Would you rather be a werewolf or a vampire? Merely changing into a big dog and eating people once a month seems to pale in comparison with being able to fly. And while vampires live for ever, werewolves last only 400 years. On the other hand, vampires can’t have sex; and, being immortal, they tend to suffer more ennui.
So goes the lore, at least, in Glen Duncan’s gorily ludic romp. The vampires actually have only walk-on (or fly-on) parts; the hero is a werewolf, Jake Marlowe, whom we first meet in modern-day London as he learns that he is the only one left. Now the monster-hunters (the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) are after him.
Marlowe is a witty and jaded commentator on our mores and his own condition – “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” – and an inveterate raconteur. (No coincidence that he shares a family name with Joseph Conrad’s useful storyteller in Heart of Darkness and other tales.) We learn his story (and his backstory, a colourful 19th-century costume tragedy) by means of journal entries composed in the downtime between slabs of action and fornication. This device preserves suspense, as we have no assurance that the story of the wolfhunt, as Marlowe is pursued (and pursues something else) through Wales, London, New York, Paris, Greece, California and elsewhere, is being told from the safe hindsight of a happy ending.
In this respect, The Last Werewolf is like an updated version of Dracula, only for werewolves, and as rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis. As though in reproof of the plague of twee paranormal romances aimed at “young adults”, Duncan effectively says: here we go, this is a story about monsters, so let’s see how much sex and violence you can take.
The answer is an awful lot, when it’s done this artfully. Scenes of ripping and eating contain beautifully tangential, slowed-down observations: “the white leather couch [was] smeared red where his hand went hurriedly back and forth, as if waving or trying to erase something”. Fight scenes have been carefully choreographed and blocked; and sex (both human and “wulf”) is portrayed with an aptly animalistic candour.
Quieter passages, meanwhile, display their own glints of beauty (“the snow’s recording-studio hush”; after rain “the air had a rinsed optimism”) and inventive physiological metaphor (“The Curse played preview blasts of free jazz in my blood”). Even the most minor characters furnish occasions for joyous casting: there is a comedy Frenchman who comes good, rather thrillingly. Marlowe, of course, is particularly attuned to smells, in which context to say this book is rank is a compliment. (A female vampire called Mia is “a strikingly beautiful woman who smelled like a vat of pigshit and rotten meat”.) The prose’s yoking of the concrete quotidian to the supernatural is perfectly summed up as Marlowe watches some vampires driving off in a minivan: “the people-carrier, carrying its immortal people”.
The novel is complex with literary allusion, not only to Conrad but to Shakespeare, Eliot and Nabokov. As though over-defensive about its pulp material, however, it also displays a curious amount of genre anxiety. Marlowe often talks about what would happen next in a film (“In Buffy there’d be . . .”, “If this was Hollywood . . .”), or in a novel. (Another character announces amusingly: “I can feel it, a sort of narrative coercion in the ether.”) Usually Marlowe’s point is that reality is not like that; and so Duncan arguably might have resisted giving in to one particular clichéd genre trope, that of the defeated villain who is not quite dead after all.
Despite what can be read as these internal dips of confidence, the story is exciting, often very funny (a chapter begins: “Reader, I ate him”), and surprisingly affecting. But what does it all mean? The werewolf is pessimistically an allegory of the monster within all humans, and also, particularly in this novel, optimistically of the conjoining in ordinary people of love (human) with sex (beast). Throughout the novel there are flashes of casual satire, building up to a sense that we moderns are too psychologically and aesthetically anaesthetised even to deserve an occult reality. Marlowe, lying in a forest and listening to the sounds of insects and water, says: “The world [. . .] is oozing, teeming, crawling with miracles. And we live in the opaque plastic bubble of television and booze.” In its own blood-crazed and sex-dazed way, The Last Werewolf makes the case for literature.