Talulla Rising is Murphy’s Law cranked up to eleven. Everything that can go wrong does, and in a spectacularly bloody fashion. – Alex Brown, Tor.com
Is Aliens a better film than Alien? I know, I know, I'm supposed to be reviewing a book about werewolves but can we just talk about aliens for the moment? In a BBC poll back in the day Aliens was voted the best film of all time by the British public and I recall Barry Norman noting that for a sequel to manage that was really quite an achievement. Because sequels are never as good as the originals, are they? I personally think that Alien is the better of the two but that's only my opinion and there will be others out there who'll argue tooth and nail that Cameron raised the bar when he made Aliens. The real problem with the comparison is that they are different films. At its core Alien is a horror film whereas Aliens is an action film. That they feature the same antagonist is by the by.
Talulla Rising is the sequel to The Last Werewolf. A third book is planned, By Blood We Live. Trilogies are in. And that's fine. I have nothing against trilogies. They come in two types through. The first is where a guy writes a book that does well and he thinks there might be a little more gas in the tank. A good example would be William McIlvanney's detective novel Laidlaw. I'm pretty sure he fully expected this to be a one-off and he would go back to being a serious novelist. The other kind of trilogy is the novel-in-three-books kind, i.e. The Lord of the Rings. Now I don't know if Glen Duncan was planning to write three books about werewolves when he sat down to write his first one—and let's face it there doesn't seem like there'd be much scope for a sequel with a title like The Last Werewolf—but as I was reading it I could see that he was raising a lot of interesting issues that just didn't seem to be getting explored.
The title is classic misdirection because Jake is not the last werewolf. Granted he thinks he is and everyone else thinks he is and so it came as a great surprise when he not only runs into a second werewolf but that it's that rare commodity, a she-wolf, who, after Jake's inevitable death, takes on the mantel of being the last werewolf only she's not going to be for long because she's pregnant by Jake.
One of the things I hate about the horror genre as it stands at the moment is that the rules keep changing. Take vampires: some can't go out in daylight, some can; some sparkle, most don't. The same goes for werewolves. In Duncan's universe it's not normal for werewolves to reproduce other than by through infection so Talulla Demetriou's pregnancy is unusual to put it mildly and sure enough within the first few short chapters she's given birth whilst transformed (now it wouldn't have been any fun for her to give birth as a human, would it?) to two cute … I suppose you would have to call them cubs although I don't think Duncan ever does. A boy, Lorcan, is followed by a girl, Zoë. That is a bit of a spoiler because she never mentions twins and when her son is kidnapped by vampires a minute or two after his birth (yes, I know, I know, another spoiler) I didn't expect her to produce a second.
What I liked about The Last Werewolf was the protagonist. He was two hundred years old, introspective, insular, sullen and really not terribly worried about being the last of his kind. He was a good narrator, though, because he really made all the necessary exposition interesting. We got to know the nature of the beast and the nature of the man in which the wulf slept. Of course the angst-ridden werewolf is not new. Lon Chaney Jnr's portrayal of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man is a perfect example. He manages to give Larry the tragic quality of a man trapped by a curse he doesn't understand or deserve. And Glen Duncan's Jake is not unlike him although after two hundred years he's become reconciled to what he is; he's just a bit sick of it. Talulla on the other hand is relatively new to the game and she only has a short time with Jake for her to bring her up to speed before he gets himself killed. He does however leave his journals and she regularly refers to them throughout this novel. I wouldn't recommend coming into Talulla Rising without having first read The Last Werewolf but if you should then you will get much of the backstory in dribs and drabs but you also miss out on a lot.
This is a hard book to review without giving away too much of the plot. If you've read the first book you'll realise that unlike Universal's universe, where the wolf man and Count Dracula simply encounter each other in House of Dracula, more and more writers are linking the pasts and the destinies of werewolves and vampires. In The Vampire Diaries, for example, a moonstone was supposedly used some time in the 15th century, by an Aztec shaman, as the focus of a curse laid on both vampires and werewolves; the effects of the curse made vampires vulnerable to the sun, and tied werewolves' transformation to the full moon. In Duncan's universe vampires believe that the blood of a werewolf will immunise them against the effects of the sun. Only, of course, there's a catch. If there wasn't they would have just gone out and drained every living werewolf dry. And that never happened. One of the reasons numbers have fallen is the fact that they've been hunted to near-extinction by an organisation called WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena). WOCOP wanted her head, the vampires wanted her blood and all Talulla wants is a couple of day's peace and quiet to give birth. She's secreted herself away in a hunting lodge fifteen miles from the nearest neighbour and ninety minutes northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. She's alone apart from Cloquet, her human familiar, and Kaitlyn—she would be a late dinner come moonrise the next night. Thankfully the poor girl has no idea; she thinks she's been kidnapped and being held until a ransom is paid. Probably just as well.
A contemporary of Lon Chaney Jnr was Buster Crabbe, the King of the Serials. I doubt anyone reading this blog will have seen more than a clip or two of him but the trick to the serials was to always end on a cliff-hanger. Doctor Who used to do them in the old days but they're very effective because you keep coming back for more. Glen Duncan uses them to great effect. If you want to write a page-turner then pay close attention to his technique. It's pretty damn near flawless. Okay a few of his chapter breaks I didn't think were all that necessary unless you want to keep all your chapters under a certain word count but mostly his chapters end like this:
A voice with a weird accent said: 'Twenty thousand years, you think you've seen it all.'
I jumped. It was right behind me (how the fuck?) – but when I turned there was no one there.
For a moment I stood still, breath moist and warm around my muzzle.
Then my waters broke.
Thankfully not all his paragraphs are this short. But you get the idea. Who could not read Chapter 6 after an ending like that? Chapter 7 ends:
I lay on my side, jaws clamped around one of the table legs. My thighs were sticky with blood. During the final stages of labour the uterine contractions are very strong and usually painful. The baby's head presses on the pelvic floor, which causes the mother to have and overwhelming urge to push. In the gap before the final contraction I heard Kaitlyn thrashing around in the bathroom. Then it was the last contraction, and with a sharp scalloping sensation and a sound like a rubber glove being pulled off, the baby, in a knot of satiny gore, slithered out of me.
At that moment Cloquet crashed through the window and went flying across the floor.
Of course the worst thing about Chapter 6 is that it ends on an even page and so before you can help yourself your eye's flitted across the page 53 which begins:
They were here.
And you're off again. You look ahead. Only seven pages. It won't take long to read seven pages. The big question is: How does Chapter 7 end? Dare I risk it? Shouldn't I have been in bed an hour ago?
You will note from the description of the birth above that Duncan does not shy away from graphic—on occasion bordering on pornographic—detail. And by 'pornographic' I don't mean sexual although if you're squeamish when it comes to acts of congress being described then this might not be for you either. Talulla is a sexual being—she talks about herself as "the Very Bad Dirty Filthy Little Girl"—every bit as much as the male of the species only from all accounts she had quite the head start before she got turned. As a vampire notes in the first novel:
The vampire gets immortality, immense physical strength, hypnotic ability, the power of flight, psychic grandeur and emotional depth. The werewolf gets dyslexia and a permanent erection. It’s hardly worth making the comparison…
Sex and death and intrinsically intertwined as far as werewolves are concerned. Jake talked about "fuckkilleat" and Talulla takes up that banner. Comparing herself to scientists who experiment on werewolves she writes:
It's only the best for us if it's the worst for them. Unlike the men in white we, monsters, wanted the person we were killing to know - through the blood-blur and the din of their own screams – not only that we knew what we were doing but that we loved doing it. We wanted our victims to see that our pleasure increased with their horror, that the horror was required, that their situation was hopeless. That was the dirty truth, the obscene heart of fuckkilleat: their hopelessness serviced our joy. In the court of human appeal the scientists were better off. At least they weren't doing it for fun. At least it didn't turn them on.
This is simply a primary motivation for survival of the species. One of her fondest memories was of a shared kill during which Jake has sex with her while she's busy devouring their kill. You either embrace wulf or you kill yourself. Maybe after two hundred years she might think differently but not yet. Not for a long time yet.
In my review of The Last Werewolf I wrote:
This is an intelligent, well-written, carefully-plotted novel; loose ends are tied up and he even has time for a neat twist at the very end. A lot of thought has gone into it.
I could say exactly the same about this book. But is Talulla Rising as good? This is why I started talking about the Aliens films at the start. Talulla Rising is a different book to The Last Werewolf. There is more action and less soul searching. It also ends up having more werewolves—I'm obviously not going to tell you how—but is more better? Were more aliens better than one alien? At least with Aliens there was continuity: we still had Ripley. Here we have a very different lead but—wisely, I think—Jake's ghost is never far from the proceedings, especially at the beginning. I have read reviews that think Talulla Rising is better. I don't. I don't think it's bad—it's far from being bad—but I preferred the first book. I preferred Alien but I must have watched Aliens a half dozen times. Can't see me reading Talulla Rising more than once but then I'm really not a fan of the horror genre. And the gorier it gets the less I care for it. I would never watch a film like Saw or Hostel.
One of the things I commented on in the first book was its black humour. This second book isn't humourless—and what humour there is is certainly pitch black—but the tone is different. Here we have a mother whose son has been stolen and who is likely facing an excruciating death—Talulla tortures herself with images of what her son might have to undergo—and does it really matter that the mother is a killer herself? A mother has lost her son; her pain is palpable. Can a bloke write about motherhood? You'd have to ask a female reader that. I was reasonably convinced; his heart's in the right place. This is, however, why Talulla might come off as shallow compared to Jake who has nothing else to do with his life bar pontificate. He's not even in fear of his life so much because he knows that nothing will happen—certainly not from WOCOP's end—until the next full moon; where's the fun in killing him before he's transformed? Talulla has a one-track mind right from the start and although she find herself getting distracted by sex on occasion really nothing is going to override her maternal drives: keep the kid she has safe; find the one who's been taken ASAP; kill anything that gets in your way. A she-bear or a lioness would feel as much.
The correlation between the curse of the werewolf and the "curse" (euphemism for menstruating) is an obvious one and it has been tackled before (Alan Moore in Swamp Thing v2. #40—see detailed article here—and also the film Ginger Snaps) but Duncan makes all the right (and understandable) connections. The werewolf curse proves a perfect metaphor for the female condition: “Everyone should have a year as a werewolf,” Talulla says. In an interview with CNN Duncan was asked:
CNN: Talulla is such a compelling character, was there a big difference between writing her voice and Jake?
Duncan: Yes. Jake is just me. Or, rather, me in his predicament: not very difficult to write. With Talulla I didn't have the crutch (ahem) of my own gender and personality to lean on. There's no way of knowing if the imaginative projection is a success except in so far as readers find Talulla a convincing female. Let's see.
Interesting, as he reveals in this interview, although the idea for a female werewolf came from his girlfriend when it came to writing her he refused genuine female input:
You have to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. It’s just doing the imaginative work. If you are a writer worth your salt, I don’t think there is a substitute for the act of imaginative extension or investment.
There were some things I might want to take issue with. For example, a vampire apparently can’t drink “dead” blood, only blood that left the body while the body was alive and yet selfsame vampire is happy to drink blood from bags. I didn't buy that and it's not critical to the story. Also would you be willing to have unprotected sex with a werewolf albeit in human form when all it takes is a tiny scratch to infect you? What do they teach their cadets at WOCOP when they're going through basic training? I'm nitpicking but things like this niggle at me. At one point she gets captured by WOCOP—not exactly a spoiler because it would have been a rotten book if they hadn't captured her—but I have to say I saw how she was going to escape a mile off and I really wasn’t looking for it. There were bits I thought were actually sweet, like the fact that Talulla had never seen a real wolf until a pack come to her aid during the first attack by the vampires.
Reviews are across the board. They veer towards the positive but even some of the papers have been quite unforgiving. For example Elizabeth Hand in The Washington Post wrote:
What made The Last Werewolf so compelling was its tight focus on the solitary werewolf Jake, who undergoes an even more remarkable transformation when he discovers he is not alone and finds his centuries-long malaise cured by emotions other than hunger and self-loathing.
Talulla Rising forsakes all subtlety for a wearying recitation of gore, interspecies sex and increasingly absurd plot twists…
Goodreads reviewer David Edmonds disagrees:
I think what really did it for me was the fact that Jake was just sitting around, waiting to die in the first book, and in this book, Talulla actually has a purpose in trying to rescue her children. Her life has meaning, whereas by the time Jake meets her in his book and has meaning in his life again, I just didn't care if he lived or died. I'd spent so much time in the first book just slogging through him whining and whining and whining about being old, not caring, blah blah blah that I didn't care for him. At all. I know I probably should have felt for him and his plight, but I didn't.
The action is fairly nonstop in this [Talulla Rising]. […] What follows is a whirlwind adventure across the globe as Talulla tries to rescue her son from the vampires and the Helios project.
Is Aliens a better film than Alien? It depends. And it depends what kind of book you enjoy reading whether you'll prefer The Last Werewolf to Talulla Rising. For my money Duncan should have shed fifty to a hundred pages and given us a leaner, cleaner horror-thriller. The vestiges of Jake actually drag the book down a notch. If you've ever seen the extended version of Alien you will know exactly where I'm coming from. Feel free to disagree.
You can read an excerpt of the book here or you can let Glen Duncan read to you by clicking on the video below:
Glen Duncan was born in Bolton in 1965. His family is Anglo-Indian and he’s the only one of his three siblings to not be born in India. (There’s an interesting article by him in The New York Times about his upbringing.) He studied philosophy and literature at Lancaster University. After working as a bookseller for some years, he travelled around America and India on Amtrak trains, before becoming a writer.
His first novel, Hope, was published in 1997, and has been followed by a further seven novels: Love Remains(2000); I, Lucifer (2002), shortlisted for the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the premise being that the Devil has been allowed a month to live in mortal form to ingratiate himself with God before the end of the world; Weathercock (2003); Death of an Ordinary Man(2004); The Bloodstone Papers (2006), set in India in 1946, A Day and A Night and A Day (2009), The Last Werewolf (2011) and now Talulla Rising.
Duncan was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of Britain's twenty best young novelists. He lives in New York and London. According to William Skidelsky in The Guardian, Duncan "specialises in writing novels that can't easily be pigeon-holed." Similarly, David Robson in The Telegraph has noted that Duncan is "an idiosyncratic talent", adding, "You never know quite which way he is going to turn." Duncan cites his influences as Mary Gaitskill, a contemporary writer notorious for her forays into S&M, and “[t]he late, great John Updike—probably the best stylist of modern times. His style is sensuous and tender, but never short changes your intellect.” Oh, and Sid James: “Why? That's an impossible question to answer.”