by Glen Duncan
304 pages, Knopf
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I'm in awe. Not five minutes have passed since I finished reading Glen Duncan's “The Last Werewolf” and I'm struggling to find suitable adjectives to describe it. Horrific, intelligent, thrilling, heartbreaking... this isn't just the best werewolf book I've ever read, it's also one of the finest novels I've come across in the past few years. I feel almost at a loss to provide a coherent review for a book which, if there is any justice in the world, will be remembered for years to come.
“The Last Werewolf” tells the story of Jacob Marlowe, a two hundred and one year old lycanthrope who has grown weary of his prolonged existence. Whilst his long life has enabled him to accrue a vast fortune, he is bored and cynical of human affairs. Hunted by WOCOP (the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and haunted by the memories of his countless victims, Marlowe sees little point in carrying on. The revelation that he is not the last of his kind brings with it a strange romance and a desire to keep living. However, Marlowe's hunters, led by a single-minded zealot named Grainer, are drawing closer and are willing to use any means necessary to bring him out of hiding.
Although firmly grounded in traditional werewolf lore (full moons, silver bullets and so forth), Duncan's novel transcends the boundaries of the genre with its black humour and genuine wisdom. Marlowe is a thoroughly sympathetic character, despite his monthly bloodlust. I'm still not sure how Duncan achieves this curious paradox and makes it work. It just does. Marlowe's long life means that he has come to terms with his monstrous self and whilst he feels shame and guilt for his crimes he knows that it is useless to try to reason with the beast inside. Aware that there is no god, no afterlife to look forward to, Marlowe has no choice but to keep living and killing. His moral compass is not totally askew – his vast fortune allows him to indulge in all manner of philanthropic activities in order to assuage his guilty conscience.
Another aspect of the novel that makes it so utterly absorbing is the author's vivid portrayal of the werewolf's habits during the lunar cycle. Or, as Marlowe so eloquently puts it, “F*ckKillEat”. As the moon wanes so too does the beast's influence, and the lycanthrope can live, as much as possible, a normal life for a few weeks. However, as the full moon draws closer, the animal within begins to exert its influence. The libido increases, a normal appetite all but vanishes and the senses sharpen. Marlowe feels the monster inside him and can sense the twisted shape he will become lurking just beneath his skin. The transformation, when it comes, reminds one of Rick Baker's fantastic special effects in “An American Werewolf in London”. It's a tortuous ordeal of bones popping and muscles shifting. Clothes tear and skin stretches and whilst Duncan never fully indulges the reader with a detailed description of the werewolf form, we pick up enough clues to know that it's pretty damn hideous.
Marlowe's accounts of his lupine escapades are both nightmarish and gripping. The vivid descriptions of his heightened senses and the boundless energy of the prose combines with a surreal, dreamlike detachment. The shift in Duncan's writing style during these chapters is so effective that one can't help but be impressed as the monster takes over and draws the reader into the blood-soaked feeding frenzy.
Just as we share in Marlowe's atrocities, so too do we share in his post-curse hangover, awash with self-loathing and the painful awareness of his continued existence. Heavy going? Undoubtedly. Duncan's insightful examination of the tortured psyche of the lycanthrope means that the novel is neither as fast paced nor as immediately accessible as other horror novels. Duncan's prose is weighty and complex – the werewolf sequences are a good example, almost poetic in their blurred perception of reality. Once you get used to Duncan's writing, you realise that no other style would be able to convey a narrative of such emotional intensity and insight.
This isn't to say that the novel does not have its fair share of action. It features more than a few set-pieces that would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster but they are so skilfully blended into the overall storyline that they never seem incongruous or unnecessary. The WOCOP hunters are armed with silver bullet spraying machine-guns, night vision goggles, portable flame-throwers and all manner of other neat gadgets to ensure they provide a suitable threat to our lupine protagonist. Unfortunately for him, he's also pursued by a group of very unpleasant vampires who believe his blood will provide the cure for their aversion to sunlight. Mercifully, Duncan avoids portraying the bloodsuckers as the limp-wristed, lovesick wastrels that many readers in the post-Meyer world have come to expect. Marlowe's vampiric adversaries are cold, calculating killers more likely to rip out your spinal column than hold your hand and gaze longingly into your eyes.
With all its blood-soaked carnage and pulse-pounding action, it may surprise some readers to discover that the novel also possesses a big heart. When we first meet Marlowe, love is a distant memory and we learn that his self-loathing is partly down to the fact that his first victim was his wife. He avoids intimacy with humans, satisfying his animalistic sexual desires with prostitutes in hotel rooms. The discovery of a female werewolf catapults Marlowe out of his despondency and he gains a new lease of life. The chemistry between the two shape-shifters is positively electric. Fuelled in part by a desperate need for companionship and partly by a raw, uncontrollable animal lust, their love becomes a believable and powerful force within the novel.
“The Last Werewolf” is a dazzling book. Glen Duncan's rich prose and meticulous plotting give the novel the ability to both captivate and thrill its readers. Dark without being depressing. Witty without damaging the tension. Duncan's novel is as much a work of literature as it is a shining example of genre fiction at its finest. It will shock, entertain and touch you in equal measures. You'd be howling mad to miss it.
Hereward L.M. Proops