The Compleat Werewolf and Other Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction gathers together 10 short stories and novellas from the pen of Anthony Boucher, all of which originally appeared in various pulp magazines (such as Unknown Worlds, Adventure Magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories) from 1941-’45. Boucher, whose real name was William Anthony Parker White, was a man of many talents, and during his career, which lasted from the early ’40s to the late ’50s, he worked as a magazine editor, a book reviewer (for The New York Times and New York Herald Tribune) and an author of science fiction, horror and mystery.
I initially learned of this Compleat Werewolf collection of 1969 from the excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books, in which author Neil Gaiman sings the book’s praises. But even Gaiman is compelled to admit that the Boucher collection is an unlikely pick for a Top 100 Horror list, as only about five of the book’s tales are even vaguely horrific, and all but a couple are leavened by a goodly dose of humor. Still, he tells us “it contains at least two stories worth their weight in chilled blood,” and indeed, all 10 stories are perfectly produced little gems of either horror, fantasy or flat-out sci-fi. A recent rereading of the collection, after a period of around 12 years, has served to remind me of what a wonderful and amusing writer Boucher could be.
As for the stories themselves: The collection opens neatly with the novella-length title work, “The Compleat Werewolf,” in which a German-language professor, Wolfe Wolf, learns — thanks to his new drinking buddy, the magician Ozymandias — that he is a full-fledged werewolf, capable of change at will. Much of the situations are played for laffs, but this longish tale ultimately manages to conflate devil worshippers, G-men, Nazi spies, a Hollywood starlet and a talking cat, culminating with one extremely suspenseful action siege indeed. The tale wraps up in a manner that could have easily led to an entire series of tales about our werewolf hero working for the FBI; I wonder if Robert McCammon was influenced by this classic story when he wrote his 1989 novel The Wolf’s Hour.
Next up is “The Pink Caterpillar,” a story of pure horror that is told by one of the G-men characters of The Compleat Werewolf. Here, a “doctor” residing in the Mexican countryside learns that pacts with rural medicine men don’t always come off as planned. This little chiller is one of the more grisly tales in the bunch.
An example of Boucher’s skill as a sci-fi writer, “Q.U.R.” tells the story of a trio of men who come up with the strictly utilitarian, “usuform” robot to replace the humanoid androids then in use. This is a charming story, filled with likable characters, both human and alien. Written in 1942, the tale features a black president (here, actually, as Council Head, more of a world president) 66 years before the Obama fact. In a really right-on passage, Boucher writes “…ten centuries ago people would have snorted just like that at the idea of a black as Head on this planet. Such narrow stupidity seems fantastic to us now. Our own prejudices will seem just as comical to our great-great-grandchildren.” Let us hope!
“Robinc,” up next, is a direct sequel to “Q.U.R.,” and just as entertaining, as our trio of inventors gets into major-league trouble after their new robots become a success. Really wonderful Golden Age sci-fi, this.
In “Snulbug,” the first story that Boucher ever sold, a research scientist uses the inch-tall titular demon, raised by necromantic means, to assist him in amassing a small fortune. But naturally, things go consistently awry, in this highly clever, time-paradox tale.
“Mr. Lupescu,” the shortest story of the bunch, finds a child’s imaginary playmate to be not so imaginary as it first appears. Boucher skillfully manages to cram two major surprises into this five-page affair!
Up next is “They Bite,” easily the most horrifying and grisliest tale in the collection. Here, a louse of a human being, a seller of wartime Army secrets, discovers that the legend of the Carker clan — cannibalistic desert dwellers in the American Southwest — may not be a legend after all. The denouement of this horrific tale — an inspiration for Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” perhaps? — should linger long in the reader’s memory.
“Expedition,” a humorous tale of the first Martian voyage to Earth, told in the form of radio transmissions, comes next. This straightforward sci-fi story features some interesting protagonists (the Martians are described as being hexagonlike bugs) and a rather clever conclusion.
The story that follows, the 70-page novella “We Print the Truth,” is the longest tale of the bunch, and a real winner. In a setup that Rod Serling might well have approved of, a small-town newspaper editor is granted a wish by his mysterious typesetter (who may or may not be a fairy of the Oberon variety). He wishes that his paper, in the future, will tell nothing but the truth, and soon enough, anything that is printed therein has the power to alter reality. What an opportunity for effecting change, for ending wars and bettering lives! But our harried editor soon finds that this godlike ability comes with some serious problems, in this extremely ingratiating tale. Filled with loads of interesting characters and conversations, convincing details of small-town Americana, and endless invention, this might be my personal favorite story of the bunch.
The collection wraps up with “The Ghost of Me,” another clever, short tale. Here, a man’s ghost comes back to haunt his house… even though the man is not quite dead yet! The ghost has made a slight miscalculation as regards timing, in this decidedly loopy story… one that yet still manages to pull off a rather suspenseful ending.
So there you have it: 10 stories of varied subject matter in varied genres, all with only one thing in common… the ability to mightily entertain the reader. As far as making the case for Anthony Boucher being a writer of great and manifold talents, I would have to say that the collection is a complete — or, rather, compleat — success. More than highly recommended!