Friday, June 13, 2014

FFB: Moon of the Wolf - Leslie Whitten

In honor of tonight's "honey moon" and its rare occurrence on Friday the 13th I dug into the archives for this brief overview of a fitting book. Leslie Whitten's book makes a modern use of the phrase "when the wolfsbane blooms/And the moon and is full and bright.".

Whitten wrote one of the most interesting takes on the werewolf legend with his Southern Gothic novel Moon of the Wolf (1967). In it we get a combination of a murder mystery and an exploration of lycanthropy from a psychologist's perspective. A series of murders seem to be the work of a savage animal. Whitten sets his novel in the 1930s so when the first murder victim also turns out to be a black woman we get the additional layer of social criticism of racism in the south. The police sheriff's investigation leads him to a wealthy white family of plantation owners and whispers of illicit sexual relations.

Angry locals insist the girl was attacked by a pack of wild dogs and set out like a posse of Transylvanian villagers to kill them all. But the skeptical sheriff is not convinced. Medical evidence points to violence by a human hand even amid the signs of an animal attack. His questioning of the locals uncovers their superstitious beliefs, the curious practice of hoodoo with its bottle tree and other witchcraft-like talismans, and an odd reference to "Loup Garou." A psychologist enters the picture and begins to explain the legend of the werewolf and lycanthropy as a legitimate mental illness.

Guy Endore treated the werewolf legend as a mental illness in Werewolf of Paris decades earlier, but Whitten makes his approach more accessible and tells the story in such a way that one never really knows if the werewolf is real or imagined. The finale, of course, will settle all that ambiguity with a somewhat startling revelation.

Moon of the Wolf was made into a TV movie (almost faithful to the book) in the 1970s with David Janssen as the sheriff and Bradford Dillman as the primary murder suspect. You can find several versions of the full movie at YouTube. The best quality version I found is here.

10 comments:

  1. This was a fascinating book with its melding of the supernatural and mystery elements. Its U.S. title Moon of the Wolf is so much more luring than its title in the U.K., which is Death of a Nurse. I have a few of Leslie Whitten's books, including this one and one he published in 1966, Progeny of the Adder, which dealt with a vampire theme. These books were republished in paperback form and shouldn't be too difficult to locate. I say they both are top-notch!

    I am still surprised that you didn't like Werewolf, by Charles Lee Swem, though admittedly, it is a bit of an oddity.

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    1. MOON OF THE WOLF I think introduced me to the world of hoodoo. Fascinating stuff. There is also a somewhat interesting 1930s detective novel MURDER AT BELLE CAMILLE about hoodoo and murder by the utterly forgotten pulp writer Monte Barrett.

      I found a cheap paperback copy of PROGENY OF THE ADDER last year. I plan on finally reading it as part of my horror indulgent October when I write about nothing but supernatural novels, ghost stories and create my annual Halloween "Mini-Movie Fest for your DVD" post.

      Swem's book is good enough with a lot of spooky atmosphere. But the whole thing is ruined for me by the nonsensical ending. I hated it. It's ineptly handled and comes off ridiculous and silly. For a more contemporary treatment of Swem's gimmick read THIRTY-THREE TEETH by Colin Cotterill. Vastly superior. Plus you get a lot of detail on Lao culture and superstition.

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  2. Thanks, John. I'll keep those titles on my list of books to find. Monte Barrett got a mention in Robert Adey's anthology, but for a different book.

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  3. Hmmm, sounds good, John. I do love the old werewolf movies (not the newer ones in bloody color and hideous special effects). But this book sounds like maybe it's NOT really a werewolf but maybe a six pronged garden tool, i.e. The Scarlet Claw. Just musing out loud. Maybe it is a real werewolf and that's the big surprise. At any rate, I'll keep the title in mind.

    P.S. Began reading one of the two Peter Dickinson books I found at the library - So far I'm liking what I'm seeing. Inspector Pibble. Gotta' love that name!

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  4. I'd heard of the telefilm, but hadn't heard of Whitten...shall have to go look...

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    1. Joe Lansdale on Whitten:
      http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/winter_2009/column_lansdale_unchained_leslie_whitten_neglected_master

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    2. I'm with Todd...know the TV movie with Janssen but never knew that it was based on an actual novel. This sounds great, John, thanks for the review. I assume it's only available in out-of-print paperback form? Will keep an eye peeled for other books from Whitten on my next Stateside used bookstore jaunts.

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    3. You're right all of Whitten's books are out of print. Amazingly, both of Whitten's first books were published by the Doubleday Crime Club in the US. There are genre blenders, both detective novel and supernatural horror. There are a variety of paperback editions. I found one last year with both Moon of the Wolf and Progeny of the Adder in one volume. That's your best bet. You can get one on-line now for $2.95. Occasionally, the Crime Club edition of Moon of the Wolf turns up for sale rather cheap.I found four being sold on-line priced under $15, one an ex-library is only $4.

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    4. Thanks for the tips, John! I'm going to try and snag a copy of the two-fer you mentioned online ASAP.

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  5. I liked MOON OF THE WOLF and PROGENY OF THE ADDER a lot. There's an amazing similarity between the latter and the first TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER. I corresponded with Whitten briefly and told him I thought it was a direct steal. He didn't necessarily agree.

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