by Glen Duncan346 pages, Canongate
Review by Pat Black
A while back, when I was reviewing a compendium of vampire short stories, I lamented the fact that we already have the ultimate vampire novel in Dracula, but not its lycanthropic equivalent.
I do have a theory about this: werewolves, much moreso than vampires, are cinematic creatures, their bloody horrors and fuzzy outfits tailor-made for the big screen. Creating these monsters can have a much more spectacular outcome than putting plastic fangs in actors’ mouths and daubing heaving bosoms with blood (with all due deference to Ingrid Pitt, the naughty nightied Twins of Evil and many other femmes tres fatale in Hammer’s gloriously garish undead wankfests).
Shapeshifting is a common part of most cultures’ mythologies, from the heart of Africa to the long grass of the Sunderbans and stretching across the great American plains. But, while werewolves have been a part of European folklore for centuries (such a beautiful word at its blunt etymological roots, werwulf), our understanding of these creatures comes from modern times.
In 1941, the Universal Studios movie, The Wolf Man, tied together many ancient myths to make the beast we know today. Cursed to become a monster every full moon; having it passed on to you, like rabies, by being bitten; fatal allergy to the element silver, especially if it’s moulded into a bullet and fired at you; these were all tied together nicely by the screenwriter Curtis B Siodmak.
It’s all about the change. In the early 1980s in particular, make-up artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and others vied to out-monster each other with the most eye-popping practical effects ever seen. It’s becoming something of a lost art now, in these days of increasingly seamless computer effects. But for films like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, the transformation scenes were almost the centrepiece of the films themselves; they became legends in their own right, myths that your older brother and his friends slavered over, which you then pretended to school friends that you’d seen yourself. This is something best lent to the visual arts, rather than literary. The moment man becomes beast.
Sure, there are werewolf novels, some of them very good indeed. Robert R McCammon wrote a real cracker, a doorstopper called The Wolf’s Hour which managed to blend shafeshifting horrors with Nazi villains. I utterly devoured it one day as a teenager when I really should have been outside vandalising phone booths and beating people up. Historically, there are a few classic texts, too, from Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris to GM Reynolds’ penny dreadful classic Wagner the Werewolf. But nothing definitive. No stuffed, mounted head which you could point to in the study and say: That was it. The biggest and best of them all. The granddaddy.
In Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, it could be that we have at last tracked an elusive beast down. If not the greatest werewolf book of all time, then certainly the greatest of the modern era.
For a book which features giant, hybrid-style wolfmen and vampires, this is a brilliantly lyrical, even literary, novel. We come to our narrator, 260-year-old Jacob Marlowe, in a bit of a pickle. He’s the last werewolf on earth, hunted by the anti-paranormal human agency WOCOP, with a man called Grainer at the helm. Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father 40 years before, and the man is obsessed with leaving Marlowe to the last. Marlowe, an old dog happy to learn new tricks, must employ every means necessary to stay ahead of the pack… but he’s getting old, and weary. He knows his next full moon could well be his last. And part of him relishes the fact.
What could be more uplifting for a lad with his tail between his legs than a new girlfriend?
Marlowe is a wonderful creation, and he rolls around in Duncan’s baroque prose. He’s put his time on earth to good use, amassing a fortune and garnering all the survival skills he needs to avoid WOCOP ever since he was bitten by a werewolf at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales. He comes across as a louche, Byronic semi-aristocrat with a prodigious sexual appetite and a wicked tongue; the fact of his lycanthropy is almost incidental.
With the Curse, Marlowe becomes a werewolf every full moon, when he goes through several hours of hunting, killing and eating humans in as messy a fashion as he can. He has to be quite systematic about selecting victims, modern crime detection rates being what they are. Dispatching them is not quite so scientific a business, though. He’s unabashed about how he does this, completely in thrall to the insane lusts of the Curse. I guess after 200-odd years of anything, you get used to it. When you find out who his first victim was, you can understand why; you can’t get too much more appalling than that.
He isn’t quite immoral, and in his human form he does lend himself to good causes, but every full moon Marlowe surrenders to the bloodlust. There’s not much choice involved – he has to. Hunting animals just won’t do; the most dangerous game of all is where it’s at for wolfies.
Marlowe isn’t just wanted by WOCOP; it turns out the vampires – here painted as sublime supernatural beings who nonetheless cannot have sex (Marlowe titters, Muttley-style, up his ripped sleeves) – have designs on owning themselves a dog, something to do with their search for the ability to walk in the daylight. He has an ally, though: Harley, an insider at WOCOP whom he once saved from a gay-bashing as a wolf. Through his agency and information Marlowe is able to stay one step ahead of Grainer and his protégé, Ellis.
It’s a wild ride, and Duncan tickles behind our ears as the debauched, dilettante man-beast follows through his mission statement: f*ckkilleat. It’s an almost densely sexual novel, infused with Duncan’s rip-snortingly florid descriptions. One comparison in particular between a woman’s anus and the smirk of a coquettish secretary of the Third Reich had me howling with laughter. Indeed, there’s a knowing chuckle employed all the way through, here, a low growl in the background. An altogether different “transformation” Marlowe undergoes in order to throw his pursuers off the scent was one of many nods and winks to the audience.
The narrative does show a few fleas through some story weaknesses. In the near-affable stoner Ellis we have a terrific villain, and in his boss, Grainer, an “off-the-page” head honcho whom we barely even meet until the conclusion. The latter was sparingly used to the point of being wasted - the Darth Maul of the tale, if you will. There were also too many loose ends in this story, little plotlines here and there which weren’t developed – deliberately so, you feel. The Macguffin of an ancient text which Marlowe has been obsessed with is dangled in front of our nose like a dog biscuit, then snatched away. The journal structure also gives us a problem in the conclusion, where another character takes the reins, leaving us a bit shellshocked by the resolution (and mistrustful of it).
Having the Curse being a once-a-month deal also gives us a distinct lack of wolf time. Although there are plenty of recollections of previous attacks and action replays of the sensations and benefits of being a dog, there’s little of it taking place in media res. Also, key characters are dropped with almost indecent haste, and things are left annoyingly open for a sequel on several fronts. Consider, for a non-spoiler start, what became of the character Marlowe furnished with a lovebite.
It’s all made up for by the sumptuous prose, the positively filthy contemplations and a mordant sense of humour. Part of me would have preferred to read about Marlowe’s day-to-day bump and grind, just a series of episodes in the life of a charming dirtbag with the inner wolf kept straining at the leash in the background.
But isn’t a sense of restraint part of the appeal of the werewolf story? The idea that something wicked lurks within, just waiting for an excuse to burst into life and enslave you to your own base instincts?
If you absolutely must do it, please don’t be biting at the curtains – they were very expensive, you know. And leave the postie alone, those boys work hard.