novels, Mr. Midshipman Easy, from 1835 is cited as a source here also; in it a character wears a devil’s costume and springs into a house frightening people), Jack the Giant Killer (with a nod to King Arthur here), the popular Jack-in-a-Box toy, and Robin Hood, since Jack is often depicted as a hero fighting against the rich. That said, Jack is also depicted as aristocratic and possibly preying upon the poor—one of the possibilities for his identity is the historical Marquis of Waterford.

This aristocratic side to Jack fascinates me and brings me to the one omission in the book, for which perhaps there is no evidence, but which seems to me very likely—that Jack influenced the creation of Dracula and the vampire legend. Of course, the vampire figure had already been popularized in England with John Polidori’s The Vampire in 1819. But the depiction of vampires still had a long way to go before Dracula set the standard for vampire characteristics. One of the possible sources for Spring-Heeled Jack that Matthews cites is the “Moon Hoax of 1835” in which it was claimed that a civilization had been discovered on the moon and that it was inhabited by winged men which were called “man-bats.” This may well be the first suggestion of men connected to bats. Of course, Dracula has the ability to change into a bat in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, and as I’ve pointed out in my previous blogs about French novelist Paul Féval, vampires were also associated with bats in his novel Vampire City (1875). Could Spring-Heeled Jack, whose cape is often depicted as looking like wings tied to his arm, have also influenced the depiction of Dracula? I have not been able to find any link between Stoker and Spring-Heeled Jack, but the Jack was in the popular imagination so doubtless Stoker knew of him. Note that Dracula is also a count and Stoker’s novel has been read as being a story about how the nobility preyed upon the lower classes. Dracula’s victims, like Jack’s, are also predominantly female.

Another interesting connection between Spring-Heeled Jack and Dracula can be found in another possible version of Jack that Matthews mentions—The Mothman, who was first sighted in 1966 in West Virginia and whom the film The Mothman Prophecies was made about. The Mothman is also winged and can fly. Interestingly, it is claimed he was spotted just before the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001—this suggests he might play a role in political events. Similarly, the Wandering Jew has often been said to appear during historical events, including the French Revolution and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Wandering Jew is often cited as an influence upon Stoker, particularly because Stoker was manager for the actor Henry Irving and he encouraged Irving to consider playing the Wandering Jew. Stoker also wrote about the Wandering Jew in his book Famous Impostors. Jack the Ripper’s murders were also associated with the Jews as instigators of the crimes. Could Spring-Heeled Jack have had some connections to the Wandering Jew in the popular imagination?

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

In any case, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true historical and literary mystery that continues to fascinate. Matthews concludes the book by looking at Jack’s appearances in film, television series, and comic books in more recent years. He omits mention that Jack also was featured in an episode of the short-lived 2016 television series Houdini and Doyle, likely because the book was already being prepared for printing when the series aired, but it shows that Matthews’ prediction at the end of the book that Spring-Heeled Jack will likely be around for many years to come is true without a doubt.

The book also contains numerous illustrations, including several colored plates, and the appendices contain the full text of the 1878 penny dreadful version of Jack’s story.

Overall, The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true treasure trove for anyone interested in Jack himself, or popular culture, Victorian crime, the Gothic, comic books, or superheroes. It’s published by Destiny Books and is available worldwide including all the major online booksellers.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Superheroes and the Gothic, The Wandering Jew

Lord Byron Memorabilia and the Gothic Tradition

Recently, a copy of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was discovered and is expected to sell for 400,000 pounds at auction. And it wasn’t just any copy of Frankenstein; it was the copy Mary Shelley had autographed specifically for her good friend Lord Byron. You can read more about the sale at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/06/lord-byron-frankenstein-mary-shelley_n_1860447.html

Tyler at Knebworth House in 2000.

As has been told thousands of times, Frankenstein was first conceived during a holiday in 1816 when Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley all gathered together to tell ghost stories. From that evening Polidori’s The Vampyre was conceived—the first vampire story in English—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Consequently, Byron was present at the origins of Frankenstein.

What I wouldn’t give to have Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, but alas, I don’t have 400,000 pounds. But the auction sale reminded me of one of my favorite literary experiences I had in the summer of 2000 when I attended the first Edward Bulwer-Lytton conference at the University of London in England. There I presented a paper about the influences of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) on Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a paper that later formed the basis for a chapter in my new book The Gothic Wanderer. But for me, the highlight of the conference was when Lord Cobbold, descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, had us all for dinner and a play at Knebworth House, the fabulous Victorian Gothic home built by Bulwer-Lytton.

Knebworth House and Gardens

Bulwer-Lytton fancied himself as a Lord Byron type, having come of age while Byron’s poetry was all the rage. Bulwer-Lytton was born in 1803 while Lord Byron died in 1824. Not far from Knebworth House was the home of Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s former mistress, who had committed adultery with him, despite her marriage to Viscount Melbourne, later Prime Minister of England. By the time Bulwer-Lytton knew Lamb, she was middle-aged, but he was a young man who fancied she might take an interest in him, although eighteen years his senior.

As far as we know, his attraction to her—perhaps more from her former relationship with Lord Byron than her own beauty—never amounted to anything, but because of his interests in Lord Byron, she gave him Lord Byron’s ruler which she had in her possession as well as a copy of Glenarvon, a fabulous Gothic novel she wrote in 1816, a thinly disguised portrait of her relationship with Lord Byron, in which she depicts him as having similarities to a vampire. The main character, Callantha, commits adultery with the title character Glenarvon, a relationship that is akin to achieving damnation, but in the end, they separate and Callantha finds redemption while Glenarvon is tormented at sea, seeing the Flying Dutchman, the haunted ship manned by sailors who can never rest and which would later be developed more fully in Captain Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship (1839). While Glenarvon is not the best written novel, it’s a fascinating one, full of Gothic elements, and interesting as a portrait of Lord Byron. Byron was himself not impressed by the book, remarking upon it, “I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!”

You can well imagine how exciting it was for me to visit Knebworth House and especially when Lord Cobbold gave us a tour, showed us Lord Byron’s ruler, and then unlocked the glass cabinet, and unbelievably, passed around the copy of Glenarvonthat Lady Caroline Lamb had given to Edward Bulwer-Lytton! For just a moment, I got to hold it in my hands and feel connected to those far away great Gothic authors of the past. Now if I only had 400,000 pounds.

Gargoyles on one of Knebworth House’s many towers.

For more information on Gothic literature, Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton, Shelley, and Byron, check out my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction 1794-present available at www.GothicWanderer.com. and if you’d like to visit Knebworth House, well worth the visit, and a house that has been featured in many films, you can learn more at: http://www.knebworthhouse.com/

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