Adam Nevill has gone from strength to strength in the years since he invited us all to dine with the dead in his promisingly ominous horror fiction debut, Banquet for the Damned. Its successor, Apartment 16, gave no signs of a sophomore slump, and despite a divisive denouement, The Ritual stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best novels of the genre in recent recall. Now, like creepy clockwork, Nevill’s come a-calling again, and Last Days is his unholy offering.
Interestingly, it purports to be documentary clothed in prose — narration of a found-footage film in the making, which is itself an elaboration of events that have been the subject of myriad other books and movies, in the fiction if not in fact: namely the last days of the Temple of the Last Days, an infamous suicide cult known to have met with a particularly grisly end in the mid-seventies. Unless I’m very much mistaken, this is Nevill’s longest novel to date, and perhaps it suffers somewhat for that in a lacking middle act and a conclusion that cannot quite bear the weight of all that goes before it, but by and large, Last Days makes for a vile and grimy ghost story, as gripping as it is ghastly.
Very much reminiscent of The Ritual’s main man, our protagonist is a bit of a bloke, but not so much of an oaf that we can’t sympathise with his increasingly sorry situation. A youngish Londoner with great expectations ahead of him, unfortunately Kyle Freeman has met with only modest success as yet. For all the blood, sweat and tears spilled upon the altar of his indie efforts — including one whose core story readers of The Ritual will recognise; a nice touch — Kyle has fallen on hard times, so when an enigmatic old man offers him a hundred grand to make a movie that’s right up his street, an exposé of the aforementioned temple, our downtrodden director can only nod his head.
Kyle has qualms, however, from the get-go. About the impossible shooting schedule long since set in stone; about the ailing interviewees arranged in advance; about the way Max reacts whenever he goes off-script. Nevertheless, Kyle and his affable cameraman, Dan, quickly capture some incredible footage, so by the time they realise that there’s more to Max and the Temple of the Last Days than they’d thought—in their innocence and their ignorance—they’ve passed the point of no return.
“It wasn’t possible for him to give up on the film, despite the instinctive notion that more was at stake than his career, finances or mental wellbeing. And he hated himself for it. He now felt vulnerable to dangers he could not even identify. One week in and he also queried his exposure to it all. His brief but compressed contact with all things Sister Katherine left him seasick, nervous, and disoriented. Two interviews and two shoots made the world he took for granted an insubstantial place, populated with maniacs and ghastly presences. It was all coming at him too soon. Virtually coming out of the walls. Something revealing itself when he should have been revealing it.”
Assuming Kyle and Dan could even extricate themselves from this mounting mess — a stretch, at best — with nothing and no-one to go back to, they have little choice but to forge on... the fools.
There’s a lot to like about Last Days, in the beginning. Companionable characters — a comfortable twosome rather than The Ritual’s overcrowded four — and a snappy narrative get it off to a cracking start. As Kyle considers, “It was a marvel to see a story find its own pace and tone so quickly.” Obviously he means his movie, but I think the same could be said of the novel.
His latest but not, in the final summation, his greatest. Because as strong as Last Days is out of the gate—and it is very strong—the middle third, wherein the author explains all (or so it seems), is a bit of a bore. When Kyle and Dan take to America to investigate the final resting place of Sister Katherine’s cult, a trip Nevill would have been wise to either give greater depth or excise entirely, Last Days loses much of its momentum; somewhere between the first and the final meandering monologue to camera, my interest took a hit, and the thought that half of the whole was still to come seemed a sullen sort of burden rather than the dark delight it had been only moments before.
But there’s good news, too, if not new news. Nevill’s prose is so intensely readable — which is not to say simply serviceable, as Karin Kross suggested in her review of The Ritual, but robustly wrought, fast (for the most part) and factual — that it’s practically unnatural. Thus, Last Days’ middling middle is receding in the rear-view almost before you know it: the kids have come back to Britain and the finale can commence.
“It’s really strange, but in here, there is an atmosphere. Again, just like in the temple. Pregnant. An anticipation almost. It’s like the very moment before the arrival of someone, or something. An event perhaps suspended in a fixed state within the space in which I am standing.”
As to that, satisfactory endings in horror novels are notoriously difficult to pull off. In endeavouring to explain the inexplicable, as is standard, authors run a real risk of rendering the unknown known; they can, and too often do, make moot points of all the occasions where we’ve jumped out of our skins at ghosts, because by the end we’ve gathered that said spectres were merely men in bedsheets. I don’t know that Nevill quite overcomes this limitation in the lattermost chapters of Last Days — nor does he entirely recover the sense of the sinister and the pitch-perfect pacing of the excellent opening act — but credit to him, he gives the impossible a good, fun run for its money. Let’s just say that pigs can and do fly in this book’s frantic finale, and leave the best of the rest unsaid.
At its most powerful, Last Days is unputdownable: a non-stop docu-horror novel — ditto, a novel docu-horror — with a portentous premise, a pair of deftly-drawn characters to take us through its ill-lit outbuildings and at last into the eerie light, and staged along the way a series of solid scares, stitched together with good humour and a smart sense of self-awareness. I would have recommended Last Days without reservation had it continued along those lines. Alas, with such a misstep in the midst of the thing, a caveat: Adam Nevill is an exceptional horror author, but as with his foremost American contemporary — the King, of course — you’ve got to take the great with the merely good.
Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for the likes of Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation. He also tweets, and keeps a blog — for all creatures great and small — over at The Speculative Scotsman.