Author: Glen Duncan

2011, Knopf

Filed Under: Horror, Literary

It seems like trying to write a “literary” book in the sexy-supernatural genre is the authorial movement du jour. Lately, many authors are hoping to cash in on readers who like Twilight but are too ashamed to admit it. Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and Lev Grossman’s The Magician King are just three recent novels that try to adultify trending YA themes. Duncan is in the same boat, but he more or less succeeds where others have fallen short.

Why? Well, basically because the writing is pretty good, and the plot avoids being overwrought. (Neither The Magicians nor its sequel (while enjoyable) were very well-written; The Passage was a structural mess.) So let’s begin with the writing. Duncan is no Henry James, but he’s read him and it shows. He finds a great balance between action and tangent and he tinges his narrator with just enough snark. Most importantly, he has bouts of eloquence without looking like he’s trying too hard. There’s plenty of this:

I saw in her abstracted moments that she remained disgusted in spite of the months of violent self-baptism. She’d hardened herself in blood but not all the tender remnants were dead. She was a monster, yes, but all she’d lost could still ambush her, turn her gaze back to her childhood and force her to look. You Can’t Go Home Again. (Thomas Wolfe, Jesus how much more?) This hurt, very much. She’d be darling to so many, little black-eyed Lula with the high forehead and the beauty spot.

There’s also plenty of this:

Fuck. Kill. Eat.

The plot is nothing special; everything more or less works out how you’d expect. I actually find this one of the book’s strengths. Good YA authors always (always) rely on pitch-perfect plotting to tow the readers attention along like they’re landing a lunker. Good literary books on the other hand, often, but not always, allow the plot to take a subordinate role behind strong writing and thematic depth. This is perfectly fine depending on your subject matter (just ask Proust fans). This is not fine if you’re writing about werewolves, vampires, zombies, wizards, or anything else. People read these books because they want to read about werewolves eating people, or vampires molesting teenagers, or whatever else. So while everything that happens in The Last Werewolf is fairly predictable, Duncan still manages to make it interesting, but not tedious (unlike Proust).

Jake, the story’s lycanthropic hero, is a strong protagonist with a layered complexity. He’s a century and a half old, he’s full of peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, and he’s a homicidal shapeshifting predator. But he’s also a sympathetic character. Jake is weary, and it’s easy to feel for him–and to root for him when he finds motivation. Other characters also manage to take on traditional roles uniquely. Granger, who sees himself as Jake’s archenemy, isn’t one of them. He’s just a Van Helsing-like werewolf hunter who wants revenge on Jake (because Jake ate his dad). But fortunately he doesn’t have much face time. Instead it’s Ellis, Granger’s pretty-boy-genius protege, who steals the show. He is nuanced and weird and unpredictable in his reactions; every scene he’s in vacillates between tension and excitement in a way that really does wonders for the book. He’s one of the best villains I’ve ever come across in a book like this.

In the end, The Last Werewolf is fun. It’s well-written and interesting, but holds true to its roots as a supernatural thriller: it’s exciting, and titillating, and feeds some primal itch to witness some “fuckkilleat”–as wolf-Jake puts it.

Similar Reads: Jailbait Zombie (Acevedo), The Passage (Cronin), The Magicians (Grossman)