Reader, I ate him: The Last Werewolf pulls off a really neat trick

Posted by Sharon Deans on May 13, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2011

Reviewed by Sharon Deans.

Now here’s a rare and unusual thing: a thoughtful, philosophical, thrilling and exciting werewolf novel and, believe me, there aren’t too many of those about these days.  Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf breathes a breath of fresh air through the genre which has recently been dominated by female novelists writing excruciating paranormal sexual fantasies for women.  Duncan, however, reinstates the conventions of the genre (with a bang!) and fabulously surpasses them in a novel which is not only playfully and beautifully written but rich in both literary allusion and cultural comment.

Jacob Marlowe is the urbane two-hundred-year-old werewolf of the title, the last of his kind, who is being hunted by WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena).  Jacob has grown tired of his life and almost welcomes the inevitability of his death: ‘One’s own death sentence elicits a mad little hallelujah, and mine’s egregiously overdue’.  At the beginning of the novel we find Marlowe tired, jaded and content to wait until WOCOP hunts him down; this frustrates both the reader and the head of WOCOP who chastises him: ‘You’re the last of a great species.  You owe the narrative something better’. Indeed he does, and, as events unfold it transpires that others have their own plans for the world’s last werewolf, and we soon find ourselves in the midst of a thriller which spans London, Europe and the USA, replete with helicopters, weaponry, kidnappings, vampires, double-agents and femme fatales. Although this may sound like pretty standard action-adventure fare, Duncan quickly and cleverly shifts the tale along through unpredictable plot twists, and very exciting it all is.  However, what is remarkable about this novel is its literary and cultural depth.

We know we are on literary turf from the off by the naming of the protagonist. Despite Duncan jokingly wrong-footing us with the forename ‘Jacob’ (instantly and unfortunately bringing Meyer to mind), the real clue is in his surname ‘Marlowe’ which plays on far more illustrious predecessors.  As Marlowe is telling his tale through the medium of his beautifully and poetically written journal, we can read his name as a playful allusion to dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe, and to Dr Faustus in particular. Like Faustus, Jacob is cursed (and his condition is always referred to as the Curse), but whereas Faustus is torn apart by demons and dragged to hell, it is Jacob who routinely carries out the gory disembowelling in this novel.  Marlowe’s name also recalls that of another story teller, Conrad’s Charles Marlow, and references to The Heart of Darkness abound: ‘Thus she’d discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror.  The second is you accommodate it’.  Jacob also refers to the difficulty of putting the horror into words as: ‘Kurtz’s unspeakable rites’.  Finally, it is surely no mistake that Marlowe also shares his name with Chandler’s hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe.  Indeed, a mysterious stranger wearing a belted trench-coat, standing under a streetlight and carrying a Magnum takes a pot shot at Jacob in the early stages of the narrative.  This gives the novel a noirish feel, and allows for some wonderful wise-cracking: ‘Two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist.  I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants’.

Like the werewolf itself, this novel is something of a hybrid: part action-thriller, part existential comment: ‘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’.   This works really well for the reader because just as we might feel we are getting too bogged down in pretension or literary reference (it can feel a little Bret Easton Ellis at times, and Duncan does indeed mention American Psycho), the action-packed plot kicks in again to carry us along.  It really is a neat trick.  Any chapter that can begin: ‘Reader, I ate him’, thereby simultaneously referencing both Brontë and Hannibal Lecter deserves a round of applause, a laugh, and respect, I think.  But Duncan uses his humour sparingly and does not play it for laughs, choosing, instead, to lament ‘the friability of boundaries, the nearness of opposite extremes, the depressing bleedability of grief into laughter, good into evil, tragedy into farce’.

Lest you worry that this is beginning to sound a bit too worthy and philosophical for a werewolf novel, then don’t fret, there is also horror, sex and violence aplenty – this is, after all, a story about monsters.  However, Duncan just does it all so beautifully; on killing for example: ‘Yet here was the flesh that took my teeth in helpless succulence and the warm sour fountain of blood, the puncture moment that never gets old but stops being enough’; on werewolf transformation: ‘Matter, raped and rearranged, murmured its trauma in the quivering cells’; and, on seeing a vampire fly: ‘Modernity’s mimetic inversion: you see the real and are struck by how much it looks like a tediously seamless special effect’.  You can almost open this book at any page and find lines worth quoting.  Although beautifully written, Duncan neatly juxtaposes this beauty with the ugly reality of Marlowe’s world, for not only does Jacob enjoy human flesh, but he also relishes the terror and despair of his victims, and carries the ghosts of their individual fears around inside him.

The Last Werewolf is casually satirical and undeniably has things to say about beauty and aesthetic fraudulence, it is filled with lines such as: ‘God’s gone, Meaning too, and yet aesthetic fraudulence still has the power to shame’; and, ‘Modernity having done away with Absolute Moral Values and Objective Reality there’s only beauty left’.  Duncan also addresses the fraudulent nature of transformation when he name-checks and comments on home makeover shows and American Idol. There is undoubtedly an essay to be written on this novel, but I am trying to keep this within the realms of a book review, so will stop there.  Suffice it to say that as well as all the literary references and cultural comments that this book makes (one can feel rather smug spotting them all along the way), Duncan also shows us that the werewolf’s symbolic power is not simply a metaphor for ‘the beast within’ us all, but of individual self-understanding: ‘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’.

I had not come across Glen Duncan’s work before, but on the strength of this I have looked up his back catalogue and will definitely be reading some more of his work (so many books to read, so little time).

Glen Duncan

There are such rich pickings in The Last Werewolf that I am convinced this book will make it on to the syllabus of various Modern Gothic courses, or on to some Gothic Reading Groups at the very least.  Forgive me for the obvious ending, but Reader, I loved it!

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