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A DRACULA For Werewolves:
Searching for a Lycanthropic Literary Canon

By Jonathan Helland  June 13, 2024 

Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s 1981 examination of the horror genre, describes three archetypal monsters, each defined by a different work of literature–the vampire (Dracula), the Thing Without a Name (Frankenstein), and the werewolf. Let us pause for a moment to guess what classic literary work King felt defined the werewolf. Any ideas? If no book occurs to you, you’re not alone. The question of what book is the werewolf equivalent of Dracula comes up frequently on horror literature and book recommendation forums. Over the course of several years, I’ve made an effort to read every notable werewolf novel in search of the answer to this question.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886, Robert Louis Stevenson)

This was Stephen King’s archetypal werewolf book.2 You can see where he’s coming from–a good man transforms into a monster that represents his basest, most animalistic urges. It is a parable about the beast within us all. And yet, so many things are missing. Where is the fur? The fangs? The freakin’ werewolves? With all due respect to Mr. King, I’m afraid we must dismiss the notion that the defining werewolf book is one with zero werewolves.

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The Wolf Man (1941, Dir. George Waggner)

Part of the problem with finding a canonical werewolf novel lies in the fact that so many of the accepted tropes were invented in film, and by one studio in particular. Between 1935’s Werewolf of London and 1941’s The Wolf Man, Universal Studios is why werewolves transform during the full moon, have an infectious bite, and are vulnerable to silver. The Wolf Man, especially, has a very strong claim to being the defining werewolf text. No book I could name can boast a greater influence on the modern werewolf. However, if we can dismiss Jekyll and Hyde for a lack of werewolves, we can also dismiss The Wolf Man for being insufficiently a book.

Eclogue 8 (Circa 39 BCE, Virgil)

Most online sources will claim the earliest werewolf was King Lycaon (or Lycan),3  cursed by Zeus to become a wolf.4

But Lycaon is neither the earliest, nor a werewolf. A werewolf must also, on occasion, turn back into a person! Otherwise, how will they blend in with the innocent villagers? How will they regret the blood they spilled? Would you call the frog prince of fairytales a werefrog? There earliest ancient Greek werewolf is Moeris from Virgil’s eighth Eclogue. Moeris is a voluntary werewolf who uses of secret knowledge and special herbs to transform.5

But the presence of a werewolf isn’t enough to call something a “werewolf book.”6

The Lay of Bisclavaret (Late 12th century, Marie de France)

This is our first proper contender for a quintessential werewolf story. “The Lay of Bisclavaret,” concerns a knight who is cursed to become a wolf for three days at a time. When his wife betrays him by enlisting a suitor to steal his carefully hidden clothing, he becomes stuck as a wolf until he can get his clothing back. 7

While far from the horror-based werewolf of modern media, it is undeniably a werewolf story, and probably the first with a heroic werewolf protagonist. Marie de France was influential on later stories as well, Sir Melion (sometimes Sir Marrok) is just Bisclavaret renamed and transported to the court of King Arthur.

1165, The Lay of Bisclavaret

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The Book of Were-Wolves (1865, Sabine Baring-Gould)

In Europe in the 15 th -18 th centuries, an unknown number of people were tried, convicted, and executed for the crime of being a werewolf. This was small compared to the number convicted of witchcraft, but it almost certainly numbered in the hundreds. Werewolves, like witches, weren’t believed to be tragic victims of a curse, but the result of a voluntary pact with the devil. Sadly, there is a dearth of literary werewolves in this period to accompany the many accusations.8

However, if I may be allowed to nominate some nonfiction for the title of “the quintessential werewolf book,” Baring-Gould’s seminal text explores both the folklore of werewolves throughout the ages and the fascinating history of werewolf trials and convictions.

The Were-Wolf (1896, Clemence Houseman)

The horror genre was born of the gothic novel of the 18th century and evolved into its present form throughout the 19th.  The most popular and successful werewolf novel of this era (if we don’t count Jekyll and Hyde) was Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1845) by George W. M. Reynolds, a “penny dreadful” about a man who becomes a werewolf through a Faustian bargain. But, where Dracula remains a taut thriller that has stood the test of time, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by comparison is meandering and dull and of interest solely as a historical artifact. A far better ambassador for the 19th century werewolf is Clemence Houseman’s9 novelette The Were-Wolf (1896). The werewolf in this story is a beautiful woman who marks her victims with a kiss, and it reads as a touching fairy tale about familial love and sacrifice, with an action-packed and
surprisingly bloody climax.

A Werewolf in Paris (1933, Guy Endore)

A Werewolf in Paris (1933) is the book most commonly named the Dracula of werewolves, and with good reason. It’s a true classic, beautifully written, that explores the classic werewolf theme of humanity’s potential for bestial cruelty against the backdrop of the Paris Commune of 1871. There are passages in this novel that haunt me. A Werewolf in Paris is the only werewolf novel to ever be number one on the New York Times bestsellers list, and it’s the last book I’ll discuss
that predates the Universal Studios werewolf movies.

1896, The Were-Wolf

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“The Company of Wolves” (in The Bloody Chamber, 1979, Angela Carter)

Angela Carter’s 1979 magnum opus of feminist fairytale retellings, The Bloody Chamber contains two werewolf stories, “The Werewolf” and “The Company of Wolves.” It’s the latter of these, a psychosexual, hallucinatory retelling of Red Riding Hood, that has become a true classic of the werewolf genre.

Cycle of the Werewolf (1983, Stephen King)

Cycle of the Werewolf is one of the most commonly suggested “classic” werewolf books, but that might just be because of the name on the cover. It’s one of the weakest Stephen King books of his golden age, perhaps because he originally wrote it as a novelty calendar. It’s accompanied by illustrations by the legendary Bernie Wrightson, but, for all their pulpy fun, they have an unfortunate tendency to spoil the chapter in which the appear. The best argument I’ll make for this novella is this: at a time when nearly every werewolf book was trying to put a unique twist on the monster, King sticks with the classic formula. It’s the burger and fries of werewolf books.

The Wolf’s Hour (1989, Robert McCammon)

The Wolf’s Hour is a book about a British spy in WWII who happens to be a werewolf. It’s a well-written spy thriller with some memorable action scenes. Where it falls down is in an excess of restraint—in its efforts to be a serious novel, we miss out on some of the gonzo fun promised by its werewolf vs. nazis premise.

Thor (1992, Wayne Smith)

This book does a great job with the classic, Universal werewolf template, and of not taking itself too seriously. Thor is a German shepherd desperately trying to protect his two-legged family from their werewolf uncle. It was adapted into the movie Bad Moon, but the medium of film doesn’t allow us to see through the dog’s point of view with the same intimacy. This book is pulpy fun, but emotionally resonant enough that I still cried at the end.10

Blood and Chocolate (1997, Annette Curtis Klause)

Blood and Chocolate is a book just slightly ahead of its time—it had the bad luck to come out before Harry Potter and Twilight respectively transformed young adult publishing.11

It’s a tragic love story with great descriptions of transformations and the joys of being a wolf. Along with 2001’s Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, Blood and Chocolate established the werewolf as a one of the primary topics of the nascent paranormal romance genre, which would be the monster’s primary home for the following decade.

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The Last Werewolf (2011, Glen Duncan)

If there is a modern era of the werewolf, it started in 2011 with The Last Werewolf. It’s literary, sardonic, witty, and unfashionably horny. A contemporary review in the Guardian makes the comparison to Dracula, “as rewritten by Brett Easton Ellis,”12   but this novel is far more interested in exploring the human condition than of generating suspense and chills. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best (and perhaps the best written) werewolf novels of all time.

Those Across the River (2011, Christopher Buehlman)

That same year brought us Christopher Buehlman’s debut novel, Those Across the River. Its
themes of how our past sins, individual and collective, can haunt the present are potent and, on a personal level, I found this to be the scariest werewolf novel, even if it is only my second favorite.13

Mongrels (2016, Stephen Graham Jones)

My first favorite is Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels (2016). This is a coming-of-age story about a young boy in a family of werewolves anxiously awaiting his first transformation. In his acknowledgements, Jones writes, “Thanks to Alan Moore for asking What if superheroes actually existed? There’s a variable of that question for me, I always thought.” 14

He succeeded with this book—if it’s not the Dracula of werewolves, it’s certainly the Watchmen of werewolves. While there is an allegory to rural poverty and the native American experience in this book, it also captures what it would be like to be a werewolf better than any other book.

The End of Our Quest

Can we now declare a victor? What is the Dracula of werewolves?It depends on what comparison we’re drawing to Bram Stoker’s novel. If the question is, “what set the standards that all later works must respond to?” the answer is still Universal studios’ TheWolf-Man. If the question is “what century-old book holds up best for modern readers,” the answer is Houseman’s The Were-Wolf. If the question is, instead, “what is the most importan twork of werewolf literature?” I’d give the title to A Werewolf in Paris for novels and “In the Company of Wolves” for short stories. If the question is, “what werewolf novel do you, Jonathan
Helland, lover of werewolves, love the most?” I hit you with the one-two punch of Mongrels and Those Across the River. The fact that Dracula can somehow answer all of those questions for vampires is amazing in retrospect, but perhaps it fits the shape-shifting nature of the werewolf
that it is harder to pin down.

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1 King, Stephen. “Chapter III: Tales of the Tarot.” Danse Macabre. Gallery Books. 2010. Pgs. 50-84

2 King. Pg. 72
3 It is apocryphal that the word “lycanthropy” comes from King Lycaon. Like almost every word for
werewolf in every language (including the old English “werewulf”), lycanthropy is a portmanteau of a word for wolf (lykos) and a word for man (anthropos) (https://www.etymonline.com/word/lycanthropy). The fate of “King Wolf” of Arcadia should have surprised no one.
4 Ovid. The Metamorphosis. Translated by A.S. Kline. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph.php#anchor_Toc64105461
5 Frost, Brian J. The Essential Guide to the Literary Werewolf. University of Wisconsin Press. 2003. Pg.50.
6 For this reason, I must roll my eyes at the online lists of werewolf books that include The Prisoner of Azkaban and Twilight: New Moon.

7 Frost. Pg. 51-52

8. Unless you count "practical" witch-hunting manuals such as Deamonologie (1597) and Malleus Maleficarum (1486)

9 The sister of famed poet and scholar A.E. Houseman.

10 Don’t worry. The dog doesn’t die.

11 The success of the Twilight franchise undoubtedly did contribute to Blood and Chocolate getting a forgettable and inferior 2007 film adaptation.
12 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/01/last-werewolf-glen-duncan-review

13 The fact that Buehlman wrote my second favorite werewolf novel and my second favorite vampire novel (The Lesser Dead) is as strong an endorsement I can give to any author.
14 Jones, Stephen Graham. Mongrels. Harper Collins. 2016. Kindle. Pg. 297

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Jonathan Helland is a writer, scholar, and educator from Vermont. He has an MA in literature from University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has published essays in Writer’s Chronicle, The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E Howard Studies, and The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror, and fiction in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Burrow Press Review, Uncharted Magazine, and elsewhere. In addition to his writing and his day-job in higher education, he also teaches historical swordsmanship.

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