THE LAST WEREWOLF, Aztec Autumn, McCammon’s “Swan Song”

Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair

last werewolf  THE LAST WEREWOLF, written by British author, Glen Duncan, was published in 2011. THE LAST WEREWOLF is the eighth novel for Duncan and a sequel, TALLULAH RISING followed in 2012. As might be expected, Marlowe, the protagonist of THE LAST WEREWOLF, is a werewolf–“the last werewolf ” he informs the reader in the first person narrative. The opening sentence announces that second to the last werewolf (“The Berliner”) just bit the dust courtesy of Grainer, a “Hunter.” Grainer, a man with small hard eyes who has Native American ancestors works with WOCOP, an organization that keeps track of supernatural shenanigans, including vampires (down to fifty “families’) and werewolves–down now, to only Marlowe. Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father, so it’s not just business; it’s personal. Marlowe is funny, literate and when it comes to the low down on the lupines and the vamps, very informative. Even though, by his own admission Marlowe has killed, eviscerated, intentionally delighting in the terror he causes before he chows down on his victims (over two thousand and counting) Marlowe is shaken by the news that Grainer beheaded “The Berliner” rather than just shooting him with a silver bullet. Why so squeamish?

I wished I liked Marlowe and cared whether or not he lives to feed under another full moon. I don’t.

Besides creating Marlowe’s vivid dark humor, Mr. Duncan’s use of language is dazzling. “The hand I lifted to wipe my face was the impatient ghost of the other hand, the hybrid thing, heavy, elegant, claw-tipped.” He employs numerous allusions, including quotes throughout- such as Blake’s “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” There’s a semester’s worth of literature in these nods: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“We’re like Connie and Mellor’s at the end, apart, chaste,…”) The ill-fated Harley, Marlowe’s “familiar” tells him “You’ll actually be flying private charter as Matt Arnold.” Duncan’s style is “Literary” with a capital “L.” Marlowe is over two hundred years old–middle-aged by werewolf standards. Werewolves can live to be four hundred or so. Along with literature, we get nods to what’s current in 2012–Obama’s “Audacity of hope,” “American Idol,” and so on. Duncan also gets the jump on his critics by having Marlowe say, “I can think back to a time when something like this would have annoyed or at least amused me, that the democracy Westerners truly got excited about was the one that made every blogging berk a critic and every frothing fascist a political pundit.”

I particularly liked Duncan’s knack for boiling down complex concepts into a sentence or two. In describing his state of mind after meeting Tallulah, a “she” werewolf, Marlowe says “I’ve stopped abstracting. This is love. You stop bothering about the universal, the general, get sucked instead into the local and particular. When will I see her again? What shall we do today?” His prose is lush–so lush that at times I found it intrusive–then plain annoying. “The little combat flurry had left me with a post-adrenaline heaviness, worsened now by the predictability of the picture revealed by joining the dots.” Sometimes you say wow and other times–enough already.

Okay–so here’s where I get all “Church Lady” (1980’s Saturday Night Live allusion for those of you who don’t know) on you. Marlowe takes pains to provide us with his sexual preferences–detailing the ins and outs of his encounters with prostitutes–especially the “ins.” He describes various orifaces–“the moist crinkle of Madeline’s anus,’ “I had oral, vaginal and anal sex with her (in that order; I repeat, I’m not a misogynist.)” After meeting Tallulah, his she-wolf-dream-girl–“I wanted to go back to her clean and put my nose in her cunt and my tongue in her sweet young asshole.” All righty. I think we get it! I’m not a prude. My second book has a considerable amount of erotica. But, in my opinion Marlowe’s obsession is a tad overkill, pardon the pun. TMI people! You get the feeling that Duncan’s put a lot of himself into the old wolf-man. Whatever. I suppose that you can make the case that dogs greet each other by sniffing rear ends so it stands to reason that Marlowe might find them a particular focal point.

I have two structural issues with this book and one on theme.

Duncan introduces the idea of “Quinn’s book.” Quinn’s book might have information on the origin of werewolves. Written by a 1930’s archeologist named Quinn, Marlow has been seeking it for years. After using it as a carrot to lure Marlowe into cooperating with vampires who now have it under lock and key, Duncan just drops the device, having Marlowe decide that to know how werewolves originated is pointless. No fair–Duncan. Marlowe may not care, but we, the readers do.

Marlowe, as a character, doesn’t change. Although he finds in Tallulah a reason to live, she’s really an extension of him. It’s self-love and the same narcissism that allowed Marlowe to choose to live by inflicting gory horrifying death on thousands enables him to be “in love” with someone who can share his hedonistic existence.

By creating an antagonist like Grainer, Duncan fails to have Marlowe come to terms with his prolonged existence. The monotony and the cost to his humanity can be avoided because Marlowe’s wits and resources are engaged by being the object of “The Hunt.”

This book was very interesting and at times, engrossing. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duncan was slumming–showing the genre world how it’s done. In the process, he engaged my brain, but never my gut. I just never cared, and in fiction, that’s what keeps you turning the pages.

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Aztec Autumn

aztec autumn  Like AZTEC, Gary Jenning’s novel published in 1980, Jennings’ sequel, AZTEC AUTUMN. published in 1997, takes place in 16th century Mexico. The novel AZTEC, as I remember it, was so vivid, the world of the exotic Aztec culture, mystical, sensual and incredibly blood-thirsty, so fascinating that though I remember few details, I remember my reaction–mesmerized. AZTEC AUTUMN begins with the death of Mixtli–the half-blind narrator of AZTEC, who tells his life-story to the Spanish clergy. Carlos, the Spanish king, wants an account of the Aztecs, who, in the view of Spain, are a sinful pagan culture.

AZTEC AUTUMN begins with Mixtli’s death. Declared a heretic, Mixtli burns at the stake–a public execution witnessed by an eighteen-year-old Aztec, Tenamaxtli. Visiting the City of Mexico with his uncle and mother, Tenamaxtli watches the old man’s death, which both fascinates and repulses him. When his uncle reveals that the executed man, Mixtli was Tenamaxtli’s father, Tenamaxtli vows revenge. He searches for a way to strike the Spanish invaders–making them pay for the brutal enslavement and exploitation of the Azteca. Tenamaxtli learns Spanish from the Christian monks and during this segment, Jennings describes the intricate caste system based on race, created by the intermarriage and mingling of European, African and Indian people.

After learning the language of the conquistadors, Tenamaxtli sets out on a journey to unite the tribes and drive out the Spanish. The journey involves a lot of sex and violence and along the way we do learn some history as well as the different customs of the various tribes. While this is interesting, the point of the narrative often loses focus. In addition, Tenamaxtli often proves to be as heartless as the Spanish–not only with the invaders but with his fellow Azteca. The thing I most missed in this sequel was the element of mysticism and sense of the supernatural. Jennings does attempt to bring this in, for example with the Yaki woman who seethes with hate, causes mischief, and talks about herself in third person, claiming no man can resist her. Tenamaxtli has news for her. She’s not the boss of him and she proves to be an empty plot line.

I found AZTEC AUTUMN mildly interesting but not compelling. It was a disappointment after the marvelous AZTEC. However, if you love historical novels and exotic cultures, you might enjoy spending some time with Tenamaxtli–an Azteca who fought against the tide of history.

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McCammon’s Swan Song — Apocalypse Then

Swan Song  Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down. Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take the Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it. McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans fall flat. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King’s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything. It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand’s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone. Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.

This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

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