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BOOK REVIEW

‘The Last Werewolf’ leaves a lasting impression

By Nan Goldberg
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2011

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‘Reader, I ate him,’’ Jake Marlowe confesses in his journal, fracturing Jane Eyre’s famous line and signaling for sure that “The Last Werewolf’’ is not your typical horror story, nor is Glen Duncan your typical horror writer.

In fact Duncan isn’t a horror writer at all; his seven previous novels fit into no particular literary category. Except for their gorgeous prose, they don’t even resemble each other much, except that they all scratch the same existential itch: the extremes of cruelty that people are willing to inflict on each other, and the sometimes grotesque ways their victims find to endure the unendurable.

Duncan has said he turned to the horror genre out of frustration with his books’ unimpressive sales. Worried that his next novel might not even attract a publisher, he deliberately set out to write a page turner - a thriller, say, or a horror novel.

But as soon as he began writing, he realized that Jake, his werewolf protagonist, is actually the ideal Duncan character, continually forced to confront precisely the same moral problems that fascinate his creator.

Jake starts out an innocent victim, just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, bitten by a werewolf and transformed into one himself. Now, every full moon, he must kill and eat another human being, or sicken and die. No longer an innocent, Jake must unambiguously choose, month after month, year after year, to commit a horrific murder as the price of staying alive himself.

He has two alternatives: “Kill yourself or live with it. . . . Well, here I am,’’ he says, with the sharp glint of irony developed over 167 years of full moons. In fact, this murder-and-cannibal thing has become pretty routine. Describing in graphic detail how he tore to pieces and ingested one young victim, Jake adds, “There was no guilt. Only the cavity where guilt used to be. This and the weight of my own still-hereness slumped on me like a corpse. For a long while I lay in the recovery position, eyes closed. Total self-disgust is a kind of peace.’’

There may not be guilt, but there is definitely ennui. Barely 200 years old (werewolves can live up to 400 years), Jake is just going through the motions.

So he is almost relieved to learn that the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), whose mission is to exterminate the werewolves, has just caught and killed the next-to-last living werewolf - which means Jake, officially the very last, is now their exclusive target.

With some vampires also looking for him, their agenda unknown but surely nefarious; not to mention the French heiress and “borderline wacko’’ who wants to nab him for her own private zoo, Jake reckons his chances of survival are slim. And he thinks that’s a good thing. That is until a love affair changes everything.

The unexpected romance is the novel’s perfect fulcrum: so passionate, tender, and erotic that it more than justifies Jake’s total change of mind. It’s a measure of Duncan’s huge gift that it’s possible to be sympathetic toward a character so objectively repulsive.

Readers on both sides of the Atlantic are devouring “The Last Werewolf’’ and clamoring for more, and their reaction is understandable. It’s irrelevant whether you’re a fan of werewolves, or horror novels; it’s a book that breaks a lot of molds.

Duncan, meanwhile, has adjusted rather well to being adored. “The Last Werewolf,’’ he promises, will be the first of a trilogy.

Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at nan@thebookmaven.com.

THE LAST WEREWOLF By Glen Duncan

Knopf

296 pp. $25.95