The howling man is the devil, and he’s howling because he’s been caught and contained, at great effort, by Father Jerome, the head of a religious order in Eastern Europe, between the two world wars. A visiting American, David Ellington, is alarmed by the howling sound issuing from a closed cell in the abbey. Although Father Jerome warns Ellington to ignore the howling man, and when pressed, explains why, Ellington is tricked into releasing him.
Is this just a reset of Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace? Is Ellington responsible for the existence of evil, through his choice to free the devil, just as the first couple released him through their free act? If this were all “The Howling Man” offered, it wouldn’t be particularly interesting. But there is more.
Father Jerome tried to explain the situation to Ellington: The howling man is the devil, and he’s been caught. Releasing him means releasing evil. Ellington finds this ludicrous, and he concludes that Father Jerome is a madman, a lunatic leader of a misguided cult. Once he sees the consequences of his actions, a horrified Ellington resolves to recapture the devil, and he eventually does. But now he has to warn his housekeeper not to release the devil, just as he was warned by Father Jerome. The problem is clear: anyone who claims to have captured the devil, to have eliminated non-natural evil, will appear insane to anyone else.
Rather than rehashing a biblical fable, “The Howling Man” offers an indictment of a main strand of religious dogma. The very idea of evil as something we can capture, contain, release, and conquer, is incoherent, as the attempted explanations first by Father Jerome, and then by Mr. David Ellington, clearly illustrate.