Glen Duncan’s Existential Horror Is So Good, It’s a Curse

These characters navigate a constellation of theological ruins and failed rationalizations, wherein existential nausea must do battle with the hunger of the werewolf Curse.

Not far into Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf one realizes that his nearest literary relation is not so much Anne Rice as it is Albert Camus. In Rice’s vampire novels, pathos reigns. Her characters are like adolescents coming to terms with puberty and the death of childhood innocence. This is not a criticism, merely a contrast.

In Duncan’s work, pathos collapses into bathos. First tragedy, then farce (as the saying goes). The lycanthropic narrator of the first book in Duncan’s werewolf trilogy, Jake Marlowe, suffers not from adolescent depression, but from a world-weary angst or weltschmerz, the haggard realization that he is living in an absurd universe where, he concludes, God is dead, but irony is alive and well.

Camus claimed that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.” These days, however, the assertion that a book has philosophical depth is so commonplace that I hesitate to use it when describing Duncan’s trilogy. After all, the blurb for Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games: Volume One proclaims that it, too, is “equal parts suspense and philosophy”, which is a bit like calling a “small” coffee a “tall” one. Is The Hunger Games suspenseful? Sure. Is there an implied criticism of our infatuation with reality TV (and celebrity culture) and violence? Yes. Is it philosophical? I am sorry, No.

Katniss is too busy trying to stay alive to philosophize. On the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she remains at the bottom rungs, seeking food and water, shelter, security. Even love has to wait, never mind self-actualization. Philosophy takes time, and Katniss doesn’t have any.

But Duncan’s narrator does. Jake has had 200 years to ruminate: time enough not only to philosophize, but to lose hope. Jake’s story begins, seemingly, at the end:

“You’re the last of a great species. You owe the narrative something better,” Jake’s nemesis, an unscrupulous werewolf hunter named Ellis, tells him.

“There is no narrative. You know that.”

“There’s the one we make. It’s our responsibility. Just because life’s meaningless doesn’t mean we can’t experience it meaningfully.”

This sort of exchange might be found in any number of books by Camus or Sartre. Indeed, Jake struggles with existential questions of meaning and guilt. He is both amused and morally appalled by his being-in-the-world, being-a-werewolf. And yet, his coping mechanisms mirror society’s at large. In the passage below, he reflects upon the collapse of ethics into aesthetics.

It’s no accident that the great moral philosophers invariably wrote on aesthetics, too. Figuring out what made something Right (or Wrong) was akin to figuring out what made something Beautiful (or Ugly). These days scientists are in on the act: At the unprovable cosmological fringes beauty swings it. Now mathematical models are like supermodels: They have grace, symmetry, elegance. It’s hardly surprising. Modernity having done away with Absolute Moral Values and Objective Reality, there’s only beauty left. What theory won’t we espouse if it’s beautiful? What atrocity won’t we excuse?

Try to find a passage like that in The Hunger Games.

Duncan’s narrator navigates a constellation of theological ruins and failed rationalizations, one where his existential nausea must do battle with the hunger of the werewolf Curse. Camus famously argued that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” So, what stops Jake? “Just, dear Jake, the desperate desire not to die a mystery to yourself,” he concludes.

“It’s just the same old shit…. The desire to know whence we came in the hope it’ll shed light on why we’re here and where we’re going. The desire for life to mean something more than random subatomic babble.”

If Jake eventually comes to embrace a philosophy of living, the simplicity of that philosophy belies the difficulty with which it is accepted. “You love life because life’s all there is,” his only friend tells him. “There’s no God and that’s His only commandment.” This will become something of a mantra for Jake as life becomes more complicated and precarious, as his pursuers close in on him.

Only Talulla will manage to put the brakes on Jake’s pessimistic abstracting, by resuscitating him with something both visceral and ineffable: love. Sadly, if this love changes his world, it does not change the world.

“The great mysteries endure, unsolved, unseen-into (except love, which is not really a mystery but the force that eases mysteries into the hard shoulder); I don’t know where the universe came from or what happens to creatures when they die. I don’t know how one should live — but I know that one should live, if one can possibly bear it.”

“If one can possibly bear it,” he repeats. Because another thing that Jake is sure of is that “there’s no justice”. He is proof of it; his victims, the testimonial. As the the ancient saying goes: homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

In Talulla Rising, the philosophical musings continue, albeit despite the main character, not because of her. In part, this is because while Jake’s nausea is existential, Talulla’s is initially biological: she is pregnant in the opening chapters of the book, and when her son is abducted by vampires, getting him back becomes her raison d’etre, though even she is uncertain of her motives for doing so.

“It was a relief, suddenly, to be reduced to a single purpose. Nothing else matters, we say, when we fall in love. I knew it was hopeless. I knew all I was doing [to get him back] was choosing a route to my own death. It didn’t matter. It was as much of a liberation as walking away would have been.”

Jake wrestles with the great philosophical questions head-on, but Talulla deliberately tries to avoid them. “I knew what we dealing with: the desperation for meaning, for answers, for an invisible scheme of things underpinning the absurd concrete here-and-now.”

Talulla has no interest in metaphysics; she doesn’t care what it means. “It meant nothing. Or it meant what it always means, that we’re strange creatures, that there are internal weather systems we’re not answerable for.” Forced to leave her daughter with an ally, she muses: “If I don’t see you again, I think she’ll take good care of you. It’s what my instinct tells me. We don’t have much going for us, but we’ve got good instincts.” In contrast, Jake did not just rely on his instincts, he analyzed them.

This is not to say that Talulla doesn’t unconsciously struggle with existential quandaries, such as: Without God, is all permitted? The difference is that Jake would cite Dostoyevsky, while Talulla tables the question. “You took a life and the theft went unpunished. God didn’t strike you down. The sky didn’t fall. The morning after, you turned on the faucet and water still came out. Ad jingles still stuck in your head. It was good when you raised your arm for a cab and one came towards you out of the flow like magic. You did things that were supposed to end you and found they were only things that changed you.”

Talulla Rising is a thriller, and at times the action takes precedence over character development and phenomenological insight. Moreover, the thrills are sometimes repetitive (she is captured, escapes; captured again, escapes) and sometimes predictably melodramatic.

The villains that Jake confronts in The Last Werewolf are more well-rounded, driven by an understandable (even by Jake) desire for revenge or narcissistic self-interest. The arch-villain in Duncan’s second novel is a bit more cartoonish. Murdoch has no redeeming qualities. He is cold and sadistic, and calls to mind the Nazi-doctor stereotype so commonplace in the Hollywood films that Duncan enjoys poking fun of en passant throughout these books.

In the final pages of Talulla Rising the tone of the novel changes abruptly and dramatically with the appearance of Remshi, a vampire philologist of sorts who manages to temporarily stop a violent standoff merely with his questions. Before he disappears from her life, Remshi vexes Talulla with the existential question she has given such short shrift. “Tell me something. Do you still believe the universe is a meaningless accident?”

In By Blood We Live, the various attempts to answer this question are what motivate major and minor characters alike, as we see in the multiple first-person accounts that make up the story. Yet, when the vampire Mia meets up with the legendary Remshi, he is curt: “No, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it means. Only that the conviction that it means something is a necessary disease. Not sure which sense of the word necessary.”

When a Christian militiaman is captured by the werewolves at the end of a skirmish, one of the wolf pack, Walker, ponders “what had happened to make a believer of him. He seemed intelligent. I wondered what it must be like to be an intelligent believer, to see the whole world and everything that happened in it as a series of clues to something grand and invisible, some big story God cooked up in the Beginning.” Walker will cut a deal with the prisoner in a show of mercy, only to realize afterwards how costly the gift of life will be to the man, because the believer “hadn’t known until now his faith wasn’t stronger than life.”

Neither By Blood We Live nor Talulla Rising is as cerebral as The Last Werewolf, and like Talulla Rising, the third installment consists of perhaps too many battles and traps and hairbreadth escapes. At times, Duncan’s plots are unconvincing, if by plot we mean a logical sequence of events. And even some characters’ deaths seem more a question of authorial whim than plot exigency. This won’t stop readers from wanting to devour the series, though. And why? Because we cling to narratives, no matter how suspicious we may be of them, like we cling to life and search for meaning.

Duncan’s characters call it “the Beguilement”. “You keep finding room because every life makes room. Every life you take — like every book you read, even the bad ones — makes you a little bigger.” As Remshi says, “Life drops terrible hints… we see so many of them, coincidences you’ll say, the connectedness of things. Humans see them, too. It’s our shared curse, that these things won’t leave us alone.”

Surprisingly, the final philosophical word will come from Talulla, though to cite her final answer to Remshi’s existential question here would be the equivalent of a philosophical spoiler.

To be sure, the series is uneven: the insidious The Last Werewolf is gritty and deep, and because it is brilliant, readers will find it impossible not to press on with the series. Think of it as, well, a Curse.

Splash image: Full Moon by © yingphoto from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 8 / 10