Glen Duncan is a hard man to pin down. His work never quite fits any one given genre or literary style. Ostensibly, Talulla Rising is fantasy shellacked with horror, but it really has more in common with Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, and Michel Houellebecq than An American Werewolf in Paris or Charlaine Harris.
Let me try explaining it this way. I normally write while listening to thematically appropriate music. Of my last three Tor.com reviews, A Bug’s Life was set to the Pete’s Dragon soundtrack, late-90s Radiohead inspired The Hammer and the Blade, and The Coldest War was funded entirely by Die Roten Punkte (because German, get it? GET IT?). For Talulla Rising, it was wall to wall The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails.
You could read this book without reading the first of the proposed trilogy, The Last Werewolf, but, as I found out when I paused Talulla’s story midway through and went back to delve through Jake’s, it certainly helps to have the backstory. Without revealing too much of the gory details, Jake Marlowe discovers that, due to some unknown virus and a Dalek-esque extermination policy by the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena—“think CIA meets Keystone Kops meets Spanish Inquisition”—he’s the last werewolf left in the world. WOCOP wants to kill him, the Helios Project and cultishly religious vampires want to harvest him in a last-ditch attempt to make themselves immune to sunlight, and a splinter group of WOCOP Hunters want to breed him so there are more werewolves for them to keep killing (think proactive job security).
It all ends very badly for Jake, and the She he found and fell in love with—Talulla, a “Dirty, Filthy Little Girl” turned next last werewolf—winds up isolated in the Alaskan wilderness, just her, Cloquet, her human familiar, and her unexpected and not entirely wanted unborn children. But where Jake was a lone wolf, wandering the earth untethered to anyone except his familiar Harley and, at the end, Talulla, his paramour seeks out companionship. Thrice she forms a pack, first with wild wolves, then with the newest generation of weres, and finally with her own little nuclear family.
Talulla, her twins, her wolf pack, and their familiars are tangled up in a mess created by sociopathic beings desperate for power. Talulla Rising is Murphy’s Law cranked up to eleven. Everything that can go wrong does, and in a spectacularly bloody fashion. When she gives birth, she does so right in the middle of a vampire attack and has her half-human half-wolf cub ripped from her arms. When she gives birth to the twin she didn’t know she carried, it takes her almost a month to learn to love her daughter. No one is who they seem and at the end of the day it doesn’t mean anything because dead is dead is dead regardless of the motives driving the person shooting the silver bullet.
During the few weeks when Talulla isn’t wulf, she is still haunted by its presence stalking around in the back of her mind. And when it is finally unleashed it comes with an ecstasy coupled with revulsion.
The moon had found me, laid its ownership in the roof of my mouth and down the length of my spine and like a firm and expert hand between my legs. There was a little laughing admonishment in its touch, that I’d allowed myself to go down into the earth; a little mockery of the earth, too, that must know no matter how deep it swallowed me it would never break my lunar lover’s hold…My skull stretched – stopped – stretched, a sudden fluid distention, the squeaks and snaps of which were tiny firecrackers in my head. All the claws came simultaneously, a feeling like ten big boils bursting at once, the only unequivocally pleasurable part of the whole routine. Lengthening thighbones pushed me upright. There was space, at last, for my lungs. The hairs on the tips of my ears touched the ceiling. The final fang came up with a ludicrously intimate wet crunch.
There is a seduction in surrendering to something greater than yourself, of giving into the lust of prowess, of doing exactly what is in your nature without the concern of morals or ethics. Jake, Talulla, and their kin revel in that animalistic carnality one night every month. The other thirty days are spent gearing up for or uncoiling after the kill and making room in their subconscious for the ghost of their latest victim.
Reading Talulla Rising was an experience riddled with ambivalency. Sometimes it was like pulling teeth. Paragraphs would feel like volumes, like I was reading each individual letter, like why won’t this book just end already and hell, there’s still another 200 pages left. And other times it was like drowning. An arc of action would start—Talulla’s first imprisonment by Murdoch, Talulla’s second imprisonment by Murdoch—and the world would stop and there was nothing left but paper and Fournier font and the lives crafted by Duncan. Thirty pages later, I’d surface and reality would set in, that I wasn’t a werewolf on the hunt for her missing children while deftly battling boochies and demon hunters, but a 29-year-old single woman with a beat-up old car and not enough tattoos living in a too-small apartment surrounded by a pile of dirty dishes stacked this high on the floor.
There’s a specific section of the book that I think every man needs to read. And the fact that it was written by a man without being exploitive, reductive, or pornographic is even more powerful in its uniqueness. The scene is where Talulla is about to be raped, and it can be summarized by a description Jake gives in The Last Werewolf as “the Conradian truth: The first horror is there’s horror. The second is you accommodate it.” Every woman has had that moment where she realizes, as the joke goes, “Oh, here’s my rape.” And if she hasn’t experienced it yet, she will. It’s both terrifying in its impending violence and calming in its resigned certainty. You can feel it in your gums, marrow, fingernails that This. Is. It. Maybe it doesn’t happen, maybe you get off the subway or out of the parking garage stairwell or into your car on the street safely, but you still got a look at the darkness of humanity and it’s not something you shake off easily. Without turning this into a full on feminist killjoy essay on rape culture, from the moment a girl realizes that boys have discovered what her body is capable of, we live with the fact that sexual harassment and assault are out there happening and probably going to happen to you sooner or later so get used to it, sugar tits. Talulla’s confrontation of her rapist is one of the most difficult, frank, and realistic things I’ve ever read. There’s nothing fantasy, sci-fi, or fictitious about it.
But Talulla Rising isn’t just about the threats women undergo and sustain. Talulla experiences her fair share of personal horrors, true, but she inflicts plenty of her own terrors on her victims. Sex, death, and love are what makes the were and fuels the wulf, and the latter looks her attacker straight in the eye and vows to rip out his throat and feast on his entrails.