Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Last Werewolf Trilogy by Glen Duncan

A trilogy of werewolf novels, the remaining three books of Duncan’s published oeuvre left for me to read, and I’ve gone and devoured them all in one go. I’ve made similar mistakes before; reading every single book I could find by one author as soon as they’re found. It usually ends up in a colossal mess of plot lines, meaning and symbolism in the gray matter, and an inability to unravel one from the other and explain, convincingly, to anyone why they should be read – especially challenging when one’s former job was to sell books to people on the strength of personal recommendations. Nonetheless, I decided that to read these three contiguously made sense, in so far as I have a strong distaste at being left hanging on for the next instalment, be it television series’, serialised print articles or trilogies. And, *COP OUT KLAXON* to review them in one Mega Review Article was the way forward too. So, here’s the quick and habitual disclaimer / plea for clemency. This way, you’ll have to decide whether reading this review with all its potential plot spoilers is going to be a profitable use of your time, pre-Duncan, or whether you come back post-Duncan to find holes to pick in what I’ve written. The choice is yours.

Frankly my dear and so on.

Plot, then, and what we have is three novels spanning what must be four years in the usual hidden battleground of good versus evil that bubbles beneath the veneered surface of the world as any fantasy writer worth his or her middle initial would have you believe. On the one side, to start with, you have werewolves, more accurately, the Last Werewolf of the trilogy’s title, one Jake Marlowe. On the other, a global organisation dedicated to the eradication of the supernatural, on the quiet. Then, we have a few twists, the introduction of the existence of vampires (to the reader at least as they’ve always existed), the discovery of a female wulf, the improbably monikered Talulla Demetriou, her impregnation, his death, the creation of more werewolves, the disintegration of WOCOP (the aforementioned global wolf-and-vamp-killing organisation), more vampires, an original vampire, a secret Christian war machine, the promise of a global conflict, a cure for the wulf curse, the original vampire’s death, but only after the hybridization of vampire and werewolf,  and… argh! The ending…

Seems straightforward, resolution notwithstanding, and containing all of the elements of most turgid horror / fantasy franchises of recent times (reference all the ****ing Stephanie ****ing Meyer nonsense, Underworlds I, II, III etc.), it keeps pretty much to the accepted mythology, while snidely chastising the limits of the accepted mythology and the human psychology. It also bungs at you a ‘found story’ account of the origins of the werewolf curse, and intriguingly toys with a vampire creation story. And then there’s love; love, love, love.

At this point you might consider asking me to move this down the shelves into the Young Adult / Crossover Fantasy Fiction section of the bookshop. Well, you’d be in serious trouble if someone’s mother found it in there, because there’s so much fucking and killing in it that it’d offend Bret Easton Ellis. By offend I meant arouse.

But it’s not all greasy, queasy, visceral gore and vivid, pulsing, pounding sex. There’s lots of this, lots and lots, embodied by KillFuckEat, the achievement of perfection in the lunar cycle, killing etc. with a wulf you love, but the true horror lies not in Duncan’s layering of unsettling atavistic desires upon the mythical creatures of our nightmares, the latent beasts dormant in every human heart, but in other more subtle ways. In book one, the visceral and psychological horror is explored fully, from Jake Marlowe’s earliest atrocities through to more contemporary wrestling with the psychology of enjoying murdering people. It’s all fun and games until someone eats someone’s unborn baby.

As a parent, I’m somewhat depressingly aware of the terror at every step of a child’s life, if not for the child then for the parent. In book two, Talulla’s own pregnancy is a success, but her first born is untimely ripped from her (arms) at the moment of birth by some naughty vampires seeking to exploit ancient myths of day-walking. The horror here occurs in the mind of Talulla as she imagines the torture her son faces, which is extremely uncomfortable, even in relatively small doses. There’s also some torturing of a teenager vampire, not very nice at the best of times. And of course there’s lots more cognitive dissonance, killing and fucking and eating and guilt, only this time there’s more werewolves and fresh new baddies.

In book three, he piles on some pretty unpleasant sexual abuse of children. To be fair, I should have expected it, given his history, but nonetheless once it’s in the head, it’s very hard to shift.

At one point, Remshi, the world’s oldest vampire, talks about the capacity of human memory, how remembering all the history he’s experienced would kill him; there’s a soliloquy about readers and their peculiar susceptibility to circumstances in mitigation of atrocity because of all of the experience, the empathy and acceptance they’ve absorbed through their eyes from novels. Hey, he’s preaching to the converted as here are we all, the cheering section of monsters (and it was easy, a potent sign of absolutely fan-fucking-tastic writing, to side with the murdering against the murdered). Memory is always going to be a topical debate, and I’ve always been fascinated, personally, by the seemingly elastic nature of the brain to be filled with information, when done so in an orderly fashion – I read an article that proposed we absorb more information in a day than a medieval peasant would have had to in a year. What’s the effect? Up to now, in this context, I would say that horror has lost its ability to horrify, plunged repeatedly into the armour against more generic terror and global suffering and thus dulled to bluntness. Duncan’s uncanny ability has seen its assault on my heart and stomach renewed, but in such an awesomely readable way that it’s absorbed along with everything else, tearing on the way in and lodging in the mind like a piece of shrapnel.

I may have said this previously, about writers like Percival Everett and Don Delillo, but I am in awe and inspired and completely depressed by the talents of the aforementioned, and also my favourite British author, Glen Duncan. He is like a rebuke, a quick slap to remind myself of the distance left to travel, from here (me) to there (him) and of all the sheer hard work that it will take, and of the swiftly receding time left to do it in. He’s taken a tired, worked out mine of imagery and mythology, and found a new and surprising vein of preciousness, of wonder, delight and dread, and exposed it to the light. AND it’s not just horror that gets a session with the whet stone. I leave that to you to discover.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Horror-Sovieticus
I've thus far neglected to fill you in on my thoughts re: Metro 2033. My sincerest apologies dear reader. This I will now attempt to rectify in a manner befitting a committed (cough) reader-reviewer-blogger-type-person. 

I can't remember what prompted me to read this particular e-book, or the circumstances that made me download a copy. So much for contextual intertextuality, if there is such a thing. However, I do remember being surprised to find by the fact that there was already a sequel and that someone saw fit to code a gamer version (and a sequel to that too). I'm clearly on the ball.

As always in my experience of modern Russian fantasy / horror literature - think Max Frei or Sergei Lukyanenko - I have the distinct impression that lots of the clever Russian-ness has been left on the translator's floor. The writing feels overly elaborate in places and wilfully naive in others, and it's probable that much of the essential cultural reference is lost to someone unfamiliar with the Moscow metro system, especially the place names (although there's quite a bit of joy to be had with the frequent discussions about the renaming of stations dependent on which faction's star is waxing or waning). Also useful, before reading, would be a basic understanding of Soviet history, from at least the 19th Century of the Tsars through the October Revolution right up to present day Russian capitalism as no-one has the courtesy to do a quick executive summary at any point, despite the many patronising asides about various periods of history.

To deal with matters of scene setting, what I found was a post-apocalyptic Moscow where the remaining non-radiation-mutated populace lived in the metro system and trade or fight each other (along old political and ideological lines) and also defend against the waves of "dark ones", mutants who invade the tunnels ostensibly to wreak havoc and generally kill and maim people, in addition to making some go mad from the tunnel fever. It's the usual fight for survival narrative, with an interesting if slightly daft twist at the end. I shan't spoil it for you, even though it's a little obvious past about midway.

Still, Glukhovsky gets in plenty of licks about the heads of men of faith, the equally ridiculed proponents of diametrically opposed fatalism and determinism, and the idiots residing at every stop on the metro line of the political spectrum, whilst also pushing out lots of sentences brim-full of claustrophobia, hidden terror and hopelessness. It's not a bad book, and by all accounts, serves as a useful critical allegory of almost any political belief system you care to name. He's not fussy. In some respects it reminds me of that Dara Ó Briain line:
Right now I would take homeopaths and I'd put them in a big sack with psychics, astrologers and priests. And I'd close the top of the sack with string, and I'd hit them all with sticks. And I really wouldn't be bothered who got the worst of the belt of the sticks.
And, he clearly can't be blamed for the translation and editing, unless of course he did it himself, in which case he deserves a bit of ridicule too. All in all, it's a worthwhile read - atmospheric, entertaining if overly long - and anyway, I should not be overly critical. I think it was Vonnegut who said, of literary critics bent on venting spleen:

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

I've only gone and reviewed this somewhere else...