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Wagner the Werewolf by George W. M. Reynolds
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Wagner the Werewolf (1847)

by George W. M. Reynolds

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I thoroughly enjoyed this. As is clearly gleaned from the title, the titular character is a werewolf, but oddly enough it really plays like much more minor of a detail than one would figure. A somewhat surprising number of characters get their moments in the spotlight, as opposed to following a mere one or two; there's a decent handful that have a good amount of space for themselves, which doesn't always work out very well, but in this case I enjoyed it. Reynolds does a good job at creating very different characters with their own motivations and sets of moral codes. There are some various other small bits of the supernatural, plenty of Gothic-style romance, plots, and intrigue, and multiple levels of mystery to unravel.

    The night was dark and tempestuous – the thunder growled around – the lightning flashed at short intervals – and the wind swept furiously along, in sudden fitful gusts.
    The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany bubbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent-roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm.
    The dense black clouds were driven restlessly athwart the sky; and when the vivid lightning gleamed forth with rapid and eccentric glare, it seemed as if the dark jaws of some hideous monster, floating high above, opened to vomit flame.
    And as the abrupt but furious gusts of wind swept through the forest they raised strange echoes – as if the impervious mazes of that mighty wood were the above of hideous fiends and evil spirits, who responded in shrieks, moans, and lamentations, to the fearful din of the tempest.
    It was indeed an appalling sight!


Sure, it's Gothic, so naturally some parts are a little exaggeratedly over-the-top, and there's a few right-place-right-time moments that are a little too excessively convenient. And I did also notice a couple times where Reynolds apparently forgot a (very minor) thing he'd written (e.g. at one point there's an abduction, a weapon was on the person but unable to get at before being grabbed and obviously removed after - it would have been lost, but later in the book they are getting prepared, and lo, this weapon is part of the attire), but since it was written as a serial first I can imagine it's easy for small details to slip by. In any case none of this little stuff is enough to take away from the intriguing story and vivid characters.

Also of note, Reynolds was very anti-Christian (basically for the same reason many are today, the hypocrisy, judgment etc) and was a confirmed atheist. He included a Jew, which at first mention made me wince, money-lending Jews in old stories is normally BADBADBAD!, however, I was happily astonished to see him represented as a good kind man, and he even gives a wonderful speech at one point, which was, it turns out, because Reynolds very pro-Jew. He was also apparently an admirer of the Muslim empire, which given some of the things in this story isn't quite as clearly painted, however, he did include a lot dealing with them and it wasn't negative, just, more ambiguous. He also wrote strong independent women characters, and about the plight of the poor - placing the blame where it actually belonged. All this in the 1800s! Amusingly, while being a voice for the underdogs, he was seemingly incredibly arrogant and unpleasant and pretty much got along with no one for very long. But hey, you can't win 'em all! ;) I am definitely a fan. ( )
  .Monkey. | Jan 13, 2019 |
Horror fans have been given a great gift in the Dover Horror Classics series. The roots of horror are explored, including many forgotten titles that influenced later authors, and there is no better example than British author George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-1879). Virtually forgotten today, Reynolds was the Stephen King of Victorian England, more popular and better selling than other authors like Charles Dickens. His best known book was The Mysteries of London, which like most of Reynolds’ works, first appeared as a weekly “penny dreadful.” Right from the start, Reynolds knew his audience, moving his story from the formulaic haunted castles into the squalid streets of the London slums, and introduced the grave-robbing, serial-murdering “Resurrection Man” 42 years before Jack the Ripper made the story seem a little too real for comfort in Whitechapel.
Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf was the first major treatment of the werewolf theme in English literature, first appearing in serial form in 1846. Set in 16th century Europe, the novel opens with the elderly Fernand Wagner, alone and slowly starving in a hut in the Black Forest. He makes a pact with the Devil, obtaining youth, wealth, and knowledge in exchange for the monthly transformation into a homicidal werewolf. He falls in love with the mysterious Nisida, and the two must flee Italy. Because the penny dreadful format needed a cliff hanger for each installment, the story twists and turns through subplots, supernatural encounters, and a plethora of murders as the couple flee to a deserted island, with both the Inquisition and the Ottoman Empire in pursuit. Wagner must find a cure, but a deal with Satan may mean the cure is worse than the lycanthropy.
Reynolds did not believe in shades of gray in his characters. Good characters were unshakably good, villains were irredeemably evil. Wagner is both – good as a human, pure evil as a werewolf, two sides of the same coin. Robert Louis Stevenson would revisit this concept 40 years later with Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The 2015 edition is a reprint of Dover’s 1975 edition, with an introduction by legendary fantasy literature editor E. F. Bleiler, who considered reviving interest in Reynolds a pet project. The text Bleiler chose was the 1865 edition, and although the text is a tad small, the page reproductions are sharp, crisp, and clean, and this helps tremendously. It is lavishly decorated with 24 of the original Henry Anelay illustrations, and includes more evidence of Bleiler’s devotion – the first modern survey of Reynolds’s work.
  goudsward | May 2, 2016 |
I found this a difficult read, but not without compensations. Like most novels of this and earlier periods, it's full of melodrama, with a long word count and stilted dialogue. But the characters (even some of the minor ones) are interesting, and the concept of a heroic Jew would have been somewhat shocking to the typical reader. It's definitely a book for those curious about the origins of horror and fantasy ( )
  BruceCoulson | Jan 23, 2014 |
This book, I feel, is more a historical curiosity than a piece of literature that can really be appreciated today, at least by me. I was curious about its status as "penny dreadful" greatly popular during the mid-19th century, a piece of Victorian pop fiction. Unlike more "classic" works that are still read today, (like Shelley's "Frankenstein" or even Stoker's "Dracula") Wagner the Werewolf has little to offer modern readers. Word count is stretched, the plot is melodramatic and easily predictable, dialogue is sporadic and stilted, and characters are of hazy motivation. These problems may have been less noticeable by readers in the 1840s, but still Wagner the Werewolf is perhaps best as an example of what would be, in today's terms, an average TV melodrama.

However, I was particularly interested in reading a 19th century imagining of the historical events of the 16th century, which roots the work in its particular time period, with rival European powers and the Inquisition providing a backdrop to the plot. Also, Reynolds put forward social ideals in his writing that were progressive for his day which were slightly evident in some of the plot (especially the equality of religions) but still the majority remains embedded in typical viewpoints of Victorian English society. In the end, Wagner the Werewolf remains an artifact of 19th century popular culture and I can't recommend reading it for pleasure. ( )
1 vote Spoonbridge | May 29, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
George W. M. Reynoldsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bleiler, E FIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fernand Wagner's deal with the devil buys wealth and youth?at the price of monthly transformations into a ravening beast. The first important fictional treatment of the werewolf theme in English literature, this Victorian thriller traces Wagner's blood-soaked trail through sixteenth-century Italy. Packed with horrors and thrills, it offers a gothic feast of murders and supernatural events, punctuated by hidden plots and secret passages, Turkish invasions and intrigues, and other diabolical doings. Although largely forgotten today, author George W. Reynolds ranked among mid-Victorian England's most celebrated authors and was a prominent political figure and pioneer for social justice. This edition of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf includes the first extensive modern survey of Reynolds' work as well as twenty-four atmospheric illustrations.… (more)

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