Saturday, 30 June 2012

REVIEW Last Days by Adam Nevill

"This is not some ghost story for the masses, my boy. Some haunted house you can film and then speculate about on cable television. Some paranormal fantasy you can go and film with your friends. For the festivals and fans. The freaks."

ShadePoint has been swamped by crime fiction of late, so it was good to take a trip into the other with Last Days by Adam Nevill. I last covered Nevill in the excellent End of the Line anthology I reviewed a while back, and I think I'm not alone in considering him one of the finest horror talents around at the moment.

In Last Days, indie film maker Kyle Freeman is dragged from the modern horror of plunging credit debt by a mysterious film producer prepared to offer him £100k to shoot a pre-plotted documentary on the life of Sister Katherine and her Temple of the Last Days - an infamous apocalypse cult that ended its days in a mysterious bloodbath in the Arizona desert. Or so it seemed ...

Joined by his trusty cameraman comrade, Dan, and remotely by the king film editor Fingermouse, Freeman takes the job, against his better instincts, and as the shoot begins, in the face of some seriously eerie developments. The project will take him to France and America and places inbetween as he steadily uncovers the horrific legacy of Sister Katherine and falls headlong out of the world as a result:

"The people sat down to dine, and those others over there - that girl with the nose ring who laughed into her phone, the man who read the book in the window of the pub, the bus full of listless faces, they were in a parallel dimension. One he'd slipped foolishly slipped out of and now could not get back inside, even though he yearned and scrabbled to do so."

What begins almost as an extreme version of Most Haunted in the London townhouse that was the cult's first base, takes an Escher staircase to ever more twisted and devilish otherness as Kyle and Dan are pitched from one set piece of hideousness to the next. Gradually more and more is uncovered, layer after layer, century after century - and as the story progresses the discoveries bend in on themselves and worlds shifting against and across each other are very skilfully depicted.

Nevill excels at the creepy set-piece. There are several high points like this - the first event in the townhouse in London, the abandoned French farmhouse, the desert mine, the breathless finale. These are paced apart with narrative segments that drive the mystery forward as Kyle uncovers the grim truth of the deaths in the desert and their aftermath, and the real agenda of his mysterious produce-benefactor, Max - a wasted, haunted creature in apartments filled with articial light, like a version of Dr Eldon Tyrell, apart from the world, from everything.

Nevill himself acknowledges the stylistic debt the novel pays to films like Rec. as he superbly plays the ghoulish possibilities of these indie film-makers with their night vision cameras, the darkness of ruins and deserts, the half-seen flitting horror that shoots across the line of sight:

"Hunched over on the floor of his flat, he stared at the laptop screen and didn't blink in case he missed what he really did not want to see. the picture on the screen remained unchanged for a few seconds: the camera stationary and shooting from ground level, the image in the viewfinder static. Until a thin figure raced across the open doorway."

In scenes like these I was reminded of that dramatic close to Andrew Pyper's The Guardians, which I reviewed a while back too, in that Kyle and Dan's camera work goes to that next point I dreaded in that basement in the Thurman House, and then beyond. It is these supremely eerie devices that get us the most - the half-seen, the unseen but heard, or the scene that cannot assemble in our brains fast enough. Like that dreadful bit in the basement in Kurosawa's Kairo. Nevill knows this language acutely and is always searching for these moments of the chilling extraordinary.

The book is also about human horror, of course - and in this case looks closely at the kind of terror and torture of a cult like Sister Katherine's Temple of the Last Days, a steadily disintegrating and decaying collective, with very real life equivalents, that takes people to the worst possible places. In Last Days there is the work of other worlds at hand, but Nevill has studied the real life territory as his reading list for the novel testifies. In his depictions of the survivors, doomed as they shun and hide, he finds a real sensitivity and understanding in his reaching out, via Kyle, for their stories.

While it's not nerve shreddingly scary, it is deeply eerie in places, and carries a burgeoning sense of menace throughout that will be deeply disturbing if you're ever fool enough to read it on your own, by torchlight, late at night when the silence brings out the noise of the dark. It's a great book.

"Night shoot," says Dan the cameraman early on. "Slow the shutter speed right down. And I can get all Blair Witch on your ass."