THE LAST WEREWOLF by Glen Duncan
Knopf, 2011, 304 pages, 978-0307595089, Hardcover, $25.95
In the recent mainstream media, the perception of supernatural fiction, particularly the vampire/werewolf duo, has shifted from the realm of high literature like the iconic Dracula or even Interview with the Vampire to the low levels of young adult romance. Werewolves have become associated with pubescent teens riddled with angst and sexual frustration.
This is not Glen Duncan’s werewolf. The Last Werewolf is the tale of Jake Marlowe, a 201-year old werewolf living in the snowy streets of London. Jake has learned that a hunter named Ellis has killed a werewolf named The Berliner, which means one very important thing: Jake is now the last werewolf. On top of that, the most famous were-hunter of all, Grainer, is coming for him. As it turns out, Jake is just fine with that. His two decades of life have left him going through the motions, fed up with the daily minutia of life. He’s ready to die. But Grainer won’t let him go out that way; he wants a fight, and there are other forces at work that will do anything to keep Jake alive.
Duncan’s treatment of the werewolf story returns to the roots of classic supernatural fiction. His Victorian-Gothic style of prose is one well-suited to “monster stories,” and it’s filled with all of the essential elements: horrific scenes of bestial gore, a dreary, withered landscape, and lots of sex. He paints a picture of a gloomy, snow-covered London—a frigid, unyielding city that is almost devoid of any human life yet constantly watched by the surveillance of CCTV. The same care for detail and atmosphere can be seen in the ghostly solitude of The Pines, a forest cabin where Jake writes down the missing part of his tragic life story, or the placid stillness of the stream where he was bitten. Even Duncan’s narrative voice radiates with a sense of elegance that shines through in lines like “Reader, I ate him,” or “Work with numb yearning through the calculus of fornication.”
The novel’s greatest element is its characterization of Jake Marlowe, whom Duncan writes outstandingly. He feels simultaneously human and relatable through his tragic story, but also ancient and completely disconnected from the world, exactly as a 200-year old monster should. We feel exactly how distant the centuries have made him through his constant introspection, his removal from “human” concepts like morality and justice, and his desire for self-destruction. His age is even more noticeable in his little mannerisms, such as his constant injection of random knowledge picked up over centuries, his brief studies of society, and his realization that his life is just another story being told. You can feel the massive weight and exhaustion he experiences after being alive for so long, and though he is a creature who quite avidly eats other people, you still find yourself empathizing with him.
The other members of the cast are equally strong. Grainer is a gruesome and powerful antagonist, and Ellis is a perfect combination of stoic levelheadedness layered over intelligence that suggests insanity. Harley is a sweet and twisted companion for Jake, and Arabella’s story is exceedingly tragic.
While the novel definitely possesses action, it is a slow-going story, and it is made more so by Duncan’s antiquated narrative voice. The first hundred pages or so are mostly about describing Jake’s past, explaining the way his mind works, and revealing the fragile few relationships that he has left. The story doesn’t begin to really pick up until the second act, and even then it doesn’t become a thriller. Much like Marlowe, Duncan prefers to delve into philosophy rather than action, and much of the novel deals with humanity, the absence of God, and the brutal nature of existence, of “Being Werewolf.”
But, while those looking for an action-packed novel might be slightly disappointed, and those looking for romantic love triangles should definitely look elsewhere, anyone looking for an eloquent, dark return to the brutal nature of the werewolf will certainly enjoy this book.