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By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

A few years ago, I was standing in the bookshop section of one of these large stores that sells everything including books, music, videos, stationery, and so on, wondering how long it was going to take my wife to decide which diary to buy. By one of these strange mischances, my eye fell on a copy of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer and, having heard it was making waves, I read the first few pages. Deciding that anything more would make me ill, I swore never to try another book featuring a romance between a vampire and a werewolf. Yet, through the quirk of fate, I find myself picking up By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (Knopf, 2014) the third in The Last Werewolf series. With a heavy heart I note the words, “. . .a stunningly erotic love story” on the jacket flap. There are vampires and werewolves involved. I begin to read.

In the red corner, we have Remshi, the male vampire who seems to have been on the prowl for three-times the number of years the Creationists say the world has been around. In the blue corner there’s Tallula, the female werewolf (and mother of twins) who may be the reincarnated Vali — the female Remshi loved and lost in prehistoric times. Not surprisingly, once people start talking about life before the Universe was created by God, the Catholic Church gets all militant and decides it has to exterminate all nonconformist life, i.e. all the werewolves and vampires. The cynics among you may say the Catholics are only doing this as a ploy to distract the world’s attention from the paedophile scandal. But with the GOP and fundamental Christians in America getting in on the act, there may be a more general movement to protect humanity from this dangerous group of predators that has been culling our population ever since Eve made the wrong choice with the apple.

Anyway, to prove there’s nothing going on between the vampires and the werewolves, the book opens with Tallula “married” (the validity of same species marriage still has to be decided by the Supreme Court) with twins, while Remshi is living in sin with Justine Cavell (these vampires have no shame). The book then hits its stride with am extermination squad from the Catholic Church turning up to kill Remshi. Naturally, he survives with difficulty, but she’s seriously injured so he “turns” her (their love must be sufficiently strong he wants to keep her around). However, she then takes off on a revenge quest and he has to choose whether to pursue her, or find Tallula and resolve the puzzle of this dream he keeps having. Meanwhile, Tallula and family are snacking on some random humans in an isolated farmhouse when they are attacked by another of these God-squads. She and Zoe end up captured, while hubby and the son escape.

Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan

The ending is both semantically exact and emotionally affecting. As readers we always try to second-guess how the author will resolve matters. This seems particularly effective and avoids much of the mawkish sentimentality that so offends in the young adult efforts in this market. Even though the majority of the key characters are driven by love (even the Catholics are inspired by their love of Jesus), there’s a deep sense of realism pervading the development of the plot. Both vampires and werewolves need to feed on human flesh and blood if they are to survive. So both species must live with the guilt of having to kill. Indeed, at one point, Tallula as a mother confronts the possibility of eating a human baby. Fortunately, she does not have to put herself to the test, but you have the sense she would decide not to. Even though the wolf side of her personality would not have scruples, she retains an essential humanity in her capacity for compassion and love. She’s not quite the monster she sometimes believes herself to be. Similarly, Remshi finds himself increasingly overpowered by the lives of those he eats. It’s as he’s losing his capacity for absorbing their personalities, signalling a time for ending or achieving some kind of rebirth. He loves a human who becomes a vampire. But he’s distracted by a love through time. He’s been waiting centuries for Vali to return. Now he believes she has reappeared, he hopes they can be together again. Indeed, some centuries ago, there was a prophesy promising something spectacular when they got back together. This provides the dynamic as fate conspires to force a meeting and then to reproduce that dream he keeps having.

Taken overall this is a bold and quite literate example of vampire/werewolf Gothic. It’s more than apparent there’s a brain at work and this represents a fairly detailed exploration of the human/monster hybrid (both vampires and werewolves start off as humans and are then “contaminated”). Despite the drive for food as the mechanism for preserving existence, these creatures retain something of their human hearts. They and their victims share a form of existential horror at being predator and prey respectively. Although Duncan somewhat wryly points out the commercial and political opportunities for Church and governments to convince their followers that these predators exist: great reality television shows can show extermination squads at work, while politicians can sell the religious message that belief in God will keep the people safe. So although I think the reliance on Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is slightly overdone as a mechanism for providing a unifying mythology, this remains a very impressive and intelligent supernatural horror novel. It’s naturally violent, as it should be, with many scenes of conflict dotted throughout the book. So one thing is clear. Those who enjoyed the Twilight series, whether as books or films, will probably be shocked and appalled by By Blood We Live. This will help them understand just how vapid and wishy-washy the work of Stephenie Meyer is, and what a horror novel for adults should be like.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. August 6, 2014 at 1:14 am

    “Both vampires and werewolves need to feed on human flesh and blood if they are to survive.”

    As an author who has committed the sin of writing a vampire book (of sorts), this one sentence encapsulates the reasons for my disinterest in the genre; if vampires or werewolves (the European-standard ones, anyway) are watered down sufficiently to no longer be monsters, they are no longer “real” vampires or werewolves–but if they remain monsters, they do not make good characters for me.

    My sympathies have always been with the hunters; it’s all well and good to stand over Dracula’s corpse and talk about how tragic his existence was, how sad that his destined love proved fatal–but you’re doing that OVER HIS CORPSE. Because he’s a MONSTER. Twilight vampires? Monsters by choice (and by a powerful powerful thirst, except for a few “vegetarians,” but still by choice). Bite Me vampires? Mostly drug-pushers, again by choice.

    This makes a nice frame for the ethically virtuous ones who refrain from killing or victimizing others to perpetuate their existences, an easy way to label them “good,” but when writers don’t even make that distinction–leaving their main characters as monsters–I start wishing for a fire-extinguisher full of holy water or an AK47 loaded with silver. Yup, I’m with the God-squad.

    So I’ll probably pass on this one, although it does sound well written.

    • August 6, 2014 at 2:49 am

      Yes, the author’s choice of an anti-hero has become one of my abiding problems when reviewing, particularly when said hero turns out to be a professional hit man or morally loathsome for some other reason. I’m not sure I want to spend several hours inside the head of someone who kills for a living although, when it comes to one of Ian Fleming’s OO characters, I suppose we’re more inclined to accept this person as a hero because he’s killing in a good cause (well, supposedly, anyway). So in principle I’m in agreement with you when it comes to vampires, werewolves, and any other beasties that are designed to prey on humans. Rather in the same way some vampires go cold turkey and make do with the blood of a pig or some other worthy animal, the most usual suspense lies in whether they will fall off the wagon and drink human blood again.

      What makes this book interesting is the uncompromising way in which the Catholics organizing this extermination are described. We’re not intended to have any sympathy for them. When the hunters are as bad, if not worse than the hunted, this introduces layers of relativity when assessing moral culpability. The author wants the narrative arc to be one big Gothic romance as the vampire who lived through time meets up with the female werewolf whom he believes is the reincarnated soul of his ex-partner. To make them sympathetic, he therefore makes them feel serious guilt over the consequences of the “curse” which “forces” them to eat humans. I know it’s all fake, “I wish I didn’t have to do this but every time I look at my children, I think I have to continue living to help them grow up into caring werewolves.” but I was prepared to partially suspend disbelief just to see where the author went with the idea.

      In the end, it proves to be what it promises: a Gothic romance with a slight tear-jerker twist. Thematically, it also plays with the idea of a cure for werewolf syndrome — a bit like the X-Men movie although not quite as “scientific”. Our heroine has to be tempted by the possibility of her family being restored to humanity so she can finally decide what’s important to her.

  1. August 6, 2014 at 12:32 am

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