Hmmm. It seems a popular werewolf tome, The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, has made the Shirley Jackson Award list. Before I pontificate, let’s talk about the awards, for those not familiar with them.
The awards bear the name of author Shirley Jackson who is perhaps best known for The Haunting of Hill House and her sort story, “The Lottery.” As it stands today horror as a genre owes a lot to Jackson; if you’ve read her works it’s easy to see her influence not just on horror writers but authors of dark fantasy and speculative fiction, not to mention television and movies.
The Shirley Jackson Award looks to honor “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic,” according to the Jackson estate. A jury of professional writers, editors, critics, and academics decides upon the awards, with input from a board of advisers. I’d like to know who comprises this Shirley Jackson Award board of advisers, if they have the aforementioned writes, editors and critics and whatnot on the jury.
But that’s neither here nor there, as they say. As noted above, I noticed that The Last Werewolf is up for the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. I read this book earlier this year after reading the New York Times book review of Glen Duncan’s werewolf opus. As I mentioned back then, it is not without its merits. But the plot and characters are extremely derivative; i.e. tired; if Lestat or just about any literary monster since (and including) Shelley’s Frankenstein (I emphasize here the literary Frankenstein’s Monster, not the Hammer Horror bolt-necked creation), had he/she/it been a werewolf, he/she/it would have been The Last Werewolf.
There’s homage and then there’s cliché; The Last Werewolf falls squarely in the latter camp. Furthermore, Duncan’s writing swings wildly, from competent narration to moving, artistic beauty to livid purple prose.
Here’s but a few brief examples (there are many) of the latter:
When I’d imagined this moment I’d imagined clean relief. Now the moment had arrived there was relief, but it wasn’t clean. The sordid little flame of selfhood shimmied in protest. Not that my self’s what it used to be. These days it deserves a sad smile, as might a twinge of vestigial lust in an old man’s balls.
It was still snowing when I stepped out into the street. Vehicular traffic was poignantly stupefied and Earl’s Court Underground was closed.
Needlessly and awkwardly personifying things that don’t need to be seems to be a trademark of this novel; there are plenty more examples.
Then there is this gem; it transcends the purple of the most purple of prose:
Snow makes cities innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void.
I take days off my life every time I read that sentence. It was a dark and stormy night.
And yet. And yet, this author is capable of artistic turns of phrase and moments of true poignancy. Here the title character (yes, as I’ve remarked before; it seems as if authors are incapable of the third person, these days) describes the first days with his new wife:
She was a year older than me, ten deeper. She loved in casual imperious exercise of a birthright. I loved in terror of losing her. The staff at Herne House couldn’t have been more amazed if I’d married a Bornean orangutan.
But then in that same paragraph we get the groan-worthy cliché of romantic clichés:
I hadn’t known desire could dissolve selves into and out of each other. I hadn’t known love’s indifference, love’s condescension to God.
And I’m a little closer to death, with that. But just a few pages later, there’s this:
Falling in love makes the unknown known. Falling out of love reverses the process. I watched the mystery of myself thickening between us into a carapace. Once you’ve stopped loving someone breaking his or her heart’s just an unpleasant chore you have to get behind you. My God, you really don’t love me anymore, do you? No matter your decency the victim’s incredulity’s potentially hilarious. You manage not to laugh. But breaking the heart of someone you still love is a rare horror, not funny to anyone, except perhaps Satan, if such a being existed, and even his pleasure would be spoiled by not having had a hand in it, by the dumb, wasteful accident of the thing. The Devil wants meaning just like the rest of us.
Here Duncan has managed to convey in a few bright, dramatic sentences what other authors have spent entire books discussing.
So it all begs the question, what the hell? Less than a third of the way through the novel it occurred to me that The Last Werewolf reads like two different authors wrote different parts of this book – one good, perhaps even excellent, and the other not so much – and an incompetent or extremely rushed editor stitched it together piecemeal. Or else the author was extremely rushed and there was no editor.
I don’t know. Where I see tired, time-worn conventions, the New York Times book reviewer sees an admirable adherence to genre convention. He does admit that Duncan’s prose “occasionally overheats” — if this is occasionally overheating, then I’d hate to read what he thinks is over doing it.
Perhaps the reviewer hasn’t read a lot of horror; I think if I had read this book as a much younger person, before I really delved into the genre at all, its foibles might seem less apparent.
At least it was werewolves and not vampires – although these are present and full of modern vampire clichés – or zombies.
I’m clearly in the minority on this one, however; obviously lots of critics and readers liked the novel; to each their own. In any event, without further ado: The Shirley Jackson Award 2011 nominees:
The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday)
The Dracula Papers, Reggie Oliver (Chômu Press)
The Great Lover, Michael Cisco (Chômu Press)
Knock Knock, S. P. Miskowski (Omnium Gatherum Media)
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan (Canongate Books, Ltd.)
Witches on the Road Tonight, Sheri Holman (Grove Press)
“And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living,” Deborah Biancotti (Ishtar, Gilgamesh Press)
“A Child’s Problem,” Reggie Oliver (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
“Displacement,” Michael Marano (Stories from the Plague Years, Cemetery Dance Publications)
The Men Upstairs, Tim Waggoner (Delirium Books)
“Near Zennor,” Elizabeth Hand (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
“Rose Street Attractors,” Lucius Shepard (Ghosts by Gaslight, Harper Voyager)
“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” Peter Straub (Conjunctions 56)
“Ditch Witch,” Lucius Shepard (Supernatural Noir, Dark Horse)
“The Last Triangle,” Jeffrey Ford (Supernatural Noir, Dark Horse)
“Omphalos,” Livia Llewellyn (Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, Lethe Press)
“The Summer People,” Kelly Link (Tin House 49/Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, Candlewick Press)
“Absolute Zero,” Nadia Bulkin (Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters, Prime Books)
“The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece,” M. Rickert (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sept/Oct, 2011)
“Hair,” Joan Aiken (The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories, Small Beer Press/ The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/Aug, 2011)
“Max,” Jason Ockert (The Iowa Review 41/1)
“Sunbleached,” Nathan Ballingrud (Teeth, HarperCollins)
“Things to Know About Being Dead,” Genevieve Valentine (Teeth, HarperCollins)
After the Apocalypse: Stories, Maureen F. McHugh (Small Beer Press)
The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, Joyce Carol Oates (Mysterious Press)
Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, Livia Llewellyn (Lethe Press)
The Janus Tree, Glen Hirshberg (Subterranean Press)
Red Gloves, Christopher Fowler (PS Publishing)
What Wolves Know, Kit Reed (PS Publishing)
Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor)
A Book of Horrors, edited by Stephen Jones (Jo Fletcher Books)
Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers (Harper Voyager)
Supernatural Noir, edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse)
Teeth, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (HarperCollins)
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Harper Voyager)
The 2011 Shirley Jackson Award presentations take place on Sunday, July 15th at Readercon 23 in Burlington, Massachusetts. Readercon 23 guests of honor and authors Peter Straub and Caitlin R. Kiernan, author of The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (and future Shirley Jackson Award nominee, surely?) will act as hosts.