Clemence Housman, in the brief novelette “The Were-wolf”, attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”
Clemence Housman was a British author, illustrator, and suffragette; The Were-wolf (1896) is her first novel. Lovecraft included Housman under chapter IX, “The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”—marking out Housman alongside such weird luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and M. P. Shiel.
When and where Lovecraft first read Housman is unclear; she is not mentioned by Scarborough & Birkhead, nor does Lovecraft mention the book many times in his letters. Yet we know he must have read The Were-wolf before 1927 (when the first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, Housman reference included), and a rare discussion of the novel may give us another clue:
Also, I have a book by Clemence Housman, “The Werewolf”. which is probably as good as that kind of story can be. It failed to make much of an impression on me.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, DS 253
I have reead Clemence Housman’s “Werewolf”—George Kirk has it—& thought it rather good—though not so good a werewolf tale as Biss’s “Door of the Unreal”, which Cook, Munn, & Morton own.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, [7 Nov 1930], DS 259
George Kirk was a New York bookseller and a good friend of Lovecraft’s, a member of the Kalem Club which was Lovecraft’s literary circle. Probably, Kirk picked up a copy during his bookdealing, knew Lovecraft was researching weird fiction, and lent it to Lovecraft to read. As friends do.
Lovecraft’s description of The Were-wolf is accurate but bare-bones. Housman’s novel is set vaguely in Scandinavia, based mostly on inference, and without a set period. Since there are no references to modern inventions or events it could be set at any point from the 19th century to any time after the Christianization of the Nordic countries—because this is, without a doubt, a Christian horror story.
As a mode of fiction, Christian horror is not all homilies and pale hellfire; though there is plenty of pap for those who fall back on God as the ultimate power in the victory over every evil, where the recital of a Bible verse, waving of a cross, or a few drops of holy water defeats the vampire or exorcises the evil spirit. Christian horror stories tend to expand on the psychological framework of Christianity while exploring or developing a supernatural fringe beyond accepted dogma; sometimes incorporating elements of pre-Christian belief into the mix—and a happy outcome is not in any way guaranteed. So it is with The Were-wolf.
What Lovecraft leaves out of his description is the nature of the werewolf; for unlike The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams, this werewolf is female…or at least, femme:
She was a maiden, tall and very fair. The fashion of her dress was strange, half masculine, yet not unwomanly. A fine fur tunic, reaching but little below the knee, was all the skirt she wore; below were the cross-bound shoes and leggings that a hunter wears. A white fur cap was set low upon the brows, and from its edge strips of fur fell lappet-wise about her shoulders; two of these at her entrance had been drawn forward and crossed about her throat, but now, loosened and thrust back, left unhidden long plaits of fair hair that lay forward on shoulder and breast, down to the ivory-studded girdle where the axe gleamed.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf
Her name was White Fell, and metaphorically she is the literal serpent in this icy Scandinavian garden, who intrudes on the idyllic home life and sets brother against brother. Yet in some ways, White Fell represents something of the fierce freedom and independence that Clemence Housman campaigned for, the woman that could cross a hundred leagues of snow and ice hunting game, confident and independent and not constrained by either skirts or customs. Melissa Purdue in “Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf: A Cautionary Tale for the New Woman” argues convincingly that this is deliberate, and her detailed analysis is worth reading.
How much of this would Lovecraft have picked up on? We don’t know; gender dynamics in fiction were never his forte, and he discussed and played with such ideas very seldom. One interesting note is that Housman shifts in describing White Fell as a human woman to a “Thing”:
The dreadful Thing in their midst, that was veiled from their knowledge by womanly beauty, was a centre of pleasant interest.
—Clemence Housman, The Were-wolf
Compare this to how Lovecraft has a character describe Asenath Waite in “The Thing on the Door Step”:
[“]I’ll kill that entity . . . her, him, it . . . I’ll kill it! I’ll kill it with my own hands!”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”
In both cases, Housman and Lovecraft are deliberately denying not just female identity, but basic humanity: White Fell and Asenath Waite are both cast as fiends in human shape. Whether Housman was an influence on Lovecraft in this regard, or whether both were expressing in their different ways the particular syntax of their era which struggled to define individuals who violated the known order as anything other than monsters or genderless (but not sexless) “things”—that might be splitting hairs. It is amusing that Edward Pickman Derby does describe Asenath as “that preying wolf in my body,” which might be taken as a metaphor, or might suggest a closer link in Lovecraft’s mind between Asenath and lycanthropy.
A final word on Lovecraft and Housman involves a bit of a flub:
Yes—I noted with regret the Housman misprint, which came in an eleventh-hour appendix sent in too late for proofreading. In such copies as I have personally distributed, I have made pen-&-ink correction.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Vincent Starrett, 6 Dec 1927, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 524
In that rare first printing of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the name Clemence had been erroneously printed as Clarence.
Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf is in the public domain, and may 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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