By George W.M. Reynolds
Having served Faust for 18 months, the elderly Fernand Wagner is granted great wealth and handsomeness, but the price he must pay is to turn into a wolf for a night at the end of each month. His first flight through the countryside in wolf form leads him into trouble, not because he happens to kill some child, but because the resulting bloodstains connect him superficially to the murder of his granddaughter, Agnes to whom he had revealed himself earlier in the book. The murderer is actually Nisida of Riverola, the beautiful and imperious, but supposedly deaf and dumb sister of Francisco, the Count of Riverola, who has just inherited the title. She has fallen in love with Wagner, but believing Agnes to be a rival, kills her in clod blood. However, the events which lead to Wagner’s arrest were witnessed by Stephano Verrina, the captain of the local banditti who can’t help but fancy a woman who is both beautiful and homicidal.
Wagner is duly condemned and Nisida, who tries to use the banditti, falls foul of them, and the pair end up on a desert island in the Mediterranean, thus enabling Reynolds to spend a gratuitously long chapter about Nisida taking baths in the sea. There on the island, the Devil tempts Wagner several times, but is resisted on each occasion. Nisida is rescued by a character from the other half of this story and returned to Florence while Wagner receives divine aid and gets help from the Rosicrucians.
The other half of the story is about the Count of Riverola and his love for Nisida’s maid, Flora Francatelli. Nisida arranges for her to be confined to a dreaded Carmelite convent where she’s joined by Giulia, the unfaithful Countess of Arestino. However, Nisida’s plan goes awry because Manuel d’Orsini, Giulia’s lover, employs the banditti to raid the convent and the pair are rescued, but the destruction of the institution follows and no one is thought to have survived. Flora’s brother, Alessandro, is the secretary to the Florentine ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, but is recruited to the dark side, and having encountered a hot babe in the bazaar, rises to the post of Grand Vizier and marries the emperor’s sister, Aischa, who was the hottie he met at the market. But he neglects Aischa, who complains to her mother, who has the frighteners put on Alessandro (now called Ibrahim) by having his new mistress, Calanthe, murdered.
Because of an encounter with the Count of Riverola during the siege of Rhodes, Ibrahim learns that his sister and aunt are in danger, but having rescued Nisida during his passage to Florence, he allows her to learn of his purpose, and she also discovers what happened to Calanthe, who was the sister of Ibrahim’s trusted Greek servant, Demetrius, who learning the truth from Nisida, plots against his master although it ultimately thwarted.
Ibrahim turns up in force outside Florence and the Francatellis are reunited along with Manuel and Isachaar the Jew, who got caught up in the relationship between Manuel and Giulia. (She, on the other hand, was tortured to death by the Inquisition; but her husband, who was so vengeful, was struck down by Manuel.)
With Nisida’s machinations revealed, the Count marries Flora and they hasten to the closest to which his father instructed him to go the moment he got married. Early in the story, Nisida had already looked inside the chamber and read the manuscript which her father had left telling his own tragic tale. Inside the closet are two skeletons. One is the dead Count’s wife, Vitangela, and the other is her brother, Eugenio, who was thought to be her lover and Francisco’s father, whom the old Count had killed. When Wagner sees the two skeletons, his curse is broken and he turns back into an old man and dies. The dying Nisida also tells her story, that all her actions were done as a promise to her dying mother so that Francisco might be able to inherit his father’s title, and so that she might stop him from marrying beneath his station to prevent the tragedy of Vitangela and Eugenio from being repeated. Nisida duly dies and is laid to rest beside Wagner.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim continues to serve the Ottoman Empire and Manuel d’Orsini renounces Christianity, rising high in the Turkish government. But fifteen years later, Demetrius manages to poison the emperor against Ibrahim, who is assassinated.
The plot of Wagner the Werewolf is tighter and much better controlled than that of its rambling contemporary, Varney the Vampyre. It is, perhaps, the saving grace of the story because Reynolds does himself no favours with his penny-per-word style which frequently tries the reader’s patience and often tends to be at its worst where some significant information is being imparted. Reynolds is also repetitive at times, especially when he uses a new word, which he then repeats a few lines later. For about the first half of Wagner the Werewolf, he has his characters frequently ejaculating (Wagner, Nisida, evil elderly nuns) all over the place, but the word then almost entirely vanishes. Either Reynolds reined himself in or someone had a quiet word.
Ultimately, Wagner the Werewolf seems to be a story of redemption and romance. It has plenty of Gothic elements (banditti, convents, skeletons, dark secrets, a werewolf), but not much of a Gothic atmosphere. Wagner’s lycanthropy is almost entirely incidental after the first occasion and although in the guise of the wolf he is a bestial monster, the rest of the time he is a decent chap.
Reynolds’ relationship with religion is ambiguous. As the introduction observes, he seems to have been an atheist. Wagner’s Christian redemption contrasts with the cruelty of the Carmelite nuns and the Inquisition. (Wagner never enters a church and his particular brand of Christianity is never made explicit.) Alessandro (Ibrahim) becomes a Muslim to further his own ends, but here Reynolds hints that he remains a Christian at heart, which further characterises his contrary nature. (Alessandro is never really presented as a thoroughly bad person for neglecting Aischa or his plan to have his way with Nisida, but he is an opportunist.) Manuel d’Orsini also converts to Islam, but this is a reaction to the cruelty of the Inquisition. Isachaar the Jew is treated sympathetically by Reynolds. Unlike other authors who would have killed or converted the Jew, he does not have him renounce his faith, and again, in contrast with the Inquisition, Isachaar is welcomed by Ibrahim and treated with decency. It is possible that Reynolds had a general antipathy to Christianity, and a more particular one to Catholicism, and was playing to his audience with the redemption of Wagner.
Wagner’s relationship with Nisida is the great love story in the book, but there’s ambiguity there as well because ultimately he is God’s agent against her. She ends up being one of the temptations which the Devil places in front of Wagner (although not before he has had a lot of sex with her), and he resists her blandishments as well. Wagner dies as a consequence of being redeemed and Nisida redeems herself while dying and, as the reader might expect, they are buried together.
On the other hand, Flora Francatelli, who gets little page time beyond her confinement in the nunnery, is a more conventional Victorian heroine with her Cinderella story. There is a wider parallel here, too, because Francisco and Flora, who are inherently good and who live happily ever after, contrast with Wagner and Nisida, who have something dark about them and die.
Overall, Wagner the Werewolf is a vexing story because the plot is cleverly constructed, but the style is, for a 21st century audience, tedious and windy. Mind you, if anyone has managed to get through the (current) entirety of the directionless Song of Fire and Ice series by George Martin, 191,000 words in a single volume by Reynolds won’t be that great an obstacle.