The Last Werewolf: Powerful prose and viewpoint character

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Last Werewolf  by Glen Duncan

In our Edge of the Universe column we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Glen Duncan is the author of seven previous novels including I, Lucifer, which was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He was chosen by both Arena and The Times Literary Supplement as one of Britain’s best young novelists. Glen currently lives in London.

PLOT SUMMARY: A veil of melancholy has fallen over Jake Marlowe. Not only is he a werewolf, but he is the last of his kind. Hunted by his enemies and haunted by his past, he is worn out by centuries of decadence and debauchery, and by the demands of his lunatic appetites. As a result, he decides to submit to his fate at the next full moon. However, as Jake counts down to suicide, a violent murder and an extraordinary meeting plunge him straight back into the desperate pursuit of life…

FORMAT/INFO: The Last Werewolf is 304 pages long divided over three ‘Moons’ and sixty-one numbered chapters. Narration is in the first person via the protagonist Jake Marlowe, except for the last six chapters. The Last Werewolf wraps up the novel’s major plotline, but leaves a number of matters unresolved, hopefully to be continued in a sequel or two. July 12, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Last Werewolf via Knopf. The UK edition was published on April 7, 2011 via Canongate Books.

ANALYSIS: Werewolves have never captured my interest the same way vampires have, but over the past few years, three books have come out that have really changed the way I look at werewolves. The first is Toby Barlow’s spectacular novel, Sharp Teeth. Then came The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo, rest his soul. Finally, we have The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan…

The Last Werewolf — my first Glen Duncan novel, by the way — not only stars a werewolf as the main protagonist, but also features vampires, a World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), and copious amounts of sex. Sounds like a formula straight out of an urban fantasy/paranormal romance novel right? Wrong. Instead, The Last Werewolf is a gritty and visceral, hard R-rated contemporary horror thriller dressed up in literary wrappings, which is mainly due to Glen Duncan’s sophisticated writing style and evocative prose:

If this was Hollywood I’d be dismissing her fully paid and heavily gratuitied in preparation for a night’s heroic solitary brooding, a sequence of fade-shots wet-eyed Pacino would do with baleful minimalism, staring out at the city, lit cigarette, bottle and glass, the face tranquilly letting all the death and sadness gather with a kind of defeated wisdom. But this wasn’t Hollywood.

 

The moon was an inscrutable pregnancy, a withheld alleviation, a love more cunning than a mother’s.

Personally, I found Glen Duncan’s writing style somewhat difficult to follow as I had to constantly stop and re-read passages in order to fully digest what the author was saying, while the prose can get overblown at times. That said, the author does a marvelous job capturing the voice of someone who has been alive since the early 1800s and is weary of life. Even more impressive are the subtle, but noticeable changes to Jake Marlowe’s ‘journal entries’ when he suddenly discovers a reason for living.

Werewolf elements in the book are fairly conventional. The Curse is only transferred by infection. The infected can only transform during a full moon. Benefits include increased senses, healing, and lifespan. Silver is a weakness. Et cetera, et cetera. Of course, the author puts his own spin on the werewolf mythos in the form of an amped-up libido, the infection killing people instead of changing them, and a strong aversion to vampires. However, it’s the intimate and thought-provoking look inside the mind and heart of Jake Marlowe the werewolf that is the novel’s main attraction, which includes being tormented by the memories of everyone he has ever killed, suffering from profound loneliness and a life void of love, and wondering if life after death exists for a werewolf.

Plot-wise, The Last Werewolf starts out a bit slowly with the novel focused on establishing Jake’s past — when he became infected in 1842; his first kill which he has not spoken of in 167 years; the time he saved Harley’s life, his human familiar, fix-it and friend for fifty years — his loneliness and exhaustion of life, and his desire to die. That’s when the author throws a few curveballs — vampires, WOCOP politics, a love interest — to complicate matters for Jake and increase the novel’s entertainment factor. Unfortunately, these interesting plot developments become bogged down by Marlowe’s long-winded ruminations, while a narrative shift towards the end of the book telegraphs the novel’s ending. It’s an anticlimactic ending that leaves many matters unresolved, like Alexander Quinn’s journal which supposedly contains the origin of werewolves, and the vampires’ Helios Project.

Despite these issues with the story, The Last Werewolf is a striking novel. Glen Duncan’s writing is intelligent and provocative; Jake Marlowe is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, even if he is a monster; and the plot delivers plenty of action, sex, thrills and surprises. Admittedly, I enjoyed reading Sharp Teeth and The Wolfman more than I did The Last Werewolf, but Glen Duncan’s book ranks right up there with the best that werewolf fiction has to offer, and is a tale worthy of a sequel.

~Robert Thompson


fantasy and science fiction book reviewsJake Marlowe is a monster. One night a month he turns into something lupine, a creature with the strength and senses of a wolf but the intelligence of an educated man. The monster is only satisfied by human flesh. The transformation lasts while the full moon is in the sky.

In The Last Werewolf, the horror, or beauty, of Glen Duncan’swulf is that the Hunger that drives it cannot be satisfied by the flesh of other animals. The werewolf devours human flesh and consumes with it the memories, the essence of that person. There is no easy way out of this curse: no making do with rabbits or rats, no dreamy scenes of Jack Nicholson chasing down a stag in a manicured Connecticut forest. You can lock yourself away during the full moon, but sooner or later the Hunger will overcome you, and you will not want to lock yourself away. You will choose to kill. That is the monstrosity. Jake should know. He’s been a werewolf for over two hundred years, and now he’s the last.

Marlowe has been hunted over the decades by WOCOP, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomenon, which is mostly an elaborate hunt club for werewolves. In this world, there are vampires too, but vampires are less bestial, and so WOCOP (funded originally, we are told, by the Vatican) came to an arrangement with them, and the vampire Fifty Families are allowed to have one hundred vampires each. The head of the werewolf division of WOCOP, Grainer, has been gunning for Marlowe for years, because Marlowe ate his father.

It’s the voice of this novel, the self-assuredness of the prose, that held my interest in the opening pages. Jake is matter-of-fact about his condition. He does not make excuses for the people he’s killed. The wolf does not really allow excuses; at the point you’ve been infected (bitten or scratched by a werewolf) the only choice you have, if you are not going to kill, is to kill yourself. Jake did not do that. Neither did the others. Humans are selfish, and the drive to live is strong. How about only killing bad people, then? Sure, Jake says, try that. It’s fine until the novelty wears off.

Jake is intelligent, educated as someone with two hundred years of leisure time can be, and sardonic. Here, he describes Madeline, his latest call girl, because Jake will never have sex with a woman he likes:

Madeline… brimming with tabloid axioms and fluent in cliché. She been there done that, bought the T-shirt. She goes ballistic. She gets paralytic. She wants the organ-grinder not his monkey. She wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire… her telephone farewell is mmbaah. This, more than her spiritual deficits has kept my dislike going, but it can’t last forever. A month in I can see the confused child in there, the gaping holes and wrong bulges in the long-ago fabric of love. There was a Doting and borderline Dodgy Dad, a fading and viciously Jealous Mum. This is the drag of having lived so long and seen so many: Biography shows through, all the mitigating antecedents. People teem with their own information and I start to get the headache of interest in them. Which is pointless, since when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food.

You don’t get the full beauty of the rhythm of that paragraph because I snipped some of it, but Duncan piles up the words, starting simply and layering the images and the observations. Often it starts with a physical description and then goes deep into Jake’s history, or into his head.

For a book with such a powerful viewpoint character, others in this book border on cliché. Harley, Marlow’s human assistant, is the stereotypical Old British Queen character. Ellis, Grainer’s second-in-command, is a Grotesque, although a wonderful one. What we know of Grainer we hear from Jake, or mostly from Ellis. I think Grainer speaks perhaps three lines of dialogue in the whole book. Jake, however, is so powerful, and the book so compelling when we are in his memories, that he balances out these problems.

Jake insists that he is not a good man, that he has given himself to the monster, and that the countless good works and brave works of his life — fighting Nazis, dictators and drug cartels, funding children’s hospitals and foundations — is not an attempt to make up for the destruction his wulf has caused, but mere social book-keeping. It’s a flimsy argument. The juxtaposition of the man Jake was supposed to be — a good one, a happy one — and the monster he is kept me reading even when I was disapproving, sad or horrified. I was often horrified, at what Jake did, and what was done to him.

The plot has some problems, or at least, some loose ends. Some reviewers have said that there should be a sequel. I hope there isn’t, because the book has a certain purity by itself, even if it is flawed; but a sequel would explain some of the things that just drop through the cracks, like the mysterious journal that explains the origin of werewolves. Jake, on the run for his life, simply has to have it, then stops looking. Just like that. I mean, he’s busy dodging vampires and silver bullets and all, but still. There is a long explanation about why there aren’t any more werewolves; people stopped transforming and started dying. This is all setup for an elaborate vampire plot. The vampires want Jake alive, WOCOP wants him dead — or at least Grainer does. Some things are a bit too coincidental. A point-of-view shift away from first person near the end telegraphs things a bit too clearly.

And yet… the voice, the life of Jake Marlowe is powerful. There is a section where the reader follows him, in werewolf form, as he attacks and kills a human. We see him immediately before and immediately after a kill, and Duncan communicates the cruel, alien, yet so understandable joy of this sheer power.

And, you get observations like this, “You forgot sex could do this, cast the divine fragment back into the divine whole for a moment, then reel it out again, razed, beatified.”

And this,

I’m sorry Harls, for the mess I made of your life. For costing you your life. Vengeance, now, late, shamefully overdue, but vengeance nonetheless. Grainer. Ellis, too, eventually. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. I’m sorry the bare fact of you living wasn’t enough. I’m sorry it took loving someone. Someone else.

It’s difficult to write much more about this book without spoilers. I will say that there is a telephone conversation in an airport that is breathtaking in its immediacy. Plotwise, there is a surprise discovery that isn’t terribly surprising. It makes the ending of the book unavoidable and the reader will see it coming, but you’ll want to stay with it, just for the power of Duncan’s words.

~Marion Deeds

The Last Werewolf — (2011-2012) Publisher: Then she opened her mouth to scream—and recognised me. It was what I’d been waiting for. She froze. She looked into my eyes. She said, “It’s you.” Meet Jake. A bit on the elderly side (he turns 201 in March), but you’d never suspect it. Nonstop sex and exercise will do that for you — and a diet with lots of animal protein. Jake is a werewolf, and after the unfortunate and violent death of his one contemporary, he is now the last of his species. Although he is physically healthy, Jake is deeply distraught and lonely. Jake’s depression has carried him to the point where he is actually contemplating suicide — even if it means terminating a legend thousands of years old. It would seem to be easy enough for him to end everything. But for very different reasons there are two dangerous groups pursuing him who will stop at nothing to keep him alive. Here is a powerful, definitive new version of the werewolf legend — mesmerising and incredibly sexy. In Jake, Glen Duncan has given us a werewolf for the twenty-first century — a man whose deeds can only be described as monstrous but who is in some magical way deeply human. One of the most original, audacious, and terrifying novels in years.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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