………They say that the world loves an underdog and in a sense, in a world seemingly obsessed with vampires, this could in some ways be a book for the ultimate underdog – though in this case it’s a huge, fearsome and ravenous-every-full-moon underdog!! At the moment, compared to the see-them-in-every-bookstore vampires, the werewolf is the much less glamorous and much less popularised part of the modern fiction roll-call of horror creatures. So this is certainly as good a time as any to focus on the werewolf as underdog, except that the underdog in this case is Jake Marlowe, the last survivor of the werewolf species and a man who has to devour one of us every full moon. Not quite the underdog after all!
Jake has been a werewolf for over 200 years,having survived a werewolf attack on him while in Snowdonia. But these days, there are no survivors of werewolf attacks, because even if anyone is lucky enough to be merely injured rather than devoured, a fatal virus acquired by the werewolves is also passed on to humans. With no “new” werewolves, and with the assassination of the only other living werewolf, Jake becomes the last werewolf in existence. The main threat to Jake comes from the sinister WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) and in particular it’s two head-hunters, Grainger and his protege, Ellis. However, there is also an additional threat from the vampire families, who have discovered that a virus within the werewolves is beneficial to them in resisting sunlight! So while one force wants him dead, another needs him alive. And so the hunt begins.
But the book is much more than just a tale of a desperate struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pursuit. There is a great balance of action and introspection from Jake throughout the book and this lifts this novel way beyond some thrill-a-minute, cheap, gory story of death and destruction.
Glen Duncan has taken a really clever mix of some archetypal ideas about werewolves and vampires, layered in an almost thriller-style plot of twists and turns and then blended it all together with a wonderful main character in Jake. Jake is funny, smart, well-read and yet cunning and complex. There’s a wonderful matter-of-fact feeling to much of what Jake says and thinks and this tone is maintained throughout whether it’s Jake telling of his horrific origins, or of his friendship with Harley, or his mix of love and lust sessions with the high-class whore Madeline, or telling of his gruesome killings every month at full moon. Right from the outset, Glen Duncan adopts this world-weary tone for Jake (and it makes sense – he’s been alive for 200 odd years – who wouldn’t be world-weary after that lot!). It’s a master-stoke because for me it was instrumental in making the book so much more than a blood-and-guts fest. The book begins with Jake being told by his man on the inside of WOCOP, Harley, about the demise of the Berliner, the only other werewolf besides Jake.
“I thought of the Berliner, whose name (God being dead, irony still rollickingly alive) was Wolfgang, pictured his last moments: the frost reeling under him, his moonlit muzzle and seating pelt, the split-second in which his eyes merged disbelief and fear and horror and sadness and relief – then the white and final light of silver.
‘What are you going to do?’ Harley repeated.
All wolf and no gang. Humour darkens. I looked out of the window. The snow was coming down with the implacability of an Old Testament plague. In Earls Court Road pedestrians tottered and slid and in the cold swirling angelic freshness felt their childhoods still there and the shock like a snapped stem of not being children any more. 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.”
In spite of the fact that he eats hedge-fund managers and other people, you can’t help but like Jake! (Actually on the eating bankers thing, it might be a help rather than a hindrance to liking him!!!!). He tells the retrospective parts of his werewolf existence and of some of his kills with an intriguing blend of gory detail, self-awareness, emotion and dry humour! It’s yet another master-stoke! It also allows the character to maintain a beautiful balance between doing just enough to keep going and yet being aware of much of the ills in his life and perhaps the feeling that though his end may be near, it might be what he actually wants. He’s also of course cast as the narrator and generally this works well. The only slight issue I had with this part of the character was the fact that Jake is supposedly writing what we read in a journal and it then gets referred to periodically through the novel. This felt a bit forced and unnecessary to me. (It felt a bit – “and in between doing the last twenty-six things and waiting for the next full moon – I wrote up my journal!”) Personally I’d have been happy to accept it throughout the book after reading that it was Jake’s journal at the start and without it being referred to at the end. However I can see from how the book ends that Glen Duncan might have had reasons to keep reminding us about the journal aspect but I’ll say no more as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone.
Much of the story revolves around the hunt for Jake and this allows the author to mix the traditional and the modern and it’s perhaps where the most imaginative parts of the book lie. The transformation from man to wolf is the literary equivalent of watching the cinematic transformation in “An American Werewolf In London” which I watched almost thirty years ago! The book keeps much of the archetypal folklore around werewolves. The hair, the wolf’s sly cunning, the deadliness of silver, the hunts in green forests and the equally sly and powerful werewolf head-hunters Grainger and Ellis have all those Hammer Horror characteristics of coldness, fearlessness and the supreme confidence of those who know the cards are stacked in their favour. Equally the plot moves the chase around and mixes up hunter and hunted. The best way to describe the action plot sections is to say it’s a bit like watching a hairier man-eating version of Jason Bourne! And yet for me, it absolutely worked! So much so that when the plot deviated from the hunter and hunted in the last third, albeit for good reason, I felt the pace dropped a little and it meandered a bit. The deviation is central to the book and it works brilliantly – I just found it a little too slow in getting back to the chase/hunt part of the plot – but when it did, it picked up with all the humour laden force of the previous parts of the book. I got a similar feel of it being a little overdone with the descriptions of Jake’s sexual urges and conquests in both his man and wolf personas – they were needed, and they are well-written but occasionally either some passages over-did the description or it felt like there was too much thought and deed sex – but maybe that’s what you do when you know your end is nigh!
Within the gore and action and sex, there’s something strangely gentle at the core of the book – about what gives us the instinct to go on, to fight for survival and in particular the impact that other people have on our will to live. On finishing the book, and putting it down, I definitely had a thought of “Mmmmmm…..”. In fact I know I actually said “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm” out loud on reading the last page.
Now there are two kinds of Mmmmm for me – one has a question mark at the end and the other an exclamation mark. And in the case of The Last Werewolf, it was definitely a puzzled Mmmmmm? I’ve thought about that since. I think it was partly the fact that reading this took me way outside my comfort zone – I hadn’t expected to like this at all but it was so clever and well-written, I’d actually liked it from the off. Another part of it was the ending – for me it didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. So if, in spite of the ending, I liked it, why Mmmmmmm?
The question that’s been in my head since I finished it has been – although I liked it, did I really enjoy it? (Which isn’t the same necessarily as did I like it?!) And I’ve come to the conclusion, almost in spite of myself, that I enjoyed this book immensely. It feels kind of strange to say that a book about a man-hunt for the last surviving werewolf, who stops off to slaughter and eat innocent victims every few weeks, had me rooting for the werewolf and was great fun to read! But it was! It was a terrific book and a very good start to the list chosen for “The Readers Summer Book Club”. If the others are as good as this, then it’ll be a few weeks of reading joy ahead! Can’t wait.
And though of course there is no such thing as werewolves, I may carry this review with me on late night walks with the dog in the nearby woods – just in case Jake’s kind are out there it’ll prove that in this human v wolf struggle for survival, I was very much on the side of the werewolves!