August 2012

Kelsey Osgood

fiction

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

It's really a desperate shame that most members of my generation -- i.e. people born after 1980 -- will immediately associate Guy Endore's bawdy, bloody, and ultimately marvelous 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris with the abysmal 1997 film of the very similar title An American Werewolf in Paris, which starred Tom Everett Scott and Julie Delpy and received a paltry eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes, earning it the label "rotten." Luckily for me, I had a horror film aficionado for a father, which means I was early on forced to watch the classic precursor to that dud, An American Werewolf in London -- hilarious, lurid, and, I'm inclined to think, more in tune with Endore's vision, not that the writers of the film aimed for that. Lucky for all of us, but particularly for horror fans, Endore's book, out of print for forty years, save a fancy $75 limited edition, is now available from Pegasus Books.

The book opens with an American grad student in Paris being paid an unhappy visit by an insipid acquaintance from home. She insists on going out to the kind of bar beloved only by American tourists, getting totally plastered, and performing a doubtlessly embarrassment-by-proxy-inducing striptease for the bar patrons. (This is the one of the many moments throughout the book that rings so modern. "Grad students of the early 20th century -- they're just like us!") After attempting and failing to corral his "friend," the narrator sets off toward home through the dark, semi-deserted rues Parisienne with another friend, this one male. Inevitably, the subject of their discourse turns to lycanthropy. The deft conversational move from the exploits of drunk Eliane to the philosophy behind bestial possession is reminiscent again of one seminal moment in all horror films: the early scene in which, seemingly out of nowhere, a side character hints at the orgy of blood to come by asking, "What's your favorite scary movie?" (In addition to being a novelist, Endore was also a screenwriter of such horror gems as Mark of the Vampire, The Story of G.I. Joe, and the cinematic version of this book.) The fact that the topic of sexual aggression flows so seamlessly into legends of carnal festivals devoted to Romulus and Remus and other werewolf-related lore is indicative of the parallels that Endore will set up in the following pages between sex, violence, humanness, and barbarism, and how these four things interact and overlap in myriad ways.

As the unnamed narrator wanders toward his home in the wee hours, he witnesses two bums inspecting the urban detritus they've collected during a good night's work. He manages to spot -- lo and behold! -- a pile of papers and, upon closer inspection, his eyes zero in on one sentence: "The lupercal temples became the later brothels or lupanars." Still today in Italian, lupa signifies both wolf and wanton. Obviously, this can be no mere coincidence; he snaps up the manuscript for five francs, upon which he, and the book, plunge into the sad story of Aymar Galliez and the even sadder story of Bertrand Caillet, man, lover, psychopath, wolf.

What follows is a salacious tale rife with incestuous sex, literal blood-sucking, bestial blackouts, and the occasional political diatribe. I thought it was enormously entertaining, even though I don't usually go for books that could potentially fall into the "urban fantasy" genre (though as I mentioned, I do enjoy the occasional slasher flick). I don't want to ruin too much of the story here, but let's just say there's something in it for everyone, including those that found Fifty Shades of Grey lacking in real cruelty and also those who are fans of Boccaccio-esque descriptions of Catholic clerics getting their boogie on. It's tempting, coming from the generation I do, to relate Endore to Stephenie Meyer and her ilk, but the difference in plot development of Twilight and that of Werewolf of Paris points to a meaningful shift in the cultural climate from then until now, namely that we (our current culture) want the thrill of danger but we want it soaked in Purell, ultimately nugatory. While vampires fly around and werewolves stalk prey and all that mythical jazz throughout Meyer's trilogy, her protagonists are clearly never in any real jeopardy as they're too important and too rife with semiotic meaning, whereas most all the characters in Endore's book, from the titular werewolf to the lowly carriage driver, end up dead, maimed, imprisoned, or societally disgraced. Endore makes the unspoken statement that man and animal are equally vicious, and, unlike the writers of today, he's willing to follow that conclusion to its full end. This is not to say that it's all bleak -- in fact, much of the book manages to be riotously funny. I found downright hilarious a scene in which Bertrand's de facto father (long story) attends a dinner party hosted by a prominent Parisian scientist featuring a menu that, it turns out, consists of boiled city rodents, roasted domestic dogs, and a consommé of horse. Afterward, all the nouveau-foodies at the table give their opinions of the dishes. "Braised shoulder and undercut of dog were highly appreciated and judged to be not unlike the flesh of chamois."

This particular critic has few grievances with this book -- only two, in fact. The first is that Endore's political missives get occasionally tiresome and transparent (Endore was an avowed leftist, and his distaste for most all things bureaucratic is quite obvious throughout). They feel like too-long asides that distract and detract from the oddly light-hearted tone of the rest of the book. The second issue is that the narrator, our own personal Virgil of sorts, is never seen after the first chapter, so the text threatens to be like a line of books supported by only one book-end, ready to topple over at any moment. Sort of like this review.

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore
Pegasus
ISBN: 978-1605983530
304 pages