March 11, 2013

Hex, Lies, and Videotape: a review of Adam Nevill's "Last Days"

Last Days
by Adam Nevill
St. Martin's Griffin (2013)
432 pages
ISBN 9781250018175 
Available via: Amazon and Book Depository
I have a real aversion to "found footage" films, and as this novel begins I worried it might devolve into that kind of storytelling. Thankfully, Adam Nevill spares us that pastiche and keeps things keenly focused on one character's viewpoint without delving too much into after-the-fact storytelling.

Kyle Freeman is a desperate and damn near destitute filmmaker until he's hired to make a documentary about a famed cult of the 70s. The Temple of the Last Days, led by a woman then known as Sister Katherine, kept to themselves mostly and seemed ultimately harmless until the whole thing ended in bloodshed and death somewhere in an Arizona desert. The producer funding the documentary, Max Solomon, wants Kyle to retrace the cult's existence from beginning to gory end, interviewing the few surviving ex-pats, and learning all he can about the gruesome demise of Sister Katherine and her followers. The hitch is that it's a rush job, with a very tight shooting schedule, and only days to prepare before they must meet the first cult member.

Last Days feels like a bit of a throwback actually, with a slow build approach in tension and intrigue surrounding the occult. Kyle and his cameraman extraordinaire, Dan, visit storied sites that the cult called home, as well as interview the surviving members. And while the whole thing feels a bit sketchy, Kyle is racked with desperation and debt with a waning career as a filmmaker. The Last Days project is his turnaround point he feels, but it doesn't take long before strange phenomena send him and those around him to wonder just what Sister Katherine was trying to achieve with her cult, and what remains in the cult's absence for Kyle to find.

Adam Nevill's research and imagination are remarkable in crafting this story, with the cult's history and the manner with which Kyle documents it, but there were times when the jargon and procedure of the documentary bogged down the scenes. Still, aside from a healthy dose of film-making lingo and mundane drama therein, the on-site scenes were palpable with dread. From the moment shooting begins within the derelict house in England and strange occurrences turn from curious to cringe-inducing, I was hooked.

As a guy who enjoys a good haunted house story, this book provides more than its fair share. Some of the scenes feel tedious during the downtime moments, and Kyle's motivations late in the book feel a bit strained, but the dread escalates to such levels through the course of the novel that my few misgivings evaporated by the midway point. Last Days will not be my last Nevill novel, not by a long shot.

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