Glen Duncan is back at the top of his game with “By Blood We Live,” third in the series of novels that began with “The Last Werewolf.” That book was a tour de force, an existential dark fantasy whose world-weary narrator had one of the most compelling voices in recent supernatural fiction. But its sequel, “Talulla Rising,” was a disappointment, in part because it devolved into a messy, overly plotted thriller and also betrayed its predecessor’s million-dollar premise: The last werewolf was, in fact, the penultimate werewolf, who mated with another lupine shape-shifter, Talulla. That move ensured that our world could become positively howling with werewolves.
“By Blood We Live” continues this saga and elevates the lurid pleasures of a straightforward, if unconventional, horror story by means of Duncan’s elegant, even rapturous prose and his knowledge of art and literature: The novel’s title is from a work by the dour English poet Geoffrey Hill, and Robert Browning’s uncanny masterpiece “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” plays a crucial role.
Duncan’s tale features a sort of aspirational lycanthropy, a recent literary trend embodied in his books as well Anne Rice’s Wolf Gift Chronicles (which are a lot less fun). Duncan’s werewolves are well-spoken, well-read and well-dressed, except during their lunar feeding frenzy. They share their turf with equally aspirational vampires. All fly first-class and have excellent taste in movies, as well as an amusing familiarity with the work of Rice.
“By Blood We Live” alternates among several narrators, werewolf and vampire alike. The most intriguing are Remshi, a 20,000-year-old ur-vampire, and Justine, a young 21st-century woman who knows Remshi’s secret and has provided cover for him while she chooses to remain mortal.
Their pleasant if unusual relationship is shattered when he and Justine are brutally attacked by members of the vampire- and werewolf-hating arm of the Catholic Church. In the process of defending himself, he feeds on one of the attackers, and suddenly he’s flooded by his victim’s memories, which always imprint on vampires with narcotic effect:
“The particulars gather, exude their fraught vibe like an odour and before you bite, before you drink, you get an inkling of what it’s going to give you, the base notes, the exploded secrets, the finish. All your victim’s decisions and imprecisions and crimes and losses gather and sing — in this moment — of the tiny and unique ways in which this life will, once you’ve drunk it down, change you.”
Some of the loveliest writing in Duncan’s books comes from such hallucinatory passages. For Remshi, however, this particular encounter unleashes the knowledge that his ancient lover, Vali, long thought dead, is alive and somehow incarnated in Talulla, a werewolf.
There are myriad complications to his romantic quest, not least among them the fact that vampires and werewolves find each other physically repugnant, especially the way they smell (a nice nod to Roald Dahl’s classic “The Witches”). There’s also Talulla herself, who’s still kind of a drag, and a movement to put footage of vampires and werewolves on YouTube and thereby bring about a genocidal war. As in “The Last Werewolf,” Duncan’s stylish prose makes these supernatural elements seem strangely believable.
“By Blood We Live” careers to a satisfying and poignant ending that still leaves ample room for a continuation of this epic, with the Vatican joining forces with politicians to fan the flames of violent supernatural intolerance. Both longtime and new readers should eagerly await the next installment. Until then, it will be interesting to see if Pope Francis weighs in on the vampire-werewolf issue.
Hand frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.
BY BLOOD WE LIVE
By Glen Duncan
Knopf. 357 pp. $25.95