Tag Archives: malign spirits

The Howling Man

In which a deathly ill hiker finds an odd sanctuary.

By Charles Beaumont

First published in 1959

Anthologized in Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories
(Foreword by Ray Bradbury; afterword by William Shatner.  ISBN-13: 978-0-14-310765-1)

My initial exposure to “The Howling Man” came in the form of the 1960 Twilight Zone adaptation, scripted by the author himself. Starring John Carradine, it’s like a 1930s Universal horror film in miniature, filled with chiaroscuro lighting, Dutch angles, and a mounting sense of dread. I first saw it as a fifteen year old, and the sequence with the row of columns toward the episode’s end particularly disturbed me. It was like a sinister Di Chirico painting brought to life.

You won’t find that scene in the original story, however, which differs significantly from the teleplay at a number of points. Most of these changes are due to the story’s oblique sexual content. It’s also obvious why the monks in the TV version are disassociated from any actual religion; this was the era of strict adherence to the Television Code, after all.

Strangely, the ending of the story is also different, and, as a result, story and TV show convey different messages. Since both were written by Beaumont, the reasons for this are mysterious. It’s as if he was unsure which moral he wanted his audience to draw.  Perhaps both.

Both story and TV episode agree in their focus on David Ellington, an upper-class Bostonian who comes to Europe when both he and the 1900s are in their twenties. The story’s opening, with its pompous circumlocutions, is an excellent pastiche; you can hear Thurston Howell III read it in your mind’s ear.

David, who narrates the story, tells us that he came to Europe by himself in order to get laid; of course, he puts it more delicately than that.  After he tires of making the beast with two backs, he decides to travel the continent by bike. Shortly after entering Germany, however, he’s stricken with what he believes to be pneumonia, and passes out in a wooded area.

Upon awakening, David finds himself in a monastery cell.  He’s at the Abbey of St. Wulfran’s, overlooking the Alpine town of Schwarzhof, and a kindly monk named Brother Christophorus is tending to him.  Incapable of walking and still feverish, David is no position to leave.

Simply being able to stand again takes David a fortnight.  During that time, he’s periodically jarred by howls coming from somewhere outside his cell, which he describes as “Klaxon-loud, high, cutting, like a cry for help.” They only occur at night. When asked about these, Brother Christophorus always claims to have heard nothing.

David becomes worried that what he’s hearing are auditory hallucinations. Has he gone mad? He has to know the truth. So, when capable of walking, he devises a plan to sneak from the cell and investigate the source of the howling.

And that’s where “The Howling Man” morphs into something very much like a long-lost märchen, one of the German folktales that form the root material of Grimm’s fairy tales. Like so many of the characters in those stories, David has wandered off the path, both metaphorically and spatially.  Now he’s going to pay — as will the rest of us, as it turns out.

I can’t praise Beaumont’s writing highly enough. He’s another author who put paid to the idea that genre fiction is of necessity badly written. His work is consistently witty and vivid, and his little details are sharp, as when the Abbot, Father Jerome, says this:

“Monks are misfits, neurotics, sexual frustrates, and aberrants. They retreat from the world because they cannot cope with the world. Et cetera. You are surprised I know these things? My son, I was told by the one who began the theories!”

Beaumont’s was a master of literary filigree.

Luckily, after many years of being hard to find, Beaumont’s work is back in print. In late 2015, Penguin published Perchance to Dream, an anthology that contains the cream of Beaumont’s crop, including a number of other stories adapted for The Twilight Zone. His brilliance is evident throughout, which makes his early demise, at 38, ever more tragic — who knows what he could have achieved? Still, what he left us is substantial, and I urge you to start exploring it now.


(P.S. In addition the being a great craftsman, Beaumont was also a gutsy writer. For a prime example, look no further than his 1955 story “The Crooked Man.” Set in a dystopian future world, it presents a society in which heterosexuals are a hidden minority — subject to imprisonment and psychological conditioning — and being gay is the norm. Thoughtful readers of this story might notice that the world he presents is much like 1950’s America, but with certain roles reversed.)