Book Review: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

** Warning: One case of Swearing, because it’s a quote from the Book. Just thought I’d let you all know …**

The message is clear: By all means become an abomination — but only while unhinged by grief or wrath.

The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan pg.

Cover of my copy.

I am not sure what I expected from this book. I had read an early review, around about the time it first came out, that looked at it in terms of changing the werewolf world. A world, the reviewer opined, had become too embroiled in teenage love triangles instead of the gritty moral platitudes of the The Howling or An American Werewolf in London. And, indeed, that is the trend – to humanize the monster, to take it out of the shadows and force it into the light as just the very literal deeply divided human self it is. That is, to make it scary again.

So I suppose that I picked this book up to see how far we’ve come, and the limits that were now in place for this genre. I had recently finished Benighted – a truly moving, though very long, piece of werewolf literature I highly recommend, and I was primed for another reinterpretation of the classic horror movie monster.

And what is was …. was different.

And the same.

And still a wonderful read.

paperback edition

To sum up the plot: Jake is a 200-odd year old werewolf who was changed during a camping trip in Wales, and has since dealt with and dismissed the morality of eating humans when in wolf form, as he’s had to do it fairly often. He has one friend in the world, who also happens to be a double agent of WOCOP – an agency, The Hunt, who made a pact with vampires, and is quickly hunting werewolves into extinction. So quickly, in fact, that Jake is the only one left. And this, my dear readers, is where the story open up.

You would think, being the last werewolf would have some sentimentality, but Jake – like Lestat before him, is sort of just tired of living. He’s lost interest in most things, and the only mantra that keeps him alive is the one that reigns supreme in the animal side of him only. He’s well read, well bred and generally very wealthy, but the traumas of his past and the bleak long future ahead of him make it so that he’s actually looking forward to WOCOP tracking him down in the next full moon in order to kill him

Again, it reminds me slightly of the vampire books that star a bored vampire of a few hundred or thousand years, who wants to end it, but lacks the means. There is that same contemplative resonance of “Why bother?” married to a rich telling of the past and a sort of traumatic build up. Of course, the whole of the book cannot consist solely of tired imaginings and bleak outlooks, and so when the twist arrives in this book it not only knocks the story from it’s perch, but also wakes up the reader. It is a doozy of a plot twist, and one you at least hope is coming, if not see coming.

All that is to say, I recommend it for its story.

Brilliant Cover.

Now about the other tenants of the book – the philosophical discussions, the self awareness of it – this is what makes the book golden for me.

Werewolves are not the subject of academe,” she said, “but you know what the professors would be saying if they were. ‘Monsters die out when the collective imagination no longer needs them. Species death like this is nothing more than a shift in the aggregate psychic agenda. In ages past the beast in man was hidden in the dark, disavowed. The transparency of modern history makes that impossible: We’ve seen ourselves in concentration camps, the gulags, the jungles, the killing fields, we’ve read ourselves in the annals of True Crime. Technology turned up the lights and now there’s no getting away from the fact: The beast is redundant. It’s been us all along.

– The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan, pg.

That is said by a savior of Jake’s a woman who is well educated in the things she wants, which happen to include, Jake. The analysis of monsters here intrigues me – it’s an understanding of the position of monsters in literature as well as the place of Jake in the book – though in one case, it acts as the revitalization of the genre based on the book, and in the other, the beginning of Jake’s transition from uncaring to fighting.

I think there is a lot to be said about Monsters – our literature used to be littered with them. We had Banshees in Ireland and Hags in Scotland that would warn you of death or kill you themselves, depending on the story, We had the Erlkonig and mean-spirited elves and fairies that lured us to be eaten or stole our babies from their cribs. We have vampires that would rise from their graves to feast on the living, and zombies that toiled under masters and did whatever they were ordered to, including murder. Never mind the poltergeists, the vengeful spirits, the headless horsemen and the weeping white women who drown children.

In the academic world, all those monsters were seen as stories to express the cruelty of man – of explaining the horrible side of humanity away. When angels and demons don’t cut it, the Monsters come out to play.

Werewolves are not different – half human half animal, they represent the animalistic nature of humans, the one that Duncan expresses so succinctly in the werewolf mantra of “fuckkilleat” – procreate, eliminate and sustain theyself. Things we want to step away from, that our cultures and our civilizations have attempted to seperate us from, but they are still there. It is why we describe attacks on people in animalistic terms – because we cannot percieve humans acting in such a way – holding up a delicate wine glass to the light, then ripping out the throat of another human. It’s incomprehensible, and so we made stories. The problem is, as is stated in the book, we now readily acknowledge the human monsters – the perpetrators of holocausts, genocides and murders, the ones that routinely show up on television, looking sullen and angry at being caught, but never remorseful. We are now well acquainted with it, there is no stopping it, and so the monsters have changed from all those hidden darknesses in us, and become the stuff of illicit sexiness and teenage love triangles.

This evolution of “Monster” in literature, and film and television, is staggering. And I think the book does a good job of making the point then crashing through it. Jake is very human – when he is human, he is rational, he can love and more importantly can hurt through love. But as his animal self, he kills and he enjoys the kill, the devouring of human flesh. Even the quote from the top of this review is indicative of the tone of this analysis – the new animal, the one we talk about in literature and in movies, is someone who has been pushed to the edge of their limits and then off them. That is acceptable – in that we can have a hero, if a dirty one, but unless that, then a monster.

It’s a ridiculous story, of course, but history’s full of ridiculous stories. ‘You can’t make this shit up,’ one finds oneself saying, whenever the seemingly prosaic old world lifts the veil on its synchronicities. Meanwhile the seemingly prosaic old world shrugs: Hey, don’t ask me. I just work here.

The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan

my favourite cover!

The other thing that got me was the way it was written – very stream of consciousness, very much an exercise in monologuing. Jake is our narrator, and he is an interesting read, jumping from here to there, sometimes long rambling chapters that cover the span of centuries (though never, interestingly, any real details on his life between his first kill and the opening of the story), and some stocky and short, where you can see him chain smoking and shooting down whiskey as he frantically tries to find the words that will seal his legacy.

I am a fan of Stream of Consciousness – I blame Virginia Wolfe for that one. I think it’s a hard narrative to follow sometimes, but it in that it so closely resembles our own inner thoguht processes that it becomes golden. Without having to say anything extra, the stream of conciousness mode develops an image for the reader – the more hurried the prose, the more manic that picture becomes. It is a tool that, when used effectively, leads the reader directly into the character’s brain and leaves you there to work it all out on your own.

For this novel, which is written as a journal of the last werwolf on earth, it works. To be inside the brain of Jake is like being a part of the action – there isn’t any foreshadowing or long winded descriptions of things that don’t matter – it’s a introspective novel that deals with the subject matter succinctly and brutally. And the best way is with stream of consciousness.

The book is brutal – there are scenes, particularly his first kill, that left me a little grossed out, but then there are those magnificent ponderings on the human condition, the effect of longevity, the use of revenge and procreation and legacy – that overbalance the book from a “Horror” piece to something more. The discussion of the place of “Monsters” admittedly sucked me in quick – I am, of course, biased, but I found it very thorough and wonderful to sit at the coffee shop and just think about. The characters were complex in a very odd way – the blurb on the Kobo site left me thinking it would be much more straightforward than it was, but that too, is a blessing. The complicated web of stories that leads to the conclusion of the book (and the opening of the next one) is beyond satisfying – it’s exciting.

If you are a fan of the genre – whether you like your werewolves scary or melancholy (but probably not if you like them bare-chested, glistening under the sun ready to fight the vampires for you), this book is a wonderful addition to the the legacy. I personally cannot wait to pick up the second book of the series, Tellula Rising (already out!!)

In short: Read it. For the Monster analysis alone – it’s so totally worth it.

Cheers!

AmmyB

 

 

 

Next Review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

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