Next up on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a werewolf story from Decadent writer Eric, Count Stenbock.
This is an odd and interesting one. It’s not particularly Christmasy, though it does start with a scene of several old women warming themselves around a fire telling what sound like winter tales:
Oh, yes, then when they get to the top of the hill, there is an altar with six candles quite black and a sort of something in between, that nobody sees quite clearly, and the old black ram with the man’s face and long horns begins to say Mass in a sort of gibberish nobody understands, and two black strange things like monkeys glide about with the book and the cruets–and there’s music too, such music….
And that’s a good enough connection for me. The other reason I picked this one is that it reminded me a bit of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, in that it’s the story of a young boy who is seduced away from his home by a beautiful, sinister female supernatural being. In both tales, the young boy is saved in part because of a young girl who loves him. So the story’s fairy-tale aspect—plus the werewolves—seemed appropriate for this year’s theme.
In The Other Side, a gentle and misfit young boy named Gabriel falls prey to a mysterious woman from “the other side” of the brook near his village. There, on the other side, live “the were-wolves and the wolf-men and the men-wolves, and those very wicked men who for nine days in every year are turned into wolves.” On this side of the brook is Gabriel’s dear friend Carmeille, who tries to keep Gabriel away from the evil influence that entices him. Who will win?
Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock (1860-1895) published relatively little in his lifetime (three volumes of poetry and one volume of short stories; two more collections of short stories were published in 1999 and 2002), but he was definitely known amongst the prominent creative figures of his time. He was a friend or acquaintance of the painter Simeon Solomon, the poet Arthur Symons, W. B. Yeats, and Aubrey Beardsley. He had a play rejected by The Yellow Book. And, at least according Ernest Rhys (the founding editor of Everyman’s Library), he was too emo even for Oscar Wilde.
While living, he was apparently better known for his persona than his creative output, and I have to say his life sounds like a stereotype of the Decadent movement: Dorian Gray come to life. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism, he dabbled in occultism and Buddhism and Paganism, he had exotic pets and wore flamboyant clothing. Supposedly, towards the end of Stenbock’s brief life, he traveled with a wooden doll that he dubbed “le petit comte,” and whom he believed to be his son. He died at the age of 35, of cirrhosis of the liver.
I get the impression that Stenbock’s poetry was pretty terrible, and it’s his short stories that have carried on his posthumous literary reputation. The two short stories that I’ve read by him are lush and heavily steeped in folklore and nature imagery. The other story, The True Story of a Vampire is a companion piece to The Other Side. It also features a young boy named Gabriel, who is unaccountably drawn to a mysterious stranger named Count Vardalek. Vardalek is a Slavic term (or a variation of one of the terms) for vampires/werewolves; that is, a creature that partakes of the aspects of both. It’s worth noting how the Count gains so much emotional influence over both Gabriel and his father, yet Gabriel’s sister Carmela and his governess remain relatively unaffected.
The theme of seducing the innocent obviously resonated with Stenbock. One wonders who Gabriel and Carmeille/Carmela represented in his life.
It’s not a traditional Christmas ghost story, but it’s a dark and eerie little tale.
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
I also recommend David Tibet’s essay on Stenbock and his writing, at the Public Domain Review.
Featured image: Illustration from The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865). Artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia
Werewolves leaning against the wall of a cemetery. Maurice Sand (1858) Illustration from Légendes rustiques by George Sand (1858). Source: Wikimedia