“The Howling Man” by Charles Beaumont presents two sides of a story: a man who has been detained in a small cell by German monks may either be an innocent victim who experiences dehumanizing torture or none other than Satan himself. There is no middle ground.
The story’s protagonist is David Ellington, a Bostonian from a wealthy family who ventures through Europe along the byways, seeking the allure of “mysterious” alluring women. After a hedonistic romp, he suffers a bout of sickness and awakens in the care of the monks of St. Wulfran’s monastery. Soon, he hears the wailing of a man coming from a nearby cell, which the monks repeatedly deny hearing. The Bostonian begins to question whether he truly is becoming mad or if the monks are straight up lying.
Eventually, David investigates the cell for himself, seeing before him a naked man on all fours who resembles “a beast … a man past death … a victim of the Inquisition rack, the stake, the pincers: not a human in the third decade of the twentieth-century, surely.” Particularly in light of later events in this story, but also in light of the story’s historical context, the description is significant: Beaumont is a postwar author writing in 1959 about 1920s Germany, so we can assume he has full knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust. Arguably, Beaumont deliberately highlights David’s historical naivety with regard to what will happen in Europe in the next decade to put to rot the notion of “it couldn’t happen here/now.” This incredible foreshadowing, given what happens later in the story.
The suffering man tells his story: he explains that he was imprisoned five years ago after sinning no more than other, ordinary men. He was “lying with his woman” when the “crazy Abbot burst into the house and hit me with his heavy cross.” He urges David to set him free by taking the Abbot’s key.
When the Abbot takes David away from the prisoner, David asks for the full story. However, the Abbot only asks, “What man? […] No man has been screaming, Mr. Ellington.” The Abbot flat-out gaslights David about the man’s existence.
The Abbot’s denial of the man’s suffering is chilling—and I do not use that word lightly. Allegorically, if the imprisoned man represents a Holocaust victim, it can be read as a depiction of Holocaust denial. It also made me think of how clergymen have denied the existence of sexual abuse in the church. The Abbot’s denial places the onus of proof unfairly on David, the same way real authority figures use denial for the same ends. To find an example of this, look no further than Russia’s denial of recent war crimes in Ukraine.
At this point, the story seems to be a Kafkaesque allegory: a man is accused of a crime he did not commit and is subjected to cruel and unusual punishment without really knowing the nature of his crime. It also reminded me of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the howling man’s woe striking a similar note to the one, suffering child necessary for the happiness of Omelas. As the story progresses, however, the entire Kafkaesque situation is shown in a new light.
Eventually, David successfully challenges the Abbot’s denial. The Abbot admits the man exists and has been imprisoned for some time, before telling his own side of the story.
He explains that before the prisoner arrived, the monastery was ordinary, unremarkable. However, in the period after the Great War, the nearby village of Schwartzhof became a den of vice, filled with gambling, drunkenness, and orgies. The man currently imprisoned had brought the Abbot to perform an “Extreme Unction” on a nude woman in a mockery of the sacraments. The Abbot hit him with the cross and “recognized” him as none other than Satan himself. The Abbot claims that the prisoner is, quite literally, Satan.
David dismisses this story as proof of the Abbot’s madness. However, imprisoning the man was fully justified from the Abbot’s perspective: could it be a coincidence that in the five years “Satan” has been imprisoned there has not been another plague or war? “Satan”’s suffering is justified by the fact that his imprisonment maintains peace and order—not unlike the boy’s suffering in Le Guin’s “Omelas.”
David is ultimately not convinced. He decides to save the imprisoned man, even if a deep, uncanny fear might be nagging at him. The prisoner escapes the monastery and David calls the police. However, the monks warn him that he may come to regret his choice.
Returning to Boston, David looks back on his decision, decades later. Was freeing the prisoner worth it? He reflects that it might not have been:
“I could not forget. When the pictures of the carpenter from Braunau-am-Inn began to appear in all the papers, I grew uneasy; for I felt I’d seen this man before. When the carpenter invaded Poland, I was sure. And when the world was plunged into war and cities had their entrails blow asunder and that pleasant land I’d visited became a place of hate and death, I dreamed each night.”“The Howling Man” by Charles Beaumont
Beaumont has the respect for the reader not to mention Hitler by name. I admit I rolled my eyes at this surprise ending, though Beaumont’s masterful storytelling and writing style made the slight cheesiness easier to swallow.
Yes—not only does the Abbot claim the prisoner is Satan, but later in life, David reaches the conclusion that he must have also been Adolph Hitler. What more could you want from a pulp story?
Interestingly, this casts the earlier Kafkaesque allegory in a vastly different light. Instead of a reflection on the human condition, we’re left with a moral and ethical conundrum: “If there was a suffering prisoner whom an authority figure told you was evil, would you free the prisoner anyway, distrusting the torturer, even if his release could cause World War Two? Or would you leave him in prison and prolong his agony by your inaction?” This conundrum felt to me too much like a trolley problem and a kill-baby-Hitler scenario wrapped up into one. Perhaps it appeared fresher in 1959.
However, the situation still raises some interesting questions. If the prisoner is, indeed, Hitler, then of course it is worth David letting him suffer. However, what if the Abbot really is mad? In that case, the morality is clearly the other way around. After all, there cannot rationally be a causal relationship between the prisoner’s release and the start of World War Two, as David seems to suggest, just as the European peace after the Great War was not dependent on his imprisonment (as the Abbot claims). The Abbot’s belief in this fallacy can be seen as proof he is insane, seeing causality in coincidence. Thus, should an individual have to suffer needlessly, pointlessly, without committing any crime, merely because a certain authority figure has utterly self-deluded himself?
It’s entirely possible to imagine that the Abbot and the monks of St. Wulfstan assimilated David into their echochamber, altering his perception of reality through gaslighting techniques, rhetoric, and propaganda, eventually bringing him to view the prisoner as a supernatural force of evil. These are same techniques Hitler used to sway Germans into supporting the Holocaust. Even if the Abbot is, in fact, completely off the mark, in his mind he is fully justified.
I was astounded by the ideas and contexts this short story was able to invoke. Far from being pulp rubbish about devil Hitler, this weird tale demonstrates one way weird fiction can respond usefully to modernity’s horrors: by portraying how ideology can create two mutually exclusive realities. I believe this story can also stand as a warning for us today.
At the same time and same place next week, I will be reading Mervyn Peake’s “Same Time, Same Place” (1963). Peake, as the author of Gormenghast, is a major figure in the history of the weird fiction.