Horror after history: Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

Text of a talk I gave at the 2013 &NOW Conference. Warning: rough edges.

There is a moment in the life of concepts when they lose their immediate intelligibility and can then, like all empty terms, be overburdened with contradictory meanings.

—Agamben, Homo Sacer

This paper is about horror—both what we feel and the genre known as such—and history. The intersection of these two terms in this paper involves the claim that horror—both the feeling and the genre—has a history and that history in one of its most prevalent senses—that being the sense that history is progressive—horrifies. I will not come to a strong conclusion.

The Last Werewolf is potboiler full of sex and violence (although, truth be told, in both quality and quantity not so much, contra the breathless reviews). Glen Duncan, like so many who have written genre fiction, appears in this context to be, as Melville once said satirically of Hawthorne, a man who means no meanings. Of course to be a man who means no meanings at the end of history, is simply to be a man. Or an animal, as to be a man means to mean meanings and to mean meanings means to be a man. After the end of history, after meaning has ceased, one can no longer be a man properly so-called. Nor can one be beast. Such distinctions are part and parcel of history and the meaning, the technology or the means of meaning which it affords. After history, the genres such distinctions create and maintain—genres which must be created and maintained because they have no inherent reality—disappear. No more human and animal. No more horror, sf, fantasy. No more potboilers and no more literature.

In The Open, Agamben discusses a messianic and a modern account of the reconciliation of the human to the animal, each of which involves the end times or the end of history. In the messianic account, what survives the last judgment is the purely human, the human exclusive of its embodiment, its physicality, its animality. In the modern account, which comes out of Hegel on Kojeve’s reading and very much determines popular and populist notions of history to the present insofar as it’s underpinned by “progres”, the end of history involves the “disappearance of Man properly so-called,” the end of “Action negating the given, and Error, or, in general, the Subject opposed to the Object.” At the conclusion of History, “Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or Given being.” In other words, at the end of history the human loses what makes it human; the animalization of the human takes place through the exclusion of humanity.

Later, in Homo Sacer, in a chapter entitled “The Ban and the Wolf,” Agamben returns to his discussion of animality in the context of the political conditions of modernity. He notes that the werewolf, in its origin, is closely related to the figure of homo sacer, or sacred man, who, in contradiction to his title, can be killed but not sacrificed. He notes that Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources define the bandit (who is excluded from the polis and the laws that protect the demos such that anyone may kill him) as a wolf-man. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.” Notably, for all of its etymological inquiries, for all of genealogical tracings of an obscure figure of ancient law, Homo Sacer concerns itself first and foremost with what Agamben calls “the nomos of the modern,” under which the state of exception (which can be traced back first to sacred man and then to the werewolf) becomes permanent.

Agamben notes that, as a term, “homo sacer” makes almost no sense, burdened as it is with so many contradictory meanings. For example, if the man in question is sacred—that is, if he belongs to the gods—why may he be killed by anyone? To come to some understanding of the term, although this definition does not account for its complexity entirely, we might articulate it with a concept of history and say that homo sacer is excluded from all humanity, including that which we call history. Homo sacer, in other words, cannot be made meaningful, cannot be included in the city, in the purview of “Man properly so-called.” In some sense, homo sacer is already removed from such profanity, from human use and is therefore already sacred, but cannot partake in a becoming sacred that meaning requires. If this point seems contradictory, it is. That meaning is human is part and parcel of Hegel’s notion of history, but at the same time this meaning, history itself, requires spirit, something fundamentally non-human, in order to mean.

Glen Duncan’s title refers literally to Jacob Marlowe, the last of his kind. However, I can’t hear it or read it without thinking of Fukuyama’s the last man who comes at the end of history or of Nietzsche’s last man who heralds the arrival of what comes after the human. However, this echo raises the question of whether Marlowe is the last wer and the last wolf, the last human (or at least the last man) as well as the last beast or if he is the last werewolf, the last intersection of the two? That is, with his conclusion does the distinction between human and animal cease or is it completed? Whatever the case, he is both human and beast, an animal in an urban world, a creature whose fleshly (dare I say natural?) appetites—which include well-aged scotch and constant sexual intercourse—can only be satiated by the conveniences of modern culture. He lives always in a human world, but apart from humanity. He is integrated in the system of culture through his investments, but has few friends and a life that has no value whatsoever. he may be captured and tortured without consequence, killed by those who hate and fear him without anyone knowing or caring.

Perhaps for this reason he intends to kill himself, a decision he comes to after his one remaining human contact tells him that the next to last werewolf is dead. Despite the fact that, according to Marlowe, werewolves are solitary creatures and that he had little or no contact with this other of his kind, this loss—which is a loss of category, of genre (after all, nothing unique can be generic)–being the last werewolf drives him to the brink of self-destruction.

Marlowe is the last werewolf in two senses. He is the last werewolf to survive the efforts of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena to drive the species into extinction and he was, he believes, the last werewolf to come into existence. No new werewolves have been created for the better part of two centuries, the result of a virus that prevents werewolves from infecting others. His death then might not be in fact the death of a genre as genre needs constant renewal, genre only exists to the extent that its individual parts communicate with one another.

The questions all of this raises with regard to genre—can a genre go extinct? can we ever stop producing genres and the individual units that comprise genre?–are pushed aside when Marlowe meets a “She”, a female werewolf. This “She,” Talulla Demetriou, will survive Jacob, but whether as the next last werewolf or the first of her kind I am not sure. Their first encounter, however, returns us to the question of history in the context of genre.

Upon their first encounter, Marlowe sizes her up:

Becoming a werewolf had nearly destroyed her, but hadn’t. Thus she discovered the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it. And there in the espresso-dark eyes was the accommodation, the submission to experience she’d made in the silence of her heart, astonished at herself, once she’d decided to accept what she was, once she’d decided to kill others instead of herself. She suffered fiery Hunger and did vile deeds now, had begun teaching herself enlarging self-forgiveness. You do what you do because it’s that or death. (191)

I cannot yet answer what becomes of wer and wolf in the wake of Jacob’s death and the events of The Last Werewolf’s sequel Talulla Rising. For now, this paper meditates on the passage just cited, especially the line, “The first horror is there’s horror.”

Jacob was born in 1808 and became a werewolf in 1842. He dies in the first decade of the twenty-first century, having witnessed the industrial revolution, the death of god, the atomic bomb, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the advent of hipsterism—merely several of those events that challenge and foreclose on the relationship the individual human, however momentarily, once enjoyed with history. Talulla, by contrast, was born in 1975. Those years Jacob experiences as perhaps the end of history (assuming it did not end in 1806, a year Hegel invokes in order to describe what history is by referring to its conclusion), Talulla experiences as the only world she had ever known: a decadent time characterized by nostalgia, paranoia, and the failures of signification.

Critic and novelist John Clute traces fantastika—comprised of several genres including horror, science fiction, and fantasy—to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the moment of Marlowe’s birth: “the birth of the genres of the fantastic is intimately connected with the becoming visible of the engine of history, round about 1800, when the future began.” He continues:

Genres began when the creation of geological time and evolutionary change began to carve holes in reality, which became suddenly malleable; when, for the first time, the human imagination (as in the French Revolution) could conceive of altering, by fiat, both human nature and the world we inhabited. The future could now be almost literally perceived, though not understood. We felt this in our bellies. From this point, from about 1800 on, a new kind of anxiety began to haunt the Western world: a fear that the engines that we made to turn the world might shake us off, that we were both responsible for that engine, and usurped by it, that Progress was not only a process we might predict, but a Dark Twin grinning at each of us out of tomorrow. That the world, which had been a palm of God, had become a raft adrift.

In Clute’s argument, genre develops in relation with and in response to what Alexandre Kojeve calls “Man properly so called”and Francis Fukuyama and Walter Benn Michaels . And if he is right that genre begins in the midst of the late-Enlightenment, at the moment of Jacob’s birth, we might also note that genre may have ended (or may have begun to end) at the moment of Talulla’s birth, during that decade that saw late capitalism spread and transform genre into blockbuster—a trend that continues today as the blockbuster becomes the tentpole and the franchise. The 1970s would, of course, usher in or at least significantly advance the fantasy trilogy with Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson, the becoming-commercial of horror with Stephen King, and the mainstreaming of science fiction with Star Wars.

Whatever the case, fantastika begins as a reaction to and critique of humanity’s awareness of a time to come imagined as an extension of, extrapolation from the present moment—in short history understood as progressive.

Clute explains how each of the three main genres of the fantastic relates to this notion of progress:

Horror treats the future as something which is already behind us, so that its Dark twin dreams of digestion and desecration can be understood as already lived through by its readers; Fantasy treats the present world as a mistake created by the engine of history, a mistake which must be refused through the creation of counterworlds and secret gardens as respite from the harrowing of the Shire; sf—which comes to maturity only in the twentieth century—treats the changing world as something which may be made to work, a brief advocate, an egg we hope to instruct how to hatch.

Allow me for a moment to rethink Clute before I return to werewolves.

Clute clearly understands sf as the genre of progress, as our capacity to instrumentalize the world and build a future for ourselves. In this sense, sf is the literature of the future and for this reason sf seems so available for dialectical readings, often of the Marxist but also of the Hegelian variety. Sf promises us something new, even if in recent years it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, as Jameson and Zizek tell us. In contrast to sf is the literature of the past, and hence in fantasy we find an impetus to restoration, to the return of the king as it were. Horror is trickier in Clute’s understanding. Let me offer my own analysis of these three genres.

We can take sf, fantasy, and horror to relate to one another through their consideration of possibility and impossibility. Sf describes what is impossible in the reader’s world rendered as what is plausible nonetheless in that world. The language of science, or at least a pastiche of scientific attitude, pervades sf allowing the reader to suspend disbelief. Fantasy offers us what is impossible in the reader’s world rendered as what is impossible in the reader’s world. Gary Wolfe notes that fantasy is often bound by rules, but that these rules are not the rules that govern the actual world; these rules, while intelligible to us as rules remain other to us (for this reason I see fantasy as perhaps more important in a political sense under late capitalism than sf, even if it must remain articulated with sf as well as horror in this context). Finally, horror (or what Clute calls fantastic horror) is about what is impossible in the reader’s world rendered as what should have been impossible in the fictional world as well. Whereas magic is possible in Middle-earth and faster-than-light travel is possible aboard the USS Enterprise, werewolves are not possible for Jacob Marlowe until he becomes a werewolf. That is, werewolves should not have been possible, should not be possible. The question of the impossible in horror thus involves a moral dimension largely absent from sf considered as sf and fantasy understood as fantasy. By thinking of these three genres together, however, we begin to understand something about history and, perhaps, our current non-relation to it.

So sf deals with the forward movement of history and the possibility of something like an authentic humanity in the future, an end of history involving human freedom in one form or another. Even though much sf actually critiques such a view, it relies on this view nonetheless. In fantasy, the human freedom remains always in the past. Much fantasy takes as its starting point a present that can no longer accomplish the great works of the past ( for example, Gondor cannot do magic to counter Sauron, whereas 3000 years earlier the Last Alliance of Men and Elves could defeat him in open battle; Aragorn is the descendant of Men, but is perhaps the last of them; etc.). Horror, finally, is about the present. Modernity has been accomplished—the future is in the past—and the rational world rules all. However, that authenticity is then challenged by a discovery (as in, for example, At the Mountains of Madness) that reveals rationality for a facade. In short, there is horror. There is always horror. Fantasy and sf, to one extent or another, are about its accommodation, are about excluding it by including it (the nature of the ban, the zone of indistinction through which the human and its history is produced) in history as something that has happened or will happen, but is never happening. The horror one feels that one is a werewolf is not the discovery of what one will be or was, but what one is. This present is, however, flat in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari use the term: filling all “space” entirely. There is end to what one is, no way not to be wer and wolf or werewolf, no Eden to retreat back to nor any healing to look forward to. Horror only ever is.


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