Retro Review: “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne

Weird Tales December 1934I’m continuing my quest to review stories by obscure women authors of the golden age with “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne, a gothic horror short story which appeared in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. I came across the story, while reviewing “Black God’s Shadow” by C.L. Moore. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

The story starts in full gothic manner with young Doctor Gradnov walking through a dark and sinister forest on a cold night, making his way to the equally sinister Castle Martheim, which is located on a cliff overlooking a nameless river. It’s obvious that this errand will not end well.

The reason that has brought Doctor Gradnov to Castle Martheim is that the last Baron Martheim lies dying. Doctor Gradnov is troubled by this, because the Baron is not just a patient, he was also a friend with whom the Doctor played chess and talked about vintage wines.

Doctor Gradnov finds the Baron near death and clearly terrified of something. However, the Baron refuses a sedative – though not the brandy the Doctor gives him – and insists that he has to share his secret with the Doctor.

And so, the Baron tells his story. Some forty years before, the Baron – we now learn that his first name is Konrad – went to university and would hold forth about his grand theories about the nature of existence in the local coffeehouses, where he also fell for a waitress named Hilda. However, he had a rival for Hilda’s affections, an older student named Ivan. Hilda preferred the young Baron, whereas Ivan was left stewing with jealousy.

One night, Ivan confronts Konrad in a tavern near closing time. The Baron knows that Ivan hates him and so he is very surprised that Ivan sits down to share a drink with him. Once the innkeeper has withdrawn, Ivan leans close to Konrad and asks if he still denies the existence of the soul. Konrad answer in the affirmative and declares that no, he has no returned to superstition. Next, Ivan asks if Konrad believes that one can sell one’s soul. Konrad declares that this is nonsense. I guess we can all see where this is going by now.

Ivan now tells Konrad that he has sold his soul in exchange for great wisdom and the secrets of the old ones. Ivan also offers to show Konrad ghosts, werewolves and the undead. Konrad still doesn’t believe Ivan, but agrees to go with him, when Ivan taunts him that he is just scared.

Ivan takes Konrad to a ruined castle in the deep dark woods. There, Ivan opens his bag, pulls out all sorts of ritual implements, which he had wisely brought along, and sets them up. He also has an old pistol and a blessed silver bullet marked with a cross, which is the only thing that can slay a werewolf. Ivan hands the pistol to Konrad and tells him to load it. He also tells Konrad that if he fires the bullet at a werewolf and misses, his soul shall forever be forfeit to the undead.

Then Ivan begins his ritual, which generates a lot of smoke. Outside the ruin, the wolves are howling. One appears inside the castle and attacks Konrad. Konrad fires, misses and gets bitten.

The next morning, Konrad flees the university town. He travels the world, looking for a cure, but finds none. For forty years, the Baron has lived in fear of the werewolves who will take his soul once he dies. And now that he is about to die, he is utterly terrified.

Doctor Gradnov tries to calm down the old Baron and tells him that he is safe and that there is no such thing as werewolves. The Baron claims that he can already hear them howling, that he know Ivan is waiting for him. However, Doctor Gradnov and the Baron’s lone servant Hans can’t hear anything.

The Baron finally expires, his face a twisted mask of horror, and now the young Doctor finally does hear something. Outside the castle, a wolf is howling. Three times the wolf howls, a long bitter howl of inhuman despair. Hans, the servant, and even the otherwise atheistic Doctor Gradnov both pray.

100 Creepy Little Creature StoriesThis is a typical example of the filler stories often found in Weird Tales. There are no real surprises here and it’s clear from the beginning where the story is going. Not to mention that the title is a spoiler, which was a common problem during the pulp era. Like many other filler stories, “The Werewolf’s Howl” is also an example of a “tale within a tale” story. I have reviewed a couple of other stories of this type, including two from Weird Tales.

However, “The Werewolf’s Howl” is nicely written and dripping with gothic atmosphere. It’s set in the vaguely German, vaguely Slavic never-neverland of gothic fiction, where every dark forest is full of vampires and every castle is home to a vampire and a couple of ghosts.

Unsurprisingly, there is no German or formerly German town called Martheim nor is there a castle by that name. The university town where much of the tale within a tale takes place is never named. It might be Heidelberg, it might be Leipzig (I can’t be the only one who got distinct Faust vibes from this story about university students hanging out in wine bars and coffeehouses and making deals with dark powers), it might be Göttingen, it might be completely fictional.

The mix of German and Slavic names is also typical for this sort of story. And so the Baron and his servant and the Baron’s university paramour have solidly German names, while the young Doctor and the villainous Ivan both have Slavic names. Now you do find plenty of people with Slavic names particularly in the eastern parts of the former German Empire and universities have always attracted students from abroad anyway. Nonetheless, the coexistence of German and Slavic names in gothic fiction is a strange convention, especially since you never find German and French names existing side by side in this sort of story, even though this common in the areas along the French-German border.

Hilda, the waitress, with whom both Ivan and the Baron are infatuated, vanishes from the story once the rivalry between Konrad and Ivan has been established. I hope she found herself a nice solid student who did not dabble with dark powers.

The depiction of the werewolf legend in this story is certainly interesting, especially regarding the details which differ from the most common modern version of the legend. For example, I was surprised to see silver bullets mentioned as the sole weapon that can slay a werewolf, since I always assumed that this particular detail was invented (along with a big chunk of the modern werewolf legend) by Curt Siodmak for The Wolf Man, a film which did not come out until 1941, more than six years after “The Werewolf’s Howl” appeared in Weird Tales.

Meanwhile, the fact that the Baron is doomed to become a werewolf after death reminds me of the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel, a German Imperial cavalry officer and guerrilla leader fighting the Swedish occupation during the Thirty Years War. Sprengepiel really did exist and lived on an estate just outside the town of Vechta, where he built a grain mill that still exists today and is still operational.

However, no one would remember a 17th century cavalry officer if not for a local legend which claims that Sprengepiel made a deal with the devil, allowing him and his men to turn into bushes at will to confuse and ambush the Swedish forces. However, in return Sprengepiel was cursed to turn into a hellhound with glowing red eyes after death and roam the moors around Vechta (more on the Sprengepiel legend may be found on the website of the Museum im Zeughaus in Vechta). There even is a statue of Sprengepiel in Vechta – in hellhound form. Little children love riding on him.

I’ve been fascinated by the story of Lambert Sprengepiel, ever since I stumbled across him while teaching at the University of Vechta. He even shows up as a supporting character in one of my stories.

Was Brooke Byrne familiar with the legend of Lambert Sprengepiel? It’s not completely impossible, since the story has appeared in collections of local myths and legends several times, including Elisabeth Reinke‘s collection of myths and legends from the Oldenburger Land, which was published in 1922. However, it’s not all that likely either, since the Sprengepiel story is an intensely local legend, little known outside the immediate area where it’s set. And there might well be similar legends elsewhere.

100 Creepy Little Creature StoriesSo who was Brooke Byrne, author of “The Werewolf’s Howl”? Unfortunately, Brooke Byrne is one of those golden age authors who are a complete enigma. According to ISFDB, she had this one story as well as a poem named “Sic Transit Gloria” published in Weird Tales in 1933/34 and then never appeared again under that name in the SFF genre anywhere. Did she find greener pastures elsewhere in the pulps? It’s impossible to say, because unfortunately Brooke Byrne shares a name with an Instagram influencer who makes videos reviewing eyelash extensions as well as a class action lawyer, a softball player and a dozen other people, none of whom are the person who sold a story and a poem to Weird Tales in the 1930s. There is a Brooke Byrne who penned Mending Books Is Fun, a non-fiction book about bookbinding and book repair, in 1957. Is this the same woman as the Weird Tales author? Goodreads seems to think so, but we all know that Goodreads is not exactly reliable.

Interestingly, there is also a young writer from San Diego named Brooke Byrne whose story “Wolves at Twilight” was selected for an anthology of fiction by middle grade students. This Brooke Byrne is very obviously not the same person, but I still found it fascinating that two writers called Brooke Byrne would both write werewolf stories eighty-six years apart.

Considering how obscure Brooke Byrne is, I was surprised that “The Werewolf’s Howl” has been reprinted in a 1994 horror anthology called 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg. This anthology was part of a series of anthologies that the bookseller Barnes & Noble published in the 1990s. Those anthologies drew heavily from the pulps, particularly Weird Tales. Considering that Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Robert Weinberg are both Weird Tales specialists, this isn’t surprising.

A neat if predictable gothic horror story that is very typical of the bread and butter fiction published in Weird Tales.

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