Author Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf (turned into the forgettable movie Silver Bullet) is a rapid fire 12 chapter short story about a werewolf hunting a New England town. If you’ve never visited New England we have a distinct character than the rest of America. We’re known as frugal, lovers of the Boston Red Sox, who revel in the seasonal cycles and then bemoan those same seasonal cycles. King, a native New Englander, captures perfectly the seasons, regional peculiarities, and quirky local behaviors of residents in the six state region.
What King also does effectively is to introduce the werewolf to our modern folklore. Unless you return to the Wabanaki Malsumsis legend, which has been called into question, the lands of New England have a sparse folkloric relationship with the lycanthrope. There are some encounters with wolves that primed colonial New Englanders for fear, but they never became entrenched as folktales, except in Dogtown.
On the northshore of Massachusetts there is a place of scrub and rock known as Dogtown, a location where the main werewolf legend of New England lives. A now abandoned community founded by colonists as defense against pirates, Dogtown lost its population and quickly became refuge for feral dogs. This area also has a series of wolf related coincidences including a folktale that the Agawam people of region believed ingesting a plant can turn human into dog. A resident of Dogtown was also said to have worn a wolf tooth as a charm and as late as 1984 report of a large wolf like creature was seen in the area.
Colonial era reports of wolves throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony are plentiful and added to the strange lore of the land. The presence of the wolf, as well as nuisance insects, forced colonists to move around seeking less threatening places of habitation. The city of Boston was essentially a quiet spit of land, sparsely inhabited, until colonists arrived there seeking a less insect and wolf robust location. How edgy and fearful colonials of the period were of wolves was exemplified by a brief panic detailed in the journal of John Winthrop. The Massachusetts Bay governor, Winthrop wrote of a man wandering through the swamps west of Boston who heard the howls of wolves which sent him into a frenzy of shouts seeking help. This howling of his own alerted a resident who attempted to call back to the man in the night. This raised alarm as worry quickly spread that Natives of the area were actually attacking the night journeyman. Imaginations were never quick to leap to the supernatural when they could have easily done so, considering the colonists came from a region replete with beastly folklore.
A good portion of early Massachusetts Bay Colony residents came from the region of East Anglia, which like any other region of Britain has its share of myths and folktales. However, in the period before and through the Great Migration that led to the population of New England, tales of a demon dog called ‘Black Shuck’ sprung up throughout East Anglia. Rumored to haunt Suffolk and Norfolk counties, according to a 1958 article in the journal Folklore, the legendary spectral dog took shape with a single eye to be found ominously gazing over churchyards, fens and coastlines. This phantom dog’s hauntings seemed confined to the lore of old England and never leapt to the wolves of New England.
According to Wabanaki beliefs there were fraternal twin brothers born- Malsumsis, the wolf, and Glooskap. In their origin story Malsumsis is a angry character who rips from his mother’s womb, killing her in the process. The Wabanaki lived throughout what is known as modern day Maine dating back to Paleo Indian North America. The Malsumsis legend continues that the two brothers reveal the item that can kill them, a knowledge Malsumsis tried to use over and over again to kill his brother. Each time the wolf Malsumsis failed, learning that the natural objects like pine root or owl feathers were feints. Ultimately, Glooskap kills his wolf brother with a fern root, the object revealed earlier to be the tool to take Malsumsis life. Modern scholars have since cast doubt on the Wabanaki origins of Malsumsis, believing it may have been a confusion to a related Algonquin story or perhaps creative interpretation of the story.
King places the werewolf in a modern agrarian New England setting, choosing a pious character to hunt the town folk spread across the Maine countryside. There is little exploration as to how the character becomes a werewolf, except in passing. Without spoiling the story, which I recommend reading, the werewolf never fully understands how he became a ravenous shapeshifter, outside of an encounter with a strange flowers near a graveyard. King connects the natural world with the werewolf, not unlike the 1941 movie The Wolf Man where the shapeshifter emerges when the wolfbane blooms at the autumn full moon. This passing reference to floral experience, not the traditional infection by werewolf by or gypsy curse, establishes an ancient connection that doesnt rely on spells or witchcraft but a natural dark magic.
Overall the shapeshifting creatures of European lore never took root in colonial New England. The edge which colonists lived kept them ever vigilant to wild animals, like wolves, and less likely to jump to lycanthropic conclusions. Their pious imaginations were inflamed with worry about the devil skulking the woods of New England along with his allies within the Native populations, and later by tales of witchcraft, rather than werewolves.