“Alone! Have you journeyed thus far, a hundred leagues, alone?”
She answered “yes” with a little smile.
“Over the hills and the wastes! Why, the folk there are as savage and wild as beasts.”
She dropped her hand upon her axe with a laugh of some scorn.
“I fear neither man nor beast; some few fear me.”
What is the literary equivalent of a werewolf? A text that arrives in one form, but changes into something else. If you want to write a werewolf, write the change. Grip hard at the moment of transformation, and let was and will be fall where they may. You must be prepared to get bloody — if you’re lucky, the blood will not be your own.
The Were-Wolf is a novella published by Clemence Housman in 1896. Though she had a small income, respectable work as an engraver of illustrations, and the relative independence of the household she shared with her younger brother, it was not possible for her to live as a free individual because, as a woman, she could not vote or stand for political office at that time. Many occupations were barred to women, and they did not have the same property rights as men (for instance, a UK bank could legally refuse to give a mortgage to a woman without a male guarantor until 1975). The Were-Wolf is the noise her dissatisfaction made.
The story first appeared in the Christmas 1890 edition of Atalanta — a progressive Victorian magazine for girls. The magazine was named after Atalanta, a werewolf from Greek mythology. Her father had wanted a son, and so he left the infant girl on a mountaintop to die, where she was rescued by a bear mother who raised her as a bear. Atalanta fought and hunted as a bear did, and grew up to become a virgin huntress pledged to Artemis.
But back to Housman’s story. It begins as a woman arrives at a lonely farm one winter night, dressed like a hunter. She tells her hosts that her real name would be uncouth to their ears and tongues, but they can call her White Fell. She’s given shelter at the farm — and then people start disappearing. Everyone on the farm is taken in by White Fell except a young man, Christian, who martyrs himself to save the foolish brother who has fallen in love with White Fell. The story ends with a high speed chase across the moors, and two dead bodies — a man and a female wolf — on the bloody snow of morning.
Written in florid high Gothic, The Were-Wolf reflects the prevailing values of its age: a moral tale of determination and pious self-sacrifice, of love vanquishing evil. But the sharp fang of another story gleams inside the text — a wild seed left to sprout in the loamy unconscious of a Victorian girl. For what reader would not dream of being the werewolf White Fell, with her sharp axe, her silent gaze, her bright fur tunic with the long straps pushed back around her face, and her white, strong wrist. “Oh! The woman’s form that he dare not touch!”
What girl would not understand the titular villain to be the hero of the piece? For Clemence Housman loves the werewolf White Fell and etches her in sharp, clear strokes ― dangerous, beautiful, dominant. Housman made a magnificent creature of fetish, and her dream vision is all that remains. On Wikipedia, the book (which doesn’t warrant its own entry) is described briefly as “an allegorical erotic fantasy featuring a female werewolf,” with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft praising its “gruesome tension.”
I recognize in Housman’s beloved monster a double fantasy ― to be a woman who needs nothing from men ― and who is, therefore, a woman men fear. And to love a woman who needs nothing from men. A creature who lives by its own law, and will fight anyone who tries to make it live by another.
I recognize this fantasy because it is mine. In The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter says, “a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” This is exactly the kind of monster I am.
“White Fell?” A woman’s voice, rising on the fall of the fell. Here’s the spell, the charm, the place to grip: the name “White Fell” is a werewolf. A forked thing, a twice-told tale ― like this: White for the snows where her feet leave a double track, for her two fair skins, for the purity of womanhood. Fell as in fell deeds or stretch of high moorland or a fall in the past tense, you know the one I’m talking about. When we fell out of the divine halfway to animal.
The power of White Fell springs from the “yet also” living in the space between its two words. And this is where you need to hold it. Put your hand on it and feel gruesome tension gathering along the length of that antique dash. Human yet also animal ― pure yet also evil ― divine yet also fallen ― Madonna yet also whore ― kind yet also cruel. White ― Fell.
Stories of werewolves and shapeshifters are about primal fears of the unseen ― our terror when we realize that things aren’t as we thought, and people aren’t who they present themselves to be. These stories proliferate during periods of transition, those interesting times of the Chinese curse, when the wind changes and the ground leaps under our feet. They put a shape to our anxieties about maintaining control in a new reality, staying upright.
Clemence Housman lived in one such time, when the world order was upended by the arrival of the New Woman, a curious beast who questioned her place in the patriarchy. We live in another interesting time. In this time, we are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We seek to reduce things to their essentials. To fracture them and deposit the bits into neatly labelled compartments. We will destroy what we do not understand. Holding complication, ambiguity, or that which cannot be fully accounted for — this is difficult. But everyone knows how to break something.
A werewolf is a thing which demands space for two states of being at once; a living creature which is more than it is at any one time. It holds transition suspended within itself, winding through it. What it was and what it will be informs what it is. The powers that be rightly recognize it as an enemy that must be destroyed if their world is to go on. Its very existence pierces the sanctity of a reality in which we must be fully integrated, graspable or held to account.
The arrival of a White Fell signals that the world is ending. Once the werewolf turns up, the party’s over.
After publishing The Were-Wolf, Clemence Housman went on to become a leader in the women’s Suffrage movement. With her brother she founded the Suffrage Atelier, a collective of campaigning artists. She was among the first women in Britain arrested for non-payment of taxes, and did a week in Holloway prison. Only a few pictures of her exist. In my favorite, a kind of calling-card advertising the Women’s Tax Resistance League, she is standing ramrod straight, clad in a full, pale-colored cape, with an elaborate feathered headdress. She stands in the foreground, looking over her shoulder past the photographer. The other women marching with her fade into the background, a blurring of dark coats and umbrellas. She looks like a general, going off at the head of her army to a battle she knows she will win.
If Housman’s monster story has a goal, it’s to teach young girls to love their discrepancies, and be happy in the variousness of “yet also.” To grip the moment of transformation, and let was and will be fall where they may. To make a nest in that moment, and fight for it, even to the death. To pay for it in their own blood — and more to the point, in yours.
For your world is ending. That is what I, the werewolf, came to tell you.