Review published on November 10, 2012.Reviewed by Stephen Joyce
With The Ritual and Apartment 16, Adam Nevill established himself as a rising star of horror fiction, one steeped in the classic style of the ghost story without seeming clichéd. In his new novel, Last Days, Nevill provides us with a chilling tale involving documentary filmmakers whose new project about an apocalyptic cult involved with the supernatural begins to turn in unexpected directions.
Two low-budget British documentary filmmakers, Kyle and Dan, are approached by a successful New Age entrepreneur, Maximillian Solomon, to make a documentary about The Temple of the Last Days, a cult which committed mass suicide in the Arizona desert in 1975. Max has already done all the pre-production and prepared interviewees at the cult’s three major locations: its first home in London, a farmhouse in Normandy where a mysterious schism occurred, and finally an isolated mine in the Arizona desert. Camera in hand, the two friends proceed to uncover a tale of abuse, domination, and unearthly powers whose presence still lingers.
A classic technique in horror fiction is the use of multiple, often unreliable narrators describing events far distant in time or space, thus creating an aura of uncertainty and doubt. This tactic works brilliantly here. As Kyle and Dan read up on The Temple of the Last Days and interview its grotesque, terrified survivors, we gather more information about the cult, all of which hints at forces beyond the ordinary mixing with all-too-human desperation and need. Nevill has certainly done his homework on apocalyptic groups dominated by charismatic but psychotic leaders and the psychology of what happens feels authentic, with the monstrously evil Sister Katherine emerging from the different narratives as a manipulative and ruthless queen bee who drives her followers to destruction.
It’s a mark of the impact of films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project that horror fiction is now imitating the documentary film style. It’s surprisingly effective. As their interviewees become increasingly spooked by being back in their old haunts, the filmmakers too become unnerved and inevitably footage is caught on camera that they only see later on playback:
The next image was of Kyle’s pallid face on the screen. He could see the throat’s struggle to swallow the tightness in his trachea. ‘What is it?’ Dan said, as he unfastened the camera from the tripod and lowered it to the floor. The walls of the bare room shook in the spotlight, until the camera settled to face the dark hollow of the doorway. Out of shot, the hurried exchange between him and Dan, their voices tight and breathless, was all too audible
‘How the fuck do I know?’
‘This is not funny. Just not funny.’
‘I’m going to –‘
Perhaps it’s because there have been a lot of such horror films recently, but I found it easy to picture scenes and feel the same sense of nervous fear I felt watching the first Paranormal Activity.
As Kyle and Dan go from London to France to Arizona, they realise that they are involved in something much darker than they thought. If I had one quibble with the book, it’s that they arrive at the Arizona mine too early, at the halfway stage of the novel. The first half occurs at great pace, following a Heart of Darkness-like trajectory in which the filmmakers make their way towards the epicentre of the madness – the mine where the mass suicide occurred. Once they have been there and left, some of the tension and focus dissipates. This doesn’t mean that the novel isn’t still exciting; it’s just that the expectation of what they might find at the mine is so powerful that it could have been used more effectively, perhaps by reorganising certain events so that they arrive at the mine much later in the story than they actually do.
This is a minor point, however, because the book continues to provide real chills and moves at great speed as Kyle and Dan realise that the terrifying forces behind the cult are coming back and claiming anyone involved, including those who happen to be making a documentary on the subject. Gripping, well-told, and often genuinely scary, Last Days is one of the best horror novels of the year.
Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane, edited by Jonathan Oliver