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The Last Werewolf

mirka's picture Posted by mirka

The Last Werewolf

'The Last Werewolf' by Glen Duncan
Stephen Graham Jones
For a Few Silver Bullets More

What would happen if an intelligent, sensitive, literate man suddenly found himself filled with savage instincts?  —Roger Ebert, on Wolf (1994)

Just as vampire stories are always about seduction—the long tease; the will I? won’t I?—and just as zombie stories are always finally about a loss of self, be it through infection or actions, so are werewolf stories always about sex. Granted, there’s two kinds of werewolf/sex stories. There’s the I’m-going-through-changes-all-this-new-body-hair kind and there’s The Howling ‘indulging our animal natures’-kind, but either way, it come down to sex. Glen Duncan knows this. His The Last Werewolf is very aware of what it’s doing. There’s sex to go around, and it’s properly graphic, and done just really well. For a model of how to render sex on the page, you could do worse than some mid-point between The Last Werewolf and, say, Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead. Or just either by itself.

Anyway, all the cons I hit, the question that’s always circulating is What’s the next big thing? We all saw the vampire fall to the zombie, I mean, and, as we get closer and closer to living through Roland Emmerich’s 2012, I think we all have a sense that, in spite of how much they’re going to continue to be marketed at us, the zombie’s going to be on the wane. So: what next? Mermaids, centaurs, Norse mythology, aliens? Werewolves? Will The Last Werewolf—along with Mtv’s Teen Wolf reboot—kick off a werewolf renaissance?

I don’t think so.

And this isn’t at all because of the way Glen Duncan wrote it, or the story he told. Reading him, you feel like you’re reading Nicholson Baker or Martin Amis—that is, you trust him, as he’s got both absolute command of the language and a very light touch with it [1] (unlike, say, Cormac McCarthy, who’s got the control, but’s not shy about beating you over the head with it)—but a Baker or Amis with a Neal Stephenson sensibility and sense of geopolitical intrigue, or a Baker or Amis who have caught The Passage fever, or a Baker and Amis who studied on how World War Z did what it did. Or maybe simply a Baker or Amis who have got those dollar signs in their eyes. Which, that ka-ching sound coming each time a writer blinks: I’d much rather read somebody like that than somebody trying to do ‘Art,’ somebody trying to Write for the Ages, to inscribe themselves on the headstone of culture. To lob arrows at somebody for trying to make money with their writing, it says more about yourself—and your sales—than you’d probably like. And, me anyway, I’d much rather be in blinking letters on the blimp floating above this raucous human game than have somber letters on a headstone for some exo-archeologist to find.

No, reading Glen Duncan, seriously, you learn a lot about how to write. Just his turns of phrase, his prose incisions into the human condition, into this daily life. Some examples, in case you think I’m just stroking him:

Madeline’s narcissism reconfigures awkward moments as opportunities for into-camera astonishment.

Daybreak was the slow development of a daguerreotype.

Local teenagers stymied into near autism or restless violence come here and drink and smoke and make fires and work with numb yearning through the calculus of fornication.

Even the lion knows his debasement, mounting his mate while the bored zoo crowd looks on.

There’s a period of being bothered with big questions. It doesn’t last forever.

Lip-reading her with the helpful Nords I’d made her American, and something about her relationship with the luggage and the raincoat and the purse reinforced this, the casual entitlement to useful things.

And I’ll stop there, still very early in the book. This is one of those that I’ve marked so many sentences ‘indelible,’ I mean, and, instead of getting into all the humor as well—and there’s plenty (and is the trailer trying to sell it that way?)—let me just say that, so far, in all my reading, only two sentences have ever imprinted themselves on me in a way I knew I’d never be able to shake. The first was Pynchon in V, talking about how we always have a certain homesickness for the decade we were born in, and the other’s David Foster Wallace, talking in Infinite Jest about how the rich put their shoes on one way, the not-rich another. But now I have a third imprint, thanks to a throwaway (well, it’s touched on later) parenthetical in The Last Werewolf: “[there was] too much sunlight in the room for whisky.” [2] This makes complete sense, but I can’t begin to understand it, and that’s what good writing does: it creates feelings in you that you can’t articulate, so you just have to give yourself over to it.

But, sure, with all this control, Duncan does slip every now and again, showing off what he can do, and he does maybe flash his education a bit too often—“Ballardian,” “Ganymede’s ankles,” referencing The Waste Land maybe too casually, using “Matt Arnold” as a fake name, punning on Beckett, having fun with Nabokov—and once or twice he falls into lines like “Heavy on me was the weight of the world’s ability to keep going,” “No pain felt he,” but what we’ve got to remember is that he’s in the voice of his narrator, who’s spent nearly two centuries in libraries across the world, and uses his education not as a shield or key, but as a disguise. As long as he’s smart, he’s still a man, yes? Not the animal he knows he is, once a month.

Which, that curse, his ‘monthly.’ Talking werewolves, there’s two basic categories they can fall into, two questions they have to answer: Is the transformation voluntary? and Is the werewolf a man-wolf or not? In regards to the second, that question is, Does the man or woman transform into just a wolf, as we’ve seen in True Blood, in Twilight, in a hundred other places (the effects are so much easier this way), or does she or he stand up with a wolf head? [3] And there’s of course variations within those variations, from muttonchopped werewolves like Jack Nicholson to what we’ve seen in Underworld and Dog Soldiers, from Professor Lupin to Ginger Snaps to Robert McCammon’s Michael Gallatin. And then, once you’ve answered those questions, there’s a third question: When wolfed out, will the man or woman retain thought or just be pure animal, tearing through the countryside for a meal? This is vital stuff, and Glen Duncan’s in the werewolf game enough to answer them all succinctly and indirectly, as if disallowing any other option. However, the whole time, I think we can tell that he’s very consciously ducking the pratfalls involved with the werewolf options he’s not taking: all-wolf werewolves are hardly interesting, as there’s so much pack-junk to try to port over from The Dog Whisperer; ‘voluntary’ transformations are too much like a superpower, which finally detracts from the ‘werewolf’ part of the story; ‘dumb’ or ‘monster’ werewolves aren’t that interesting because they’re just something to shoot, something to run from, something to get killed by.

No, when the werewolf is your narrator, that werewolf nearly has to be smart. It allows the complications of guilt, and it allow more of a sense of victory when that werewolf finally gets to one of the bad guys, as you can see the ‘man’ inside, just getting to use these claws, these teeth, these muscles and instincts, which is what we all dream of, of course.

Also, key to every werewolf story, be it on-screen or the page, are the transformation  sequences. And, without cheating Duncan by posting any of them here—got to buy the book—let me just say he does it about as well as can be done. Okay, one short lift: “Wolf remnants wriggled under my human skin like rats in a sack.”

That says it all.

However—remember how Justin Cronin in The Passage was introducing each new movement/part of his novel with very lofty pulls from canonical literature? The charitable way to read that, of course, is that ‘canonical lit’ is Cronin’s background and training and main interest, but the way you tend to read it, I think, is that what he’s trying to do here is elevate horror, make it a respectable thing. Give it some foundations. Which is to say he seems to think it has none, that it’s not respectable. And, this isn’t at all to take away from The Passage—as a novel, as a story, it really works, and is written very well—it’s just that sometimes you turn a page in it and have to suspect that Cronin feels like he’s slumming, and wants us to know that that’s what he feels like he’s doing. A bit ago, Jason Zinoman was talking about how Glen Duncan has his werewolf mentally reciting Tennyson while rending a victim limb from limb, and, having read that before I got there in the book, I have to agree that it’s suspicious. But, in Duncan’s defense—in his werewolf’s defense—yes, we can write this off as in keeping with his character predilections, not any kind of statement on the audience this book’s very much trying to tap. But, what about when we come across lines like this:

If it were a novel I’d reject it along with all other genre output that by definition short-changes reality.

Yep. Even if keeping with the voice of the narrator, this isn’t going to endear you to the horror crowd, or the genre-crowd either, who (I’m including myself here), are very consciously not self-hating, or at all embarrassed by their tastes in reading. Or, to say it bigger: consciously drawing lines between the commercial and the so-called literary, you’re halving your potential audience right there, aren’t you? Maybe better just to somehow appeal to ‘corporate’ lit or something along those lines, as it can suggest a broken industry behind quality work, even if its antonym, ‘indie,’ tends to occupy the moral high ground. But of course the corporate longs for those halcyon days of dedication and gambles pretty much reserved for the indie, and the indie watches those best-seller lists every morning, and how to pack all this into one easily-skippable aside from a character, I know. I’m just saying it rubbed me wrong, I guess, and, even if it was just local to the character, still: I’m supposed to empathize with him, aren’t I? And is this not a direct appeal to a high-brow ‘literary’ audience?

But The Last Werewolf’s possible biases and hierarchies aren’t why I think it isn’t going to rebirth the werewolf for us. The reason it probably won’t—and why the werewolf likely isn’t going to be the next creature to dominate the market—it’s the same reason Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, as wonderful and necessary as it was, didn’t kickstart a revolution in our limited set of Universal Monsters: werewolf stories are always small stories. They’re always in-house, are never, as with vampires (think Daybreakers, I Am Legend), the predator who’s going to make humans go instinct, are never, as with zombies (think every zombie movie), an infection spreading across the land. One-on-one, I’d argue that they’re more of a threat, are less what you want to meet in that dark alley, but . . . it’s like The Wolfman remake. As bad as it was to have a couple of werewolves loose on the moors, one person with the right pistol was finally able to end this gothic’d-up menace. Same with King’s Silver Bullet: kill that one werewolf, and the town’s back on-track. And, granted, Teen Wolf is making werewolves pretty cool again—lycanthropy and adolescence are the chocolate and peanut-butter of the horror world—and we’ve got a deep-enough well of werewolf movies to be remaking, and novels to be reacting to, and adapting, thus engendering and allowing more werewolf novels, but, while a werewolf can cause some legitimate panic in a theater (Cursed), or run through the streets of the big city (Justine Larbalestier’s Liar), still, the uppercase Society never really takes notice, does it? Not as it would with a vampire threat, with a zombie plague, with motherships in the sky, with Namor calling up leviathans from the deep. [4]  The werewolf story’s scourge index is just too low, its victim pool too small, its range too limited.

I’m not all trying to badtalk the werewolf here, though. Of all my action figures, the werewolf is far and away my favorite, and the only one I’d really want to be—that matters (and: I’ve tried)—I’m just saying that The Last Werewolf, anyway, it’s finally telling the usual, small-scale, -endanger-the-world werewolf story, albeit a very good one, very tightly told. And, granted, it’s situating its werewolf in a Constantine/Hellboy/Buffy kind of world, setting it up alongside vampires and demons and all that, but my thinking is that that actually keeps the werewolf from casting a longer shadow, in that it’s not threatening our world. However—and this I think is likely in keeping with Duncan’s intent—if you just read it as a story about a guy trying to make sense of the world, trying to figure out how to live, how to accept what you are, swallow your regrets and keep going, then it truly exceeds expectations. And maybe that’s where the werewolf can live, finally: in the same territory the zombie’s been intent (in its mindless way) on occupying—a lens by which to see ourselves better, in starker contrast, higher resolution, everything else stripped away. After the kill, I mean, what you always find in the hayloft, it’s just a naked man trying to blink away the sun, isn’t it? And maybe that’s what The Last Werewolf is all about.


[1] If you’ve got an e-reader, search “kohled,” say. Very innovative, very fresh, yet natural, too, as it should be. Or, maybe it’s in use in Britain? New to me, anyway . . .

[2] An off spelling,  yeah, but I assume it has to do with the brand, or the source, or the quality? Thought it was a British spelling at first, and I guess it could be. Anyway, as for Britishisms, there’s a lot of that here, and ‘prams’ and ‘bridleway’ and ‘loo’ and on and on, none of it any kind of problem, and all probably better than changing The Philosopher’s Stone to something else. And, the British stuff is part of the character’s voice, anyway, and this is an ‘artifact’ we’re reading, so it’s no big deal. Well, at least it’s not until the Britishisms continue into the voice of someone speaking/writing who’s supposed to be American. But, like I could pull off a British voice any more authentically?

[3] A third option is The Wolfen, but that option’s never as interesting, as then the werewolves could be zombies or a flood or anything. No, what’s interesting in a werewolf story is dealing with being a werewolf.

[4] Only place I’ve seen a lot of werewolves in one place? Michael Chabon’s Summerland. They were no threat at all there, but they were exceptionally cool.