I love old movies. When the call opened for She Shifters, I spent a little time revisiting some of my favorite were-creatures. It’s easy to forget how rare this theme once was in film and fiction, since today shifters and vampires have both become staples of film and fiction, genres of their own.
The earliest were-movies are, not surprisingly, about lycanthropes. The Werewolf of London (1935) is generally regarded as the first major movie about a shape-shifter, although there were silent films that preceded it. And, of course, everyone knows Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, in five movies from Universal Studios in the 1940s. There are a few other films from that decade that deal with were-creatures, but only one that I feel rises to the true level of classic, one of my absolute favorite scary movies: 1942’s Cat People.
The first movie produced by Val Lewton, the man who is often credited with bringing a new level of class to horror movies, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People is a surprisingly subtle and beautiful tale. The plot, in brief, involves Irina, a young woman whose ancestors were persecuted in Serbia as witches and shifters, and her attempt to find love with a modern American man. Filmed more than half in shadow and rich with symbolism, Irina’s story may be one of psychological disturbance or she may actually be a shape shifter whose dangerous state is triggered by emotional peaks – sexual arousal, jealousy, anger.
Irina’s dark belief in her nature challenges her very human need for love and acceptance. While the story plays out in shadows and tension, its themes touch us all. Few of us are without doubts to our character, our abilities, our “fit” in society, and with these doubts we struggle with the concept of being loved for who we are. By the end of Cat People, Irina embraces her beliefs and, perhaps, her inevitable destiny. When the story was remade in 1982 by Paul Schrader (starring the stunning Nastassja Kinski), the ending was different in an intriguing way, more of an acceptance of the inevitability of savage sensation. You should see both versions, if you haven’t already!
When I started writing “Sweetwater Pass” for She Shifters, I really didn’t know what story I wanted to tell until Mariann’s voice sang to me. She’s a young immigrant to the United States during a time when westward expansion opened new possibilities for thousands of men and women from all over the world. As immigrants, Mariann’s family already struggled for acceptance. Being a family of shifters, acceptance could only come with secrets, so for Mariann, her attraction to women was just one more secret to be kept. Mariann’s voice was so clear to me, this young woman, so full of promise, so magical, yet unable to be accepted for who she was and what she wanted. Even her shifter parents want her to conform. Mariann’s attraction to her maid proves the catalyst for her family’s westward migration, and the dream of finding acceptance, but while her family might hide their fur in the shadows of night, Mariann finds that she never need hide her true desires.
In some ways Mariann and Irina truly are moya sestra (sisters), but while Irina’s future is shrouded in the mid-century shadows so beautifully crafted by Val Lewton, Mariann’s is as wild as the frontier of those early American days—wild and full of promise.
Here is the beginning of “Sweetwater Pass.”
My papa always called me a bent branch – strong enough, fully leaved, but not quite right. I was always the one who scratched at the windows. It was me who tipped the pastor’s hat from his head if I could get away with it undetected. Bent branch–the limb on the tree that needed constant trimming.
My marriage to Albert had been a disaster. Papa hoped that marrying me into the McCray family would give our family some legitimacy in Somerville, but Albert wasn’t as simpleminded as papa had thought. Albert noticed almost at once that I wanted Sarah, our maid, more than I wanted him.
Albert fired Sarah. He beat me.
Maybe he was just that simpleminded. It was always the small things that hooked him. He didn’t see beyond my desire for Sarah, didn’t see how his boot in my belly dissolved my restraint, didn’t see the wolf and marten in the open door.
My family left that night, headed north and west, my bruises just a shadow on my skin, the blood in my throat still acidic and bitter.
Three months later, mama, papa and Lonnie, my pup brother, were leaving Iowa, the wagons’ creaking and groaning as natural as the rustle of the tall grass, the smell of livestock and poorly bathed men and women almost a comfort.
“We gonna see wild Injuns, Mari?”
“Mr. Blocker says we may. Says we’ll be lucky if they don’t scalp us all.” I poked Lonnie in the ribs. I loved my brother, eight years my junior and the first of us born in the United States of America. I always wondered what he would be when he grew up.
“They won’t catch papa. He’s too fast!”
“No…but you know them Injuns value pup scalps more than anything. You’d best behave so papa and mama don’t just sell you to them.”
Lonnie’s eyes grew big as plates, but then he scowled and socked me in the arm. “Well, better a pup than a widow!”
Lonnie couldn’t have known how well he aimed, nor would he know the strange dullness of the piercing. Widow, yes. Mournful, well, less than would be acceptable to the neighbors, I was sure.
I took off my bonnet and used it to fan myself. The sun baked us, and the air lay so still that the dust settled exactly where it rose. Lonnie picked at the laces of his shoes, head down, his tawny hair too long, curtaining his face from me.
I ruffled his mane. “I’ll bet you that when we reach California, I’ll find a gold nugget before you do.”
Lonnie looked up, his eyes bright as stars. “No you won’t! I’ll find one the size of a melon! You wait and see.”
Lonnie scrunched up his face. “A week’s worth of wood cuttin’.”
“And when I win, it will cost you a week’s worth of clothes washin’.”
He spit in his hand. I spit in mine.
Award-winning author Angela Caperton writes eclectic erotica that challenges genre conventions. Look for her stories published with Black Lace and eBury Publishing, Cleis, Circlet, Coming Together, Excite, eXtasy Books, Mischief, and Renaissance eBooks. Visit her at blog.angelacaperton.com.