The Wolf Trial,

Neil Mackay

(Freight, £12.99)

Review by Richard Strachan

IN THE best possible way, The Wolf Trial is a horrible book. A relentless catalogue of rape, murder and torture, it portrays 16th century Europe as a benighted landscape of internecine conflict and superstition, where hope is squashed by the brutal authority of church and state alike. In Neil Mackay’s hands the real-life figure of Peter Stumpf, a millowner who was tried as a werewolf after being accused of murder, becomes emblematic of the terrible forces unleashed by the Reformation, while his trial acts as a dark mirror reflecting the cruelty and malice at the heart of human nature.

The case catches the attention of Paulus Melchior, a liberal and enlightened lawyer, who travels across the Holy Roman Empire to the small German town of Bideburg to prosecute it, accompanied by his assistant Willie Lessinger, the priest Carolus Fromme and a retinue of soldiers. Concerned about the safety of Stumpf’s wife and daughters, who will be tainted by association with the ‘werewolf’, Paulus does his best to ensure that Stumpf is tried under state rather than ecclesiastical law. ‘I will meet a man,’ he says as they approach the prison, ‘not a werewolf.’ When this puts him in direct conflict with Fromme, and with the townspeople who have long resented Stumpf's position in the community, the result of the trial becomes a foregone conclusion. As Paulus and Willie’s position becomes untenable, they desperately try to save what remains of Stumpf’s family, a course of action which risks labelling them as heretics and outcasts. In the novel’s present-day, Willie narrates the story from his exile in Glasgow, where as an old man he is still haunted by the memory of his experiences.

The pupil/teacher relationship between Paulus and Willie allows Mackay to convey a great deal of historical and philosophical information about a fairly recondite period, without it seeming too much like exposition. A picture gradually emerges of an Empire recovering from the Reformation and the Peasants’ War, a conflict defined by the ferocious destruction of the Anabaptist rebellion during the 1535 Siege of Munster. On the journey and in Bideburg itself the travellers witness a world of routine brutality, where men, women, children and animals are subject to appallingly casual (and superbly well-written) violence. Peter Stumpf, who freely confesses his grotesque murders, is merely someone who chooses not to disguise his true nature behind the mask of religion or tradition.

This is a deeply materialist book, both in its unflinching focus on the physical body and the myriad ways it can be tormented, and in its wholehearted opposition to the spiritual or religious impulse. At the same time though it is not just another tedious round in the eternal ‘science vs. religion’ boxing match, where the ill-defined tenets of Reason meet a charicatured version of Christianty and always come up trumps. Mackay’s characters may muse on tired old questions like the contradiction of an all-loving God allowing cruelty to exist in the world, cherry-picking quotations from the Bible to bolster their case, but on the whole this is not an anti-religious novel so much as it is a bracingly anti-humanist one. In the world of The Wolf Trial, our best selves fizzle into inconsequence when compared to the bestial savagery of unfettered human nature. The Church is not the enemy of reason because it is a religious body, but because it is an institution designed by human beings, who need little encouragement to unleash their worst instincts. Even Paulus’s rationality is controlled by his terrible passions, and although he scorns Fromme’s desire to torture Stumpf and execute him as a werewolf, he is perfectly sanguine about condemning the prisoner to ‘the destruction of the body’ in the most brutal manner possible. For Paulus, the trial is ‘a trial against superstition, and an indictment of the innate wickedness which lies inside human kind’ - an ironic complement to the Catholic Church’s notion of original sin.

As a novel, The Wolf Trial is not without its faults. The accretion of historical detail can sometimes be stifling, and the punishing descriptions of incredible violence often obscure the book’s subtleties. It also suffers rather than benefits from its light metafictional scaffolding (the original manuscript having been apparently discovered by Niall MacAoidh in 1665), but these small issues do not detract too much from a powerful and disturbing piece of work. It’s rare to find a book that doesn’t feel the need to pay lip-service to liberal humanism; despite the occasional shards of narrative light this is a novel that has the courage of its convictions.