Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf

You can’t live if you can’t accept what you are, and you can’t accept what you are if you can’t say what you do. The power of naming, as old as Adam. – Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

Like most people my age my first exposure to werewolves would have been the 1941 film, The Wolf Man. Although this was not the first time a werewolf appeared on the screen (that credit goes to the 1935 film, Werewolf of London) The Wolf Man distinguishes itself and remains memorable due to the sensitive performance of its lead actor, Lon Chaney Jnr. Unlike Count Dracula, who is always a monster, Chaney’s Larry Talbot is, for most of the month, very human: a tormented man, guilt-ridden and conflicted and someone audiences found they could relate to. These films, by Universal Pictures, are also significant in that they lay down some of the ‘ground rules’ for werewolves that have continued until the present day, for example, transformation under the full moon and the lethal effects of silver. Whereas vampires can draw on Dracula as a literary source, there exists no classic werewolf novel, and so, as they did with vampires, modern day authors and filmmakers have modified the ‘rules for lycanthropes’ to suit themselves. In the TV series, The Gates, werewolves could transform at will, the transformation being both instantaneous and painless. In An American Werewolf in London the transformation is clearly agony. The 2003 film, Underworld, introduces the premise that Lycans and vampires are mortal enemies (that’s not the case in Universal’s House of Dracula) but this is something that has also become something of a rule if you look at later films like Twilight and TV series like True Blood; if they’re not full-blown enemies there is at least a degree of enmity and distrust between them.

When I reviewed The Radleys a few months back one of the things that concerned me was the fact that the author had to take up precious exposition time telling us what his take on vampirism was and Duncan has to do the same here. Both authors basically tackle the problem the same way: old and experienced vampire/werewolf explains to the uninitiated what life for them is like. In The Radleys that’s easy, because there are plenty of vampires around, but what if you were the last of your kind as Jacob ‘Jake’ Marlowe, believes himself to be? The solution is simple: write a journal for posterity’s sake; set the record straight. He imagines his future readers will have no knowledge or experience of werewolves and so starts out to write something of the definitive guide – or at least to describe life at the beginning of the 21st century if you’re a 200-year-old lycanthrope – and then things start to happen and the focus of his writing has to change.

The most interesting werewolf stories are the ones that show the before and after, we get to see someone bitten and watch as they have to come to terms with what Being Humanthey’ve become. A film like Ginger Snaps is an excellent example of this kind of story. This is a different kind of story because we’re looking at the long-term effects on someone’s humanity. Jake hasn’t killed a handful of people he’s killed thousands. In fact in all those years only three lunations (lunar cycles) have passed without him feeding and he suffered terribly on each occasion; the wulf is nothing if not insistent. In the opening episode of Being Human George wakes up next to a partly eaten deer with its throat ripped out; that wouldn’t happen in Glen Duncan’s universe (lycanthroverse?): Jake has tried: it has to be a living human, the wulf will accept no substitutes:

Have no illusions, the Curse specifies: human flesh and blood. This isn’t a nicety. An animal won’t ‘do’, at a pinch. Refuse the hunger what it demands and see what happens. The hunger isn’t at all pleased. The hunger feels it is incumbent on itself to teach you a lesson. One you won’t forget.

Let’s say you’re a serial killer and you want to get away with it, what do you need? In the short-term you can probably rely on meticulous planning, not being overconfident and plain old-fashioned luck but if you know you’re going to be murdering someone on average every 29½ days you need more than a foolproof plan, you need money. It all boils down to money. Poor werewolves can’t stray too far from home but rich werewolves can get a plane to another country, kill and eat some poor, innocent soul, and be on the next flight out of the country leaving the local constabulary searching for a native. That is exactly the kind of life Jake now has. And he can do it because he is rich, filthy rich, having had the best part of two centuries to build on his inheritance. He has houses dotted all over the world, multiple identities – “False IDs, code words, assignations, surveillance, night flights. Espionage flimflam.” – and a merry band of helpers, some of whom know exactly who/what they are helping and some of whom have no idea but with that kind of money you learn not to ask questions.

Like vampires, when in human form Duncan’s werewolves don’t show signs of aging (which brings certain logistical problems obviously); the human half stays the same as at the time of the bite, but the animal half is subject to aging, arthritis, all the things that the passing years will bring. A nice touch I thought.

So how do you live with yourself for two hundred years knowing what you’ve done and what, barring injury or malicious attack with a silvery weapon, you will continue to do for another couple of centuries? Man is a reasoning animal and so reasons with himself:

I keep telling myself I'm just an outmoded idea. But you know, you find yourself ripping a child open and swallowing its heart, it's tough not to be overwhelmed by ... the concrete reality of yourself.


The morally cosy vision allows the embrace of monstrosity only as a reaction to suffering or as an act of rage against the Almighty. Vampire interviewee Louis is in despair at his brother’s death when he accepts Lestat’s offer. Frankenstein’s creature is driven to violence by the violence done to him. Even Lucifer’s rebellion emerges from the agony of injured pride. The message is clear: By all means become an abomination – but only while unhinged by grief or wrath. […] The mere desire to stay alive, in whatever form you’re lumbered with – werewolf, vampire, Father of Lies – really couldn’t be considered a morally sufficient rationale. And yet here [he] was, staying alive. You love life because life’s all there is.

As another werewolf tells him:

‘No point saying pigs can’t fly when they’re up there catching pigeons.’

The universe demands some sort of deal, so you make one. Yes.

‘If it’s me or the world, the world’s had it. Of course that’s disgusting. And liberating. That’s the problem with disgust. You get through it. You feel bigger and emptier.’

This is not to suggest that werewolves, at least according to Duncan’s vision, are pack animals; they’re not. He has met others over the years but just in passing. It’s the vampires that are the social ones. This is how vampires view werewolves:

A vampire has written: ‘The great asymmetry between immortals and werewolves (apart from the obvious aesthetic asymmetry) is that whereas the vampire is elevated by his transformation the werewolf is diminished by his. To be a vampire is to be increased in subtlety of mind and refinement of taste; the self opens the door of its dismal bedsit to discover the house of many mansions. Personality expands, indefinitely. 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 …’ For all of which you can read: Werewolves get to have sex and we don’t.

The vampire’s two observations are accurate-ish: when transformed Duncan’s werewolves retain their faculties despite their seemingly insatiable hunger; they just can’t talk. As for the erections, yes, it takes very little to get them aroused and sex is a major thing with them, the problem is that there are very few she-wolves. Were. There were very few she-wolves. In 200 years Jake has never come across one, that’s how few there were. And all his life he has searched for one. Another reason that two males wouldn’t hang around together because if a female appeared on their radar there would be no way in hell they’d share her.

It doesn’t help that werewolves are an endangered species. They’re being systematically wiped off the face of the earth in fact. An organisation known as WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) has been carrying out the Hunt for years and now, so he has been told by his friend Harley (a WOCOP operative), Jake is the last of his kind. He has mixed feeling about the news. Part of him would quite like to be done with it all. Quite a big part actually. So when one of the WOCOP operatives, Ellis (six-four, waist-length white hair, eyes the colour of lapis lazuli), knocks on his door and kicks him in the goolies only to tell him that it’s time he takes things seriously: the night of the next full moon will be his last. Up until then its hands off. No one will lay a finger on him; he’s Grainer’s:

Forty years ago [Jake] killed and ate Grainer’s father. Grainer was ten at the time. There’s always someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, someone’s son. This is the problem with killing and eating people. One of the problems.

Grainer has now moved to a position of power in WOCOP. Jake accepts his fate philosophically:

Naturally one sets oneself challenges – Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t’ai chi – but that only addresses the problem of Time. The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger. […] One by one I’ve exhausted the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism’s worn out. I don’t have what it takes. I still have feelings but I’m sick of having them. Which is another feeling I’m sick of having. I just … I just don’t want any more life.

His friend, Harley, tries to bolster him. He makes plans, provides Jake with an escape route but it looks very much as if his friend, to whom he owes his life (hence his allegiance), is going out without much of a fight. The only thing Jake wants is to dictate the setting; he chooses Snowdonia, Wales where he was turned, in 1842, August 14th to be precise. (According to the NASA site, the full moon in August 1842 was actually on the 21st.) In the interim he decides to write things down, including the thing he had never spoken about to anyone, not even Harley, his first kill.

But then things start to happen. A Frenchman tries to shoot him in London only to be disabled by a WOCOP agent – ‘Come on, Jake. You’re strictly Grainer. You know that, all WOCOP knows that. It’s like one of the Five Pilars,’ Ellis tells him – and then there’s the vampire attack which, again, Ellis foils (but why were they carrying tranquilisers?) and his subsequent kidnap by the mysterious Jacqueline Delon with her proposition and promise of protection. Nothing is quite what it seems. And what about that last phone call from Harley – “Jesus Christ, Jake, listen. There’s…” – a what, there’s what exactly, Harley? A trap? Too obvious. No. What there is is something Jake never expected, a reason to live.

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. Yes, there is a serious amount of bloodshed and it is described in detail but not without a certain black humour:

A woman dumps you, you go to a bar and get drunk. Someone cuts you up on the freeway, you shout ‘Asshole!’ and give him the finger. A werewolf appears, you scream like a six-year-old girl. These are the scripts. In any case he not only went maaah! in falsetto but flung both arms up in the region of his head. The remote flew from his hand and sailed across the room to clatter against a chair, leaving America’s Next Top Model to keep us company for the duration. Perhaps by profound survival instinct he held onto his cell phone. I reached out, relieved him of it, and while he watched crushed it in my own ample monster mitt, with spectacle elicited from him a strange nasal sound. His face crumpled or crimped as in preparation for grown-man toddler tears, but from the distension of his mouth and his filling lungs I knew another bigger scream was coming. I thought, We can’t have that.

There is something about the act of consuming another human that is unique to Duncan’s vision. Jake not only consumes the body, he is also filled with the person, memories, feelings, and these stay with him afterwards forming an unseen Greek chorus that is constantly with him. A nice touch. The wulf is always with him too, to a greater or lesser extent, but he is never fully human and the closer he gets to the full moon the more he is aware of the beast within him shifting. In some respects Jake is a very civilised person – he has expensive tastes, like a good whisky – but there is also a bestial side to him and this probably comes more to the fore in bed. I said he’d never come across a she-wolf. I never said he never had sex. He has sex. Lots of sex. But never with anyone he cares about; always expensive hookers, and if the bloodlust in the book doesn’t offend your sensibilities then the plain ol’ lust lust will. But I suspect that anyone who is going to be upset about graphic (although not pornographic and certainly not erotic) descriptions of sexual congress are not going to be the kind of people who will much enjoy tales of people being eviscerated by a nine-foot-tall werewolf.

Readers of Duncan’s earlier novels, of which there are seven, will know what to expect. His first novel, Hope, dealt with a young man's obsession with pornography; his second, the acclaimed Love Remains, was an acute study of the implosion of a marriage after the woman is raped and Weathercock, if I can be horribly reductive, is about sadomasochism. He is not interested in simply shocking. Talking about Weathercock Duncan said in interview:

One of the questions of the novel is what makes someone freely choose evil. It's a question that preoccupied me as a teenager when I read accounts of atrocities in Vietnam, or the Moors murders – could I do that? And often it's just circumstantial, it's about whether or not you'll get punished. In Weathercock it's specifically about sexual guilt, because I think there is a link between sex and violence for a lot of people – it's a lot more common than we're all comfortable with admitting.

This is a question that Jake has to face. It’s evil to kill and eat people – unquestionably – and yet he chooses to continue doing it. He tries to salve his conscience with humanitarian giving (hell, he probably buys carbon offsets) but is that enough? For practical reasons, though, he never sends any money to the families of those he murders. Why has he never seriously considered suicide? Would that not be the right thing to do?

It is interesting that Duncan decided to call his protagonist Marlowe. I’m afraid my first thoughts were of Philip Marlowe and then Christopher Marlowe and so I am grateful to Jonathan Wright who, in the June 2011 edition of SFX, noted this:

heart_of_darkness[I]t’s perhaps no coincidence that Jake’s surname recalls Charles Marlowe, Joseph Conrad’s narrator in Heart Of Darkness and the man who hears ivory trader Kurtz’s last words in the jungle of the Belgian Congo where Kurtz has committed unspeakable acts: “The horror! The horror!” Jake, we learn, once “killed and ate love”.

It’s in the book. I just didn’t know what Duncan was on about when he talks about “the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it.” Now we do. There are other literary nods, to Shakespeare, Eliot and Nabokov, but it was a line borrowed from Jane Eyre that almost had me rolling on the floor.

It is not a perfect novel but it takes a good stab at being a perfect werewolf novel. The vampires were a bit lacklustre but there’s stiff competition out there for classy vamps; you wouldn’t want them to overshadow Jake, but I was thoroughly unimpressed by them. Considering just how powerful they are and how important Jake is to them they don’t really give it their best shot. There is also an abrupt change in the narration 27 pages before the end of the book and I went, “Eh?” That I didn’t like. We’re standing on the very edge at that point, the big confrontation with Grainer and . . . look I’m not going to spoil it but imagine you’re watching a film of this – action in films is always in the present tense – and then suddenly you see someone on screen sit in a comfy armchair, with a copy of the book in their hand and they read the ending to you. Okay, that’s something of an exaggeration and it’s nothing like that but it confused me and I made assumptions (which were right and I’d already been thinking that way from page 188), however, from a purely practical point of view there was no other way it could have been done.

Other than that I have no criticisms. I’m not a horror fan and there are major gaps in my viewing. I’ve not seen Wolfen, The Howling, Bad Moon, The Company of Wolves, I was a Teenage Werewolf, Wolf, Blood and Chocolate, An American Werewolf in Paris, Silver Bullet… I’ve not even seen Teen Wolf for Christ’s sake. There is an entry on IMDB for The Last Werewolf but I’m not sure I’d go and see it if it gets made. I think what works about the book would be hard to transfer to the screen. I’m talking about the introspection (even when Jake transforms we’re still in his head). As a thriller that just happens to revolve around a werewolf, it will make a perfectly decent film if handled with a little finesse. But I can’t see them improving on the book.

One last thought: a lot of people have used the word ‘literary’ to describe this book but I’m not sure that’s the right word. Glen Duncan is highly literate, well read and can certainly string a sentence together but behind all the philosophical wrangling this is still a by-the-numbers, plot-driven, action-packed thriller and as pompous as it sounds I don’t think that works in its favour. The review in The Independent says that it’s “a sublime study in literary elegance” and it is but I’d be surprised to see it short-listed for the Man Booker Prize; a Costa Book Award, maybe.

I’d just like to take a moment to praise the dust jacket, designed by Peter Mendelsund. You really can’t tell here but have a look at his blog here where you can see some better photos. I actually think I actually prefer the Knopf edition with the deep red edges but the gold is good too.

You can read an excerpt here, visit the official website here and you can also listen to an interview with him on ABC’s The Book Show here.

Let me leave you with the book trailer:


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.

Glen DuncanHis 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) and now The Last Werewolf.

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.”


Loren Eaton said...

This looks quite interesting. I think I'll add it to my reading stack.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad I found something to pique your interest, Loren. I read the hardback a while ago but ran out of time to post it and so I held it back until the mass-market paperback was due for release.

Titus said...

Thanks for the review Jim, which I really enjoyed, but I don't think this one's for me.

Angela said...

Is it bad that I couldn't stop laughing during the book trailer?

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s not a book I would have jumped at either, Titus. The fact that is was being published by a reputable publisher was really why I accepted the review copy. I reasoned if Canongate thought it was different enough then maybe it was different enough. I reviewed a vampire novel they published a while back and it was quite good, a very British take on the genre, and I was hoping the same might be the case here. I’m sure those who love this type of book will get a lot out of it. For me it was just something different to read. I don’t mind this kind of light stuff for TV viewing but I prefer my books with a bit more depth.

And, Angela, it takes all sorts. I watched an interview with Diana Rigg a few days ago and she told an anecdote about a fan/stalker from when she was younger who bought tickets to everything she ever did. The problem was he was Hungarian, didn’t speak a word of English and one of the plays was the Greek tragedy Medea which he got into his head was a comedy and had to be ejected from the theatre and his money for all subsequent performances refunded. My brother thought Jaws was funny. He would have been thirteen at the time and the same would have happened to him if the usherette could have caught him.

Dave King said...

I've read a couple of werewolf novels, and enjoyed them, yet I still do not turn easily to them. I tend to tell myself that I've been lucky with the couple I've read - which may well be true, though I can't off-hand recall their titles. Why this is so, I do not know. It must say something about me, but I think I'm probably happier not knowing! I think from what you say that I could easily read this book if it fell into my hands, but I don't think I shall go looking for it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never been one who has read books purely for entertainment, Dave. I have been entertained by books but I’ve always considered that a bi-product and never the main reason I was there. The idea of a ‘beach read’ is quite alien to me. I expect a book to enhance me, to make me think, and although this book made a reasonable attempt to raise the bar it was fighting against all that has gone before it. Now, if this is the first werewolf book you were ever going to read then it is a cut above the rest but I was never going to be able to set aside all my baggage and read it like that. I would be interested to see what else this guy’s done though because he can certainly string a sentence together.

Art Durkee said...

Oh, the "literary" praise is just from the usual mainstream fiction critics who turn up their noses at "genre" fiction, but if something crosses over into THEIR bailiwick it's okay. Same old tired critical prejudices. Right down to the "reputable publisher" vs. the "pulp publisher" or publisher known for genre publishing.

Meanwhile those who do read in genre fiction tend to roll their eyes when such books are "discovered" by the mainstream because they're almost always over-praised (there being other better examples already in existence), and often for the wrong reasons.

Sarah Allen said...

Very thought provoking review. Looks like an interesting read! And I loved the trailer :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Jim Murdoch said...

You’ve hit the nail on the head, Art. I am a snob. Always have been. My mother’s war cry was always, “I don’t buy rubbish,” and I guess mine was always, “I don’t read rubbish.” The problem with books is that you can’t judge them by their covers so how else do you judge them? I made a judgement call when I was offered this book for review. I looked at Canongate’s record and decided that for them to publish a horror novel like this then there had to be something different about it not that everything they publish is a literary novel – they have published some stuff I consider tripe but I bet it bought in a few quid and so I don’t call them on it – but the standard is fairly high. I wasn’t so much commenting on whether a horror novel can be a literary work because clearly it can – what is Frankenstein if not a literary horror novel? – I’m just saying that I think that those reviewers who labelled The Last Werewolf a literary novel were, in my opinion (and it is only my opinion) being a little overgenerous in their praise. But then we have the old argument: What constitutes a literary novel? And let’s not go there. If an unsolicited copy of another book by this guy drops through my letter box be it a werewolf novel or whatever then I will read it and it will be a decent read I have no doubt but if I had ten quid in my pocket and a half hour in Waterstones to spend it I wouldn’t be rushing to the Horror shelves, that’s all I’m saying.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Sarah. Always nice to see a new name in my comments box. I’m not sure about book trailers. Too many look like PowerPoint presentations for my tastes but I do like the idea of them. I made one for my first book just to see what it looked like and it wasn’t too bad, a little amateurish, but then it was my first. I did do a couple of wee animations of two of my poems that were fun. You can see them on my website here.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff as usual, but I've always had trouble with the vampire/werewolf genre. It takes writing of rare skill to imbue the protagonists with anything resembling recognisable character traits and to breathe new life (?) into the dreary old symbolism.

I too found the trailer very chucklesome. Give me Warren Zevon any day.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Dick, and I find the only difference is establishing what the rules of this particular universe are going to be. I was watching an episode of The Vampire Diaries a few days ago (and don’t get me started on why I should hate it because I know I should hate it but for some reason I can tolerate it) and they’ve just introduced werewolves to the cast and, of course, we had to endure a ton of exposition letting us know just what the effects of the moon (and what particular moon) would have on them and for how long and did silver have any effect yada yada yada. That I find boring. Someone really needs to come along a create a new monster that will have the same staying power of werewolves and vampires. It’s about time. Rather that than this constant tweaking, reinventing and reimagining.

Ping services