Novel * Adam Nevill * Cults, but maybe also Demons * 2012
Creating legitimate spooks on the page is hard. Sustaining those spooks over the entirety of a novel is damn near impossible. Like, I love Stephen King, but rarely do those books actually creep me out. I’m there for character and story. Sure, there are scenes in books like It or The Shining which, whew, but over the course of the whole novel? It’s super rare. And that’s because books can be put down. In fact, I fucking dare you to read It in one sitting. But you know, that’s how reading works. Your mind just puts the story on ‘suspend’ when you have to go like, do things. Yet that constant interruption is always working against the atmosphere of a story. Horror stories, or at least the ones I like, are critically dependent on mood and atmosphere. The slow build and creeping terror and hints at unspeakable darkness, that’s the kind of thing that works for me. And generally, regardless of how well constructed the story is, when I have to set the book down to feed the cat, or sleep, or even go outside, the intrusion of reality hits the reset button on the atmosphere. It’s rough.
Last Days almost pulls it off, which is remarkable. Unfortunately, things fall apart a little toward the end and it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Yet that the novel works as well as it does for two-thirds of its length is damn near a miracle. Really, the only potential caveat I would throw out there concerns personal taste. If you’re looking for exploding torsos and flaming decapitations, this book is not that. Personally, I don’t find gore scary. It’s just gross and when it comes to horror, disgust is not my prime motivator. Last Days is extremely creepy, but the price of that is a slower pace. That said, for this kind of story, the pacing is spot on. Many times, the slow-dread story leans way too slow. Here, scary shit is going down within fifty pages or so, and it just keeps getting worse, slowly but surely. Towards the end, it seems like Nevill loses control of the pacing and things work towards a conclusion that seems a little rushed. That’s a shame, but I don’t feel like the underwhelming ending undermines the novel as a whole.
I should note that there is a conceit to this novel, which is basically “what if a found-footage film, but in book form?” I was skeptical at first, but it works. The protagonist is a guerrilla documentary director named Kyle. The story begins as he is being recruited to film a documentary about a cult from the 70s that met a grisly end. Last Days relies on a lot of cult apocrypha, pulling details from everything from the Rajneesh to Jonestown to Manson to David Koresh in order to create its own fictional fucked-up cult, The Temple of the Last Days. This cult was led by a narcissistic, charismatic leader Sister Katherine. The cult eventually self-destructed in the Arizona desert in an explosion of self-inflicted violence. Max, the executive producer who hires Kyle, has an intense interest in this cult. Not so much because of the crime angle – that’s been done. No, Max is interested in the cult’s dealings with the supernatural. Max’s proposal seems sketchy as all hell, but Kyle is in a tight spot. Since he’s a pure artist or whatever, he’s also in catastrophic debt. Max offers to pay him enough to erase that debt, but Kyle has to endure a grueling shooting schedule. Oh, and then the demons show up.
Cults are fascinating and creepy in their own right. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to wrap your mind around why anyone would willingly give themselves over to an obvious exploitative sociopath. As I noted, The Temple of the Last Days is modelled on any number of real-world cult situations. Sister Katherine is an amalgam of Manson, Koresh, and Jim Jones, and her power over her followers is as extreme as those guys. Of course, nearly every cult trades in the notion of apocalypse. The world is filled with institutions that feel like they’re crumbling, slowly falling apart, and maybe they are (they definitely are). Citizens of modern nations feel this intrinsically, but there are those on the fringes who apparently feel this more acutely. To the point where they’re willing to give themselves completely over to someone else in order to just not have to deal with it. Then, once they’re in and find themselves in a dire situation, it’s extremely difficult to get out again. One of the things Last Days does is provide an insight into people who joined such an awful group in the first place.
Since the novel is ostensibly the story of a film being made, much of the tension is brought to the story by the testimony of those who escaped the cult’s final bloodbath. The Temple of the Last Days officially self-destructed in 1975 when Sister Katherine ordered her fervent follower Brother Belial to murder everyone left, including herself. Before that, people either left or escaped. They were marked. And, as Kyle discovered, they were haunted by more than memories. Each interview ratchets up the atmosphere of dread, partly because of the stories they tell, but also because of the attending events that parallel each character’s interview. The film conceit brings Kyle into contact with these people, where we get an inside perspective of each stage of the cult’s existence. It’s all bad, and once the interview is over the atmosphere is well and truly oppressive, that’s when Nevill kicks in the supernatural shit. It works. It works really well. The creepies themselves are also well constructed. They manifest physically, and as such are all the more menacing. They follow. In no time at all Kyle is marked, and in true horror fashion is harried and terrified for his life as he continues to track down the cult’s secrets.
Okay, let’s talk about that ending. Once again, there is a ton to recommend this novel. If you’re still trying to make up your mind, bail now and read it, then come back and commiserate with me. Now, I think I hung with Last Days up until Nevill starts explaining things. Even then, I could vibe with it, although I think the origin story of the creepies was unnecessary. Max sends Kyle off to Belgium where he learns about a Protestant cult led by some bloke who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sister Katherine. This cult was destroyed by Catholic authorities, kind of like a medieval Waco, Texas situation. Everyone died, burned to death. It was a bad scene. And of course they were dealing with demonic forces, which apparently animated these people into the bone-ghosts which chase Kyle around.
These explanations demystify the story, which has the unfortunate effect of dispersing some of the atmosphere. Still, I appreciate the plotting involved, and it’s a cool idea. But then Max and Kyle go off to America to end it once and for all, and I wasn’t feeling it. I don’t like Jed, a last-minute character addition that sucks. If he had been around earlier, maybe it would have worked better. But as it is he just shows up with some guns and the three of them storm the castle to take on the reincarnation of Sister Katherine and it all just seems so ill-advised. The scene is full of creepy imagery, but it just doesn’t feel the same as the first two-thirds of the novel. Still, the good vastly outweighs the bad, and now I have a new author to get into.