The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Things, by Brad Steiger. (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1999). Trade paperback, $19.95, 397pp. ISBN 1057859-078-7
The werewolf, like most other monsters of folklore, has always been overshadowed by his apparently more seductive cousin, the vampire. But surely he — it seems to most often be a masculine creature — deserves better, if only because the werewolf myth is at least as old as the vampire myth and because it continues to engage the modern mind. The beast-self that lurks just below the polite and polished surface of the modern psyche is part of an encompassing myth of shape-shifters that appear in virtually every culture and in every time period, according to Brad Steiger’s enticing encyclopedia, The Werewolf Book.
Steiger’s title is a little deceptive; this book isn’t only about werewolves by any means. The subtitle is more indicative of the contents. Steiger includes entries on real-life “shape-shifters” like Charles Manson and the mass-murdering cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer; the many movie and pop culture manifestations of this creature, from Lon Chaney Jr. to Michael Landon’s teenage werewolf to Fright Night II; and even harmless creatures like Shakespeare’s Puck and a historical werewolf (try 39 B.C.) called Moeris, written about by the Roman poet Virgil. Folklore gets its due in intriguing descriptions of the Navajo Indians’ “coyote people,” and even Dracula makes a guest appearance as one of the most popular shape-shifters ever. Obscurantists will enjoy reading about such oddities as “Indochina’s Vicious Swamp Demons” (as opposed, perhaps to their “Kindly and Thoughtful Swamp Demons”?), or the flesh-eating Malaysian werebeasts known as “Santu sakai,” or the Scottish goblin known as “Spunkies” who enjoy pushing hapless travelers over cliffs.
Steiger’s style is leisurely and informative, dipping into history, folklore, and the occult without getting too pompous or dry. This makes the book ideal for curling up with on a cold night (windows closed, curtains drawn). There are plenty of black-and-white photos, an extensive gallery of color shots, and a helpful bibliography following each entry. For more adventurous readers, there’s a helpful section called “Spiritual Shapeshifting” that explains how to learn this activity in the privacy of your own home (“Feel a surge of power as you become part of the pack.”). The author doesn’t explore possible reactions by friends and relations who may discover you howling and drooling and chasing your tail.
In spite of the book’s richness, a few things escaped Steiger’s purview. Surely Dumas’s novel The Wolf Leader merits mention, as does H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls,” a quite amazing tale of the regression of a man to his gibbering beast-self. Then there’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, one of the more bizarre late ‘50s horror movies that stylishly confuses the Jekyll and Hyde story with the werewolf myth. And of course, purists will complain that the most persistent shape-shifters on the modern horizon are the duplicitous politicians who run our lives. But why quibble? There’s enough diverting material here to last through several full moons.