Darker Than You Think
by Jack Williamson

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Unknown, December 1940

illustrated by Edd Cartier

Fantasy Press: Reading, Pennsylvania, 1948

310 pages June 2011

Werewolves & the human spectrum

Darker Than You Think originally appeared in Unknown, the fantasy / supernatural-horror companion to Astounding Science Fiction, in 1940. Williamson later expanded it into a novel, published in 1948, with updates to reflect World War II and its aftermath.

The central focus of the story is lycanthropy: The legend of human beings who can turn into wild beasts — not necessarily wolves, but whatever beasts are most feared in various environments and cultures. Williamson's premise is that a brilliant scientific researcher has taken up the investigation of these legends, and uncovered the hidden truths on which they were based. Despite the publication history, these are not supernatural or magical; Williamson provides a scientific rationale for lycanthropy, with no more hand-waving than was common in science fiction in the 1940s.

His version of lycanthropy does not involve anatomical changes in the lycanthrope's body, which have always been hard to make plausible. His explanation relies instead on quantum mechanics, and specifically on the von Neumann / Wigner interpretation, in which the observer's consciousness unavoidably affects the reality it observes. Williamson suggests that a conscious mind, one with the right gifts, could act on reality without the medium of a physical body, in what later generations called an "out of body experience", in which the freely moving mind could imagine itself in forms other than human. Based on this, he suggests that the same gifts could make possible other phenomena long regarded as magical, such as clairvoyance and curses.

But if the explanation for lycanthropy lies in powers of the mind, then lycanthropy must reveal something about the mind of the lycanthrope. Where conventional horror gives human fears an external, physical form, Williamson's version of horror suggests that what we really fear is ourselves.

At one level, this is the psychoanalytic view of humanity: Freud divided human behavior into the "I" and the "it" — the part of ourselves of which we say "I did so and so" and the part of which we say "It came over me." And Williamson points to this view, in scenes where his central character turns to a psychoanalyst for advice. But he does so only to undermine it, suggesting that the division has deeper origins than psychoanalysis recognizes. In his world, the two currents within humanity come from two subspecies of the distant past: a gifted minority with direct control over reality, and an ungifted majority who became their slaves, their prey — or their worshipers. His scientific researchers uncover evidence of this, in fossils and archaeological relics. And among those relics are hints at the means by which ungifted human beings eventually rose up against their masters and destroyed them. This is, of course, Nietzsche's story of the slave revolt in morality, transposed from the sphere of culture into that of biology; Williamson has turned back from Freud to the thinker who most inspired him, taking more literally than Nietzsche intended his metaphor of the aristocrat as the "brute blond beast".

The conflict comes from the admixture of the two strains, not only in culture but in genetics. Human legends include many accounts of sexual liaisons between gods and mortals, or in Williamson's version, between psychically gifted humans and normal humans. Modern human beings, his researcher discovers, carry the heredity of the monsters who used to rule them, and that heredity is the source of what Freud called the id: of the impulses to crime and madness. In a sense, Darker Than You Think could be compared to Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, which also was influenced by Freud and Nietzsche to make lycanthropy a trope for human emotional conflicts — but in a pulp realist idiom very different from Hesse's hallucinatory anticipation of magical realism. Williamson puts the monsters inside the human mind. It was insightful of him to do so in 1940; in 1948 it must have seemed all too persuasive.

And this is where Jack Williamson's literary ingenuity really shines: In choosing exactly the right viewpoint character to maximize the sense of personal conflict. Will Barbee is one of the young students his scientific researcher recruits to help his investigations. But he also carries a strong strain of the old master race, strong enough so that his mentor and his friends shut him out of their investigations, and strong enough to make him a desirable recruit for the hidden psychics hoping to reclaim what was taken from them. Barbee himself is a deeply troubled man, given this internal division, and as he learns more of the truth that was hidden from him, his inner conflict grows more intense. Williamson's story asks, not merely "How do you plan to fight a monster?" but "Do you want to be a monster?" — a much more disturbing question.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

Mentality at Troynovant
the mind and mental operation;

Friedrich Nietzsche at Troynovant

More by William H. Stoddard

Breathers at Troynovant
lifeforms & biologic processes:
wildlife & pets, evolution & ecology,
health, medicine, & disease


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy: New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    Recent Updates

emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Books by Author:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
   Books by Title:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
Pamphlets by Title   Stories by Author   Stories by Title

Strata | Regions | Personae   

© 2001-2024 Franson Publications