It is really very hard to work with a superstition as well-known & conventionalised as those of the vampire & werewolf. Some day I may idly try my hand, but so far I have found original synthetic horrors much more tractable.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, DS 262
By the 1930s, werewolf stories were already an established genre. While many of the tropes that we associate with pop culture lycanthropy today were not yet standard—silver bullets, the infectious bite, the influence of the moon on the transformation, the werewolf as a sympathetic character or power fantasy—they already existed, both in myth and legend and in dozens of stories and novels, from The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman and The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams to any number of stories in Weird Tales from leading authors like Seabury Quinn, H. Warner Munn, and Greye La Spina. Pulp writers worked many variations of the werewolf tale, most of which today are rather old-fashioned…and even when first published, as Lovecraft noted, sometimes the premise and rules were just a little too familiar. What fear of the unknown can there be, when dealing with the known quantity of a werewolf?
Yet for all that, werewolves were a perennial favorite, for both weird fiction fans and authors. There were endless variations on the theme to explore, and many of the tropes had not quite been codified yet, which added to the possibilities.
Greye La Spina knew a thing or two about werewolves. Though they never corresponded, La Spina was one of Lovecraft’s foremost women contemporaries at Weird Tales during the 1920s and 30s, and in terms of sheer published output she was much more successful than the Old Gent from Providence, publishing over a hundred short stories, novelettes, and serials in a dozen pulps. She had dealt with werewolves previously in “Wolf of the Steppes” (The Thrill Book, Mar 1919) and Invaders from the Dark (Weird Tales, Apr-May-Jun 1925), and in 1932 she returned to the theme again with a story titled “The Devil’s Pool” (Weird Tales June 1932).
The story earned the cover illustration for the issue, but there was little praise for it—especially from Lovecraft:
The La Spina novelette somehow drags along very dully—with triteness & triviality sapping at what might be suspensefully horrible.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 May 1932, DS 367
Klarkash-Ton appears to advantage, but the La Spina thing left me cold even though I recognised a fine chance for horrific atmosphere in the wanderings of the hero around the forbidden wing of the accursed farmhouse.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 May 1932, ES 2.477
In fairness to La Spina, the “triteness & triviality” that Lovecraft noticed is not the result of any sort of formula plot. There are some vivid and effective images in the story, which is no doubt part of what earned it that cover illustration. The story is notably reminiscent of what would become Manly Wade Wellman’s most notable type of weird tale, with supernatural horror overtaking relatively simple but forthright people in a largely secluded rural setting, and “The Devil’s Pool” would not be out of place in an anthology alongside some of his southern mountain stories.
Nor was La Spina simply repeating the same werewolf lore that had characterized “Wolf of the Steppes” and Invaders from the Dark, but followed a different vein of lore:
The writer of Perigord tells how at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was believed in this district that at each full moon certain lads, particularly the sons of priests, are compelled to become werewolves. They go forth at night when the impulse is upon them, strip off their clothes and plunge naked into a certain pool. As they emerge they find a number of wolf-pelts, furnished by the demon, which they don and thus scour the countryside. Before dawn they return to the same pool, cast off their skins, and plung into the water again, whence emrging in human form they make their way home. […] Exorcism and, above all, the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar will disperse all glamour and objectively restore to human shape those upon whom an evil spell of fascination and metamorphosis has been cast.
—Montague Summers, The Werewolf (1933)
While Summers’ book on werewolves came out after La Spina’s story was published, she obviously drew on similar legends from some book of folklore—and improved on them with a few of her own twists, which had they been worked out a little more carefully would have made for a better story. As it stands, there’s some fairness to Lovecraft’s criticism: the story is drawn out and slow, the characterization is lacking, the inability of the characters to explain anything utterly frustrating, the action lacks punch, and the story is ultimately on the weaker end of Christian horror, with the evil vanquished by a handful of holy wafers.
Other aspects of the story have not aged well. One of the supporting characters is Harry Epstein, “a young Jewish fellow”—and while Harry’s religion has absolutely nothing to do with the story, La Spina makes his Jewishness the central and nearly constant aspect of his character. While the characterization is not explicitly a negative stereotype, it is constant and depicted in a manner reminiscent of many broad ethnic depictions. Phrases like “The dark, Hebraic face scowled.” only work if both the writer and audience have an idea in their head as to what a Jew looks like as distinct from anyone else. It’s good to get a little diversity into what is otherwise a cast of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but that’s very much a pulp formulation, with zero subtlety or purpose than to add a bit of color.
The fact that the 14-year-old Janie wants to marry Harry someday is a separate issue.
Janie Baumann is integrally tied with how the story addresses disability and ableness, which is one of the major themes. For most of the story, young Janie cannot walk and is confined to her bed, out of sight of the narrative—yet it is ultimately her condition, and the stresses placed on her aged grandfather as caregiver, which is the driving factor for the supernatural events of the story, and she is vital in their eventual resolution. In addition to physical mobility issues, she is also characterized with suggestions of mental disability: “Janie isn’t stupid, but she isn’t very…what I’d call bright.” Between the physical disability issues and suggestions of mental disability, Janie is presented as a pathetic figure, a subject of empathy for all of the adults around her—except for the villainous Lem Schwartz, who seeks to take advantage of the sympathy the other adults have for Janie.
Representations of disability in weird fiction during the early 20th century were often not great, as examined in A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith; characters with disabilities were often characterized as either pathetic or monstrous. In “The Devil’s Pool,” there’s a bit of both. Janie is, for most of the story, characterized as “a cripple”—though this physical disability is overcome by the end, and the mental disability is never as evident or depicted in the manner as initially described. The one bright spot for Janie in the story is that she never allows her disability to define her…it is the motivations and outlooks of other people as they act based on their ideas of her disability that lead to the events of “The Devil’s Pool.”
The monstrous depiction of disability is something that happens to the main character, who finds himself faced with his own difficulties walking. If La Spina had allowed a bit more room for introspection, this could have been an interesting as a depiction of how an individual comes to terms with such a sudden change in their ableness—but at this point in the story, the plot was finally getting to the “good” parts, and speeding along toward the climax. So although the setup would seem to call for the protagonist to gain some insight and deepened understanding for what Janie has been going through, and that she is not necessarily as helpless and needy as supposed, not as much is made of the disability as a theme as it could have been.
By the end of the story, all of the disabilities are miraculously resolved; no doubt Lovecraft would have rolled his eyes at the rather prosaic happy ending.
Mrs. La Spina is distinctly mediocre—full of clichés and cheap romantic devices. Two or three of her older stories weren’t bad, but her latest attempt was pitifully weak.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 22 Nov 1934, LRBO 197
References to Greye La Spina are few in Lovecraft’s letters; no doubt he read her stories as they appeared in Weird Tales, but like the work of Seabury Quinn, he rarely felt the need to comment, and when he did it was usually to make some remark lamenting her conventionality. He was right that La Spina gave the readers what they wanted—and that was why, no doubt, she was commercially more successful at it than Lovecraft. Unfortunately, that’s also why she has largely fallen into obscurity: “The Devil’s Pool” isn’t exactly a forgotten classic of the werewolf genre; it isn’t even her best werewolf story, and easily forgotten among the dozens of other lycanthrope stories in Weird Tales and other pulps.
“The Devil’s Pool” (Weird Tales June 1932) is in the public domain and can be read online.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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