A look at the weird fiction work discussed last week over at LibraryThing.
Review: “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains”, Frederick Marryat, 1839.
This is something a bit different than the usual weird fiction I review. It’s an excerpt from Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship which is about a man, seemingly Philip here, who is trying to remove a curse from his father – who is no less than the Flying Dutchman of legend. It’s a tale nested within a larger narrative.
Thus, the story opens with two men, Philip and Krantz, leaving a group of other men arguing over some gold just discovered on an island. They get into a boat and head west for Goa.
As they sail, their discussion turns to destiny. Some men, like the ones they left arguing over gold, are destined to misery and misfortune.
Philip urges Krantz to talk about his past, which he has alluded to, when Philip told him some “mysterious tale”.
Krantz asks Philip if he’s ever heard of the Hartz Mountains. Philip says he’s heard it’s a strange place. It is a strange place, Krantz replies, but he believes the tales told of it.
Krantz wonders why “malevolent beings” are permitted to trouble “unoffending mortals”. But so they are. Philip says humans have free will and “Divine justice” to help in their struggle with their own passions and unseen enemies. Those are more than enough. Krantz agrees and then tells his story.
His father was the serf of a Hungarian nobleman and married to a beautiful woman, so beautiful, the nobleman had an adulterous affair with her, and Krantz’s father killed them both and fled, taking Krantz’s elder brother, Caesar, him, and his sister Marcella.
The family ended up in the Hartz Mountains where Krantz’s father eked out a living with a small farm and hunting in the winter when the place was snowbound. Disgusted with women, Krantz’s father won’t allow any woman to be in the house – even if one could be found. In the winter, the children, very fond of each other, are cooped up in the house while their father hunts. Caesar is nine, Krantz seven, and Marcella five.
One cold winter day, Krantz’s father returns in a bad mood to the cabin, striking Marcella about the month. It seems the children are “accustomed to ill-usage” and being afraid of their father. Krantz’s father hears the howl of a wolf and goes back outside with his gun.
He is a gone a long time. As Krantz says he only learned years later (which rather contradicts the logic of following events – Marryat has been accused of being an occasionally sloppy writer), his father pursues the wolf which disappears as he is about to shoot it. Then he hears a hunting horn which blows three times, each time closer. Krantz’s father meets a man and young woman on horse. They claim it’s fortunate, since they are being pursued, they met Krantz’s father. When all three return to the cabin, they are pleased the children have a meal ready. Krantz’s says the woman, with blonde hair and nice teeth was very beautiful but with perhaps a too wide mouth and cold eyes.
But Marcella is, right from the start, afraid of her. That night the young woman takes the elder Krantz’s bed while he and the other man sleep together near the fire and the children in their usual beds.
It turns out the man and woman, like the Krantzes, are from Transylvania and also had to leave their home. His name is Wilfred, and he is the older Krantz’s second cousin. The woman is Christina, Wilfred’s daughter.
For three weeks, the two men go out hunting during the day, and Christina stays with the children and treats them very kindly though Marcella never loses her fear of her. They notice their father seems to have gotten over his aversion to women and is “most attentive” to Christina. The elder Krantz asks for Christina’s hand in marriage. Wilfred assents and will leave after the marriage.
Wilfred performs the marriage ceremony, but, since there are no Christian clergy about, he proposes his own oath:
I swear by all the spirits of the Hartz mountains, by all their power for good or for evil, that I take Christina for my wedded wife; that I will ever protect her, cherish her, and love her; that my hand shall never be raised against her to harm her.
Krantz’s father is uneasy about swearing by the spirits of the Harz Mountains but does so anyway.
Breaking the oath comes with a curse:
And if I fail in this my vow, may all the vengeance of the spirits fall upon me and upon my children; may they perish by the vulture, by the wolf, or other beasts of the forest; may their flesh be torn from their limbs, and their bones blanch in the wilderness: all this I swear.
And, in keeping with the themes of men being swayed fatally by feminine beauty (Krantz’s first wife was also very beautiful) and an evil stepmother, Christina is no longer kind to the children when Krantz’s is gone. She beats them, particularly Marcella.
One night, Marcella wakes up and notices Christina has left the cabin in her nightclothes. Shortly after she leaves, the children hear the growl of a wolf. The children note the same thing happens several nights in a row. Furthermore, Christina doesn’t seem to eat much at meals though she will furtively take a bite of raw meat before she cooks it.
Caesar wants more information before telling their father, so, one night, he sleeps in his clothes and with his father’s gun. When Christina leaves, he follows. His siblings hear the shot of a gun – which doesn’t wake up the elder Krantz – and Christina returns with her clothes bloody and sits by the fire after checking her husband is still asleep. She dresses what look to be a gunshot wound in her leg.
The next morning his father wants to know where Caesar is. Christina says she was restless that night and heard somebody leave the cabin. Krantz’s father goes outside and comes back with the mangled body of Caesar. Christina says Caesar must have gone outside with a gun to hunt a wolf and paid for his rashness. Krantz is about to reveal what he knows, but Marcella stops him. The children know Christina had something to do with Caesar’s death.
Caesar’s body is buried with stones on the grave. One day, after returning from hunting, the elder Krantz notices the stones have been removed and Caesar’s body disturbed. Krantz tells his father he hears a wolf outside every night. He catches Christina’s expression, eyes flashing fire, teeth gnashing.
Spring comes, and Marcella and Krantz help their father outside, Krantz never separating from his sister. Christina stops leaving at night.
One day, Christina says she is going into the woods to gather herbs, and Marcella needs to watch the dinner cooking in the cabin. About an hour later, father and son hear shrieks from the cabin. They see a wolf leave the cabin and find Marcella’s body mangled inside. Christina returns claiming she saw the wolf which frightened her off.
After several days, the grief stricken Krantz buries his daughter, also covering her grave with stones. The night after Marcella is buried, Krantz sees Christina leave and follows her. She is removing the rocks from off Marcella’s grave. He wakes up his father who doesn’t immediately notice his wife isn’t there.
The two go outside where Krantz finds his wife ripping off Marcella’s flesh with her teeth like a wolf. Krantz shoots his wife, killing her, and the Krantzes are astonished to see her transform into a wolf. Marcella is reburied.
The next morning Wilford shows up. He wants to know where his daughter is. She’s where she should be, in hell, replies Krantz’s father. Wilford asks if Krantz, a pathetic man who had to wed a werewolf, would dare harm a “potent spirit” of the mountains. Wilford reminds the elder Krantz of the curse if he broke his vow. He and his son will die. Then Wilford disappears.
The next morning father and son leave for Holland where the elder Krantz dies from brain fever in an insane asylum.
The story then picks back up with Krantz and Philip as they sail near Sumatra.
Krantz is increasingly uneasy. He has a sense he is doomed and won’t make it to Goa. He tells Philip to take his gold (presumably from the story’s opening). Philip doesn’t want to, but Krantz says he thinks his death is near. If they reach Goa, Philip can always give Krantz his money back.
They set foot on shore for water and, just has Krantz is about to give Philip the money, a tiger rushes out of the jungle and kills Krantz.
. . . it was his destiny, and it has been fulfilled. His bones will bleach in the wilderness, and the spirit-hunter and his wolfish daughter are avenged.
Philip reaches Goa and looks for Amine, who seems to be a love of his, but doesn’t find her.
So, to a reader more than a 180 years later, there’s not much surprising in this werewolf tale. (Wikipedia does claim it’s the first story to have a female werewolf.)
Still, it’s short enough not to wear out its welcome once Krantz gets to his tale. There are, of course, fairy tale motifs here: the strange oath with dire consequences for breaking it and the evil stepmother.
Wilford’s curse seems to be the sort of thing an evil being would do. Supposedly, the elder Krantz is to suffer because he killed Christina. But Christina was already making him suffer by killing two of his children before Krantz does anything at all against her.