Jacob Marlowe, the last werewolf on Earth and the narrator of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf (Knopf, July 12), wants to make sure you have the correct impression of his species. He's anxious to debunk all of the incorrect notions of lycanthropy left over from myth and legend and double-feature moviemaking, to the point of becoming a bit of a tic.
Considering his status as an evolutionary dead end, though, his anxiety is understandable. After all, as one minor character points out, werewolves are a touch outdated: "In ages past the beast in man was hidden in the dark, disavowed. The transparency of modern history makes that impossible: We've seen ourselves in the concentration camps, the gulags, the jungles, the killing fields ... the beast is redundant. It's been us all along."
In the world where Jacob Marlowe is imaginary, werewolves are doing better than ever; more baby boys for the past two years have been given the same name as a fictional werewolf than any other name, and Duncan (with 2002's I Lucifer ) already belongs to the ranks of authors highbrow (Justin Cronin, vampires) and protean (self-publishing success Amanda Hocking, trolls) who have experimented with the otherworldly. But Duncan's best work — like the excellent A Day and a Night and a Day — comes out of the tradition of the Novel of Ideas, rather than from genre fiction.
Because he's not a native to genre writing or to horror specifically, it's no surprise that Duncan tries to reinvent the werewolf book through Jacob's witty, self-aware narration. What's surprising is how much more engaging and enjoyable Jacob becomes once the plot forces him into the comfortable, conventional role of hunted monster, rather than languid philosophical wit. That Werewolf is more successful when it becomes more conventional is an issue of balance. Rather than blow up the form and start over — like Toby Barlow did in the incredible blank-verse werewolf story Sharp Teeth — Jacob's voice gives a new gloss to an old form.
The creepy vintage photographs scattered throughout Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk, June 7) provide a similar kind of gloss. Taken with its Gothic tone, and its teenage protagonist out to find the truth behind his dead grandfather's outlandish stories, the illustrations all but assure that the book will be read as, and marketed as, a YA novel.
That's not the worst thing. Miss Peregrine is a beautifully produced book, and there's an excellent chance that it'll get a broader readership out of a YA marketing plan than as an oddball, hard-to-categorize literary novel. And even if the YA label no longer excuses sketchy character development, or the way certain scenes sometimes expose their source photographs as writing prompts, Riggs still loads a sure-footed boy's-book adventure with clear, nuanced negotiation of metaphors and monsters, especially as our hero understands first that his grandfather's fairy tales are stand-ins for his Holocaust childhood, and then, more frighteningly, that they might not be fictions at all.
Ultimately, it's that ability to provoke a gut reaction that determines the success of something like Miss Peregrine or David Nickle's historical chiller Eutopia (ChiZine, April 15). If smart, innovative horror is nice, it still has to strike at the base of the skull. That's a dumb thrill, not in the sense that it's cheap or easy to produce, but rather in that the stories that provide the least complicated route to the pit of the stomach are the ones that work the best. Intellectual weight and artistic polish are important things, but not necessary conditions; they're window dressing, a strategy to make you feel better about that adolescent kick of fear.
Nickle does his share of window dressing. Eutopia takes place in a Western model frontier town in 1911 dedicated to eugenic idealism, and pulls together some reasonably spooky historical ideas about race and human perfectibility. As much as Nickle incorporates a lot of interesting, smart background stuff, he remains squarely in the land of things that go bump in the night. Eutopia hails less from the territory of Stephen King, sticking more to the neighborhood of some of those early-'70s sinister-village stories, like Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home, or the good parts of The Wicker Man. Even if Nickle leaves some clumsy dialogue and bald-faced exposition in the foreground, the concoction of history, science, religion and prejudice that fuels his novel doesn't overwhelm its dumb thrills. Nickle knows that horror needs to strike at nerve endings and not get too cerebral; Eutopia does that by getting out of its own way.