The Wolf Trial
Neil MacKay’s version of 16th-century Germany resembles hell on earth. Pamphlets from the period describe the trial of one Peter Stumpf in Bideburg, executed for the murder and mayhem he committed… as an alleged werewolf. MacKay has fictionalized the historical events through the eyes of young Willie Lessinger, student of university academic and avowed rationalist Paulus Melchior. Melchior is assigned by the Prince-Bishop to try the case. What they find in Bideburg is as dark and disheartening as anything I’ve read in years (and I don’t exactly shy away from less-than-sunny fiction). The evil of the werewolf is barely distinguishable from that exhibited by the townspeople and “authorities.”
The historical events occurred in 1589; MacKay has moved them backwards to the 1560s, presumably so he can also include flashbacks of cruel, gruesome events from the Münster Rebellion that shaped Melchior’s childhood. He has escalated Stumpf’s confessed crimes; Stumpf’s historical execution, an exercise in creative horror, MacKay has also embellished. Characters exhibit casual brutality, there is venality, ignorance, unspeakable torture of children— humanity on display at its absolute worst. Lessinger and Melchior are the oasis of logic, spouting polemics which reflect MacKay’s viewpoint: religion is evil, hand-in-hand with the military (no man can wear a uniform and “still be called a human being”), personified by the Landsknechts.
The history here is altogether fascinating; this is not a geographical setting and period often featured together in historical fiction. Characterization is well-realized, especially Melchior. Comparisons have been made to Umberto Eco and Iain Pears, yet this is not in their league—it’s too ungainly in its philosophical discourse and, at the same time, overwrought, as if reveling in upping the ante, perhaps to appeal to those who enjoy gore porn. I admit, I am not one of them.