The Werewolf of Bamberg: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale
By Oliver Pötzsch; Translated by Lee Chadeayne
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
570 pages. $18 paperback
By Michael D. Langan
Are you up for a werewolf mystery? Actually, if you choose “The Werewolf of Bamberg,” you can multiply the hoary fun by including a hangman in the bargain. The author, Oliver Pötzsch, who lives in Munich, broadens what literary horizon there is in the book by joining these two medieval phenomena.
Werewolves are centuries-old in human memory. As I write, a new book out entitled “The Invention of Science” by David Wooten indicates that in the 17th century, “educated Europeans went from believing in werewolves to stargazing with telescopes.”
Sometimes human evil trumps a werewolf’s apparent depredations. This is a theme in this new novel. A murderer leaves severed bodies in Bamberg, Bavaria, and the crime gets blamed on you know who.
Europe has not been alone in its fascination with the bizarre.
The same horror motif extended to the United States in the 17th century. (Stacey Schiff’s “The Witches” “deals with a moral panic that tore apart towns of Massachusetts. Adolescent girls … began a fashion for denunciation; …resulting in nineteen hangings.” So writes Hillary Mantel, recommending Schiff’s as a “best book of 2015.”)
Belief in the paranormal continues today, replacing some people’s need for religion. It stands in for humankind’s fascination with the inexplicable.
In France, for example, an anti-immigration, anti-Christian party, the FN, is headed up by Marine Le Pen. Le Pen took over the party’s leadership from her father in 2011, and is suggesting, among other things, that France become a secular nation. In a break from its past, most of Europe minimizes the value of its founding as a Christian enterprise.
What’s this background got to do with a new spook thriller, “The Werewolf of Bamberg”?
The book uses these archetypes of the continent’s medieval folklore, werewolves and hangmen. So Oliver Pötzsch chooses solid ground when he employs both in a series of “Hangman’s Daughter” books that I have not read. These include “The Dark Monk,” The Beggar King” and “The Poisoned Pilgrim.”
The business of the occult is a money-maker. It’s not classic literature. However, it is part of a story about bad stuff going on in Bavaria a long time ago that appeals to more than a few.
So to the book: Its author, Oliver Pötzsch, was born in 1970 and was “for years a radio personality for Bavarian radio and a screenwriter for Bavarian public television.” He’s also “a descendant of the Kuisls, a well-known line of Bavarian executioners, and he views his novels as a “kind of vindication of my forefathers.” Pötzsch thinks that his relatives’ work as executioners is often treated with undue prejudice.
This fourth of a series, “The Werewolf of Bamberg,” begins with Jakob Kuisl, the father and executioner of Schongau, traveling to Bamberg for the wedding of his estranged brother, Bartholomaus, also his town’s hangman.
Fear hangs over the 17th century Bavarian town because a werewolf has been sighted by villagers. People jump to the conclusion that the accursed animal is responsible for chewing up some of the important Bambergians. (Give the werewolf credit for not pawing open garbage cans; and where is this undead werewolf when we need him for an assignment in the 21st century?)
See if the beginning of the book doesn’t remind you of Buffalo in midwinter while you’re out shoveling. “It was the coldest February anyone could remember. Yard-long icicles hung from the rooftops, the old beams in the half-timbered houses creaked and groaned from the frost as if they were alive … Everyone was heavily wrapped in scarves and furs …many … had frostbite on their faces and feet …”
Vigorous writing describes disagreeable activity in “The Werewolf.” For example, Jakob gets ready to execute an old man, Hans, a simpleminded shepherd, as the novel begins.
The author writes, “He is tied up like a beast … He babbled on, whining and sobbing. Jakob suspected Hans was not even aware of why he had to die that day … For many years he lived like an animal ... and he reportedly confessed” (after being tortured on the rack) of intending to rape and kill a young village girl.
If you go in for this marriage of mayhem and misery – “It’s a monster of a beast, as large as a calf and with long teeth” - this may be your book.
Lee Chadeayne, a former classical musician and college teacher, translates Oliver Pötzsch’s novel from German to English with schoolmasterly care, as far as I can tell.
There’s a fascination about “what comes next?” in “The Werewolf of Bamberg.” But I’m not sure that’s enough to crack open this book, even crediting its bizarre charms.
Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Buffalo’s Nardin Academy.