Glen Duncan: The Wolf Returns

Why would an acclaimed literary author write a book about werewolves and vampires? Why not, asks <strong>Glen Duncan</strong>

Feature by Paul F Cockburn | 07 Apr 2011

Several years ago, Bolton born author Glen Duncan was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the UK’s twenty best young novelists. Yet, seven novels into his career, the literary establishment still isn’t entirely sure what to make of him; kindly, he’s been described as 'an idiosyncratic talent', writing novels that 'can’t easily be pigeon-holed' – an uncertainty, in part, thanks to his willingness to take on subjects and archetypal characters usually found in commercial/genre fiction. For example, his 2003 novel, I, Lucifer was narrated by the titular Fallen Angel; two years later, Death of an Ordinary Man had a dead narrator. His new novel, The Last Werewolf, published 7 April, brings us a world where lycanthropy and vampirism are just as real as in the lightest post-Twilight novel.

Any surprise about Duncan taking on such horror archetypes isn’t shared by the author. “Why not?” he asks. “My interests throughout my seven books have remained pretty much the same: love, sex, death, the capacity for compassion, the capacity for cruelty, and an imaginative grammar that demands meaning in a universe that demonstrates its absurdity on a daily basis. What I think my books have shown so far is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and sometimes you can skin a cat with a werewolf.”

Admittedly, you could say there’s also a far more pragmatic reason. “The novel I published before this, A Day And A Night And A Day, was a serious political post-9/11 novel that was, by and large, well received but read by virtually nobody,” he says, laughing. “So, after a conversation with my agent, I made a somewhat mercenary decision to write a novel that I was more confident we would be able to sell.”

The best laid plans, though, can go awry. “If it was going to be genre, it was going to be horror because I’m a huge horror film fan,” he explains. “That said, once I started writing the book, incrementally it stopped feeling like a straight commercial or genre book, and it became much more about the relationship between genre and ideas about other kinds of fiction.”

Certainly, on more that one occasion, the book’s narrator, Jake Marlowe, points out how real life repeatedly fails to follow the narratives we learn from Hollywood movies. Having lived more than 200 years, however, this hardly concerns him; he has seen ‘the death of certainties’ and just doesn’t want ‘any more life’. Initially, it looks as if he will get his wish; the book opens with Marlowe being told that he is now officially the last of his kind, thanks to both the good work of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP) and the fact that, for more than a century, no one has survived being ‘turned’ into a werewolf.

Marlowe initially has no plans to avoid being hunted down during the next full moon by chief WOCOP operative Grainer, the son of one of his victims, but it soon becomes apparent that others have their own plans for the last werewolf, be they the great Vampire families, abandoned lovers or rogue operatives within WOCOP itself. From kidnappings to helicopter attacks on secluded mansions, The Last Werewolf is a gripping enough thriller; it just happens to have a remarkably intelligent and well-read protagonist at its heart. ‘All paradigm shifts answer the amoral craving for novelty,’ as an early chapter begins.

Given that the acclaimed science fiction writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood recently took on vampires in The Fallen Blade, a ‘quality’ response to the werewolf is perhaps only to be expected. “There’s a long tradition of literary writers taking a bizarre premise seriously and really running with it,” Duncan insists. “There’s also this kind of collective sense that, if the genre is going to thrive, if these figures are still going to be meaningful, then we’ve got to really take them more seriously than we have been.”

As an example, Duncan points to Anne Rice’s incredibly successful 1976 novel, Interview With The Vampire. “That was really the first time in narrative fiction that somebody had actually taken the condition of being a vampire – and being required to kill people and drink their blood to live – seriously, rather than the sort of stock figure who lopes around gurning and being automatically all that is evil. Anne Rice asked: What if it was you, with all the conscious that you have, with all your faculties and traits? What would that do to you?”

This isn’t the first novel to use the werewolf as a symbol of humanity’s innate animal instincts, but The Last Werewolf in part holds your attention thanks to the narrative journey seen in Marlowe’s changing attitude to his condition. “It’s not so much that the man and the wolf are far apart at the beginning and closer at the end,” Duncan says, “it’s just that it was always going to be a narrative that moved from melancholy and nihilism to... hope, or at least something celebratory. Jake’s relationship with his condition is what shifts, from being one of regret and misery to one of celebration.”

If you’re worried this all sounds too pretentious for words, don’t be. Taking the idea of a werewolf seriously doesn’t mean you have to ignore the conventions. “You do have to have a transformation scene, to have kills, to address libido – all the traditional aspects of the monster that are there in pop culture,” Duncan admits. “But every time you take on one of these archetypes, there’s more that you can bring to it.”

Such as references to Sigmund Freud’s Essentials of Psycho-analysis, the poetry of William Empson, and a delightful homage to Charlotte Brontë – 'Reader, I ate him.' – perhaps? The Last Werewolf is an intelligent, thoughtful read that never forgets to excite and entertain.

How that will go down with the literary critics, though, we’ll just have to see.

Release Date: 7 Apr. Published by Canongate. Cover price £16.99 hardback