So what would you do if, on the next full moon, you transformed into a werewolf – no, really, stick with this – and found yourself gorging on live human flesh to satisfy a primal, non-negotiable desire? Presumably you think you'd be so disgusted that you would kill yourself the moment you returned to human form. But what if you didn't? What if you decided to go on living in full knowledge that others must suffer if you are to thrive?
This formed the central question of Duncan's previous novel, The Last Werewolf, to which this is a sequel. In the first novel, we met Jacob Marlowe, a werewolf with over 200 more years to live, but nothing to live for. "Turned" in 1842, Jake immediately did the worst thing (werewolves, we learn, always do the worst thing, because for them it is the best thing): he killed and ate his beloved wife and unborn child. Since then, he has duly stayed alive, avoided falling in love, found new prey each full moon and done plenty of good deeds to assuage some of his guilt.
When he hears that the head of Wocop (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) wants personally to kill him – the last known werewolf on earth – at the next full moon, he accepts it and goes off to melancholically sodomise a £3,000-a-night prostitute. But when he unexpectedly finds, and falls in love with, a "She" – a female werewolf – he suddenly has something to live for. They satisfy each other's huge libidos, compare guilty feelings and, when the full moon rises, kill together. We learn that there is only one thing better than killing the person you love: killing with the person you love.
Talulla Demetriou, the She, takes up the story in this novel. She is pregnant, despite a scene in The Last Werewolf in which Jake breaks the news to her that they won't be able to have children. Wearily, at that point, one may think the world completely mad if now even werewolves think that they have a right to create the perfect white-toothed nuclear family from which books like this should offer some kind of sanctuary. But why shouldn't "they" have children (and call them "angel") if "we" do? If killing, violence and cruelty precluded a species from being able to reproduce, then there'd be no species left. And we do worse to cows and battery hens than werewolves would do to us.
A vegetarian reading of Duncan's werewolf novels is not obligatory, nor particularly encouraged: these books let you in on many different levels. They are about appetite, hunger and desire; about otherness, the monstrous and the body. This book is also about motherhood. After Talulla gives birth to a boy/cub he is stolen by vampires and she has to go and rescue him, with the new head of Wocop on her tail.
As well as being thought-provoking, it's all great fun. Some of the conventions (and the few clunky bits) are borrowed from genre fiction, but the writing sure isn't. The acceptance of appalling self-discovery is "like the first time a hairdresser holds up a mirror and shows you the back of your head"; attraction between two people is "a supple little cat in the room with us"; someone's secret is "like a rat in a too-small box". Among others, Duncan references Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov and Susan Sontag. His werewolves read everything from Emily Dickinson to, somewhat inevitably, Bret Easton Ellis. They learn that "Literature is humanity's broad-minded alter-ego, with room in its heart for monsters, even for you. It's humanity without the judgement." They wonder whether the universe is meaningless or meaningful. Duncan's writing does more than transcend genre fiction: it creeps up on it in the dead of night, rips out its heart, then eats it.
There is something liberating about a novel like this. As well as offering a new vantage point from which to consider the old questions of life, it also provides a welcome fantasy in which there is not just extreme sex and violence (including the werewolf lovers' full-moon ritual "fuckkilleat"), but also smoking, drinking and a lot of very fancy hotels. Werewolves can't get cancer and don't need pensions. Who wouldn't want to be part of their world for a while?