Glen Duncan’s previous novel, “The Last Werewolf,” pumped new blood into a literary subgenre that traces its lineage to the Icelandic sagas, and perhaps earlier. That book earned its status as an international bestseller by virtue of the marvelously original narrative voice of its centuries-old protagonist, Jake Marlowe, the world’s sole surviving lycanthrope. Jake’s existential nausea and ennui were matched only by his monthly transformation and addict’s craving for human flesh; a world-weary antihero who could hold his own against Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose.
Sadly, “Talulla Rising,” the new sequel, is a major disappointment, a depressingly conventional genre novel that whines and whimpers when it should howl. The eponymous narrator is Jake’s lupine mate — turns out he wasn’t the last werewolf, after all. Jake is dead as the novel opens, felled by a silver bullet, leaving Talulla to soldier on as best she can. She’s pregnant with his child (or cub?). Her only companion is a feckless human familiar who acts as midwife when her son is born in the Alaskan wilderness.
But no sooner is the umbilical cord cut than the infant is kidnapped by vampires who abscond with him in a helicopter. Before you can say Romulus and Remus, Talulla gives birth to a second child. Werewolf mom and baby No. 2 decamp to London, where they’re soon taken hostage by two rogue operatives who have gone AWOL from WOCOP, which stands for World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena — “think CIA meets Keystone Kops meets Spanish Inquisition.”
But lest you find chopper-borne vampires and occult special agents insufficient to keep a plot boiling, there’s also a legendary vampire cult whose members can survive daylight, a merciless WOCOP enforcer named Murdoch (nice touch, that) and werewolves. Lots and lots of werewolves.
What made “The Last Werewolf” so compelling was its tight focus on the solitary werewolf Jake, who undergoes an even more remarkable transformation when he discovers he is not alone and finds his centuries-long malaise cured by emotions other than hunger and self-loathing.
“Talulla Rising” forsakes all subtlety for a wearying recitation of gore, interspecies sex and increasingly absurd plot twists, ending in a ludicrous showdown in a monastery — on the winter solstice, during a full moon in eclipse — with vampires holding candles around a sacrificial victim spread-eagle on an altar. It’s Hammer Horror without the horror. Or Christopher Lee. And the only thing scarier than that is realizing there will no doubt be yet another sequel.
By Glen Duncan
Knopf. 352 pp. $25.95