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A couple of ears ago I reviewed Adam LG Nevill's debut Banquet of the Damned here. Although it got off to a wobbly start it turned out to be an enjoyable Jamesian chiller that was fun despite a few beginners' flaws. Since then, I've also read Apartment 16 (a haunted house and arty Wyndham Lewis-inspired mayhem) and The Ritual (Nevill's go at pagan horror among the primeval forests of Scandinavia.) Though for some reason I never got round to reviewing these, they were both good, effective supernatural thrillers that were unafraid to channel the great writers of the Golden Age such as Machen, James and Blackwood.

So now I've just finished his most recent novel, 2012's Last Days. Kyle Freeman is a young director with a string of successful documentaries to his name, but he's horribly in debt. So when Max, a wealthy maker of New Age films offers him and friend Dan silly money to make a documentary about a bloodthirsty religious cult, he is glad to accept. He refuses to spend too much time wondering why old hippy Max wants him to chronicle the tragic story of the sinister Last Days cult, which ended in a tragic bloodbath in the Arizona desert. Or why Max is so keen he should immediately embark on a tour of the Last Dayers old haunts...But Max ends up getting more involved than he should when he realises this dark piece of history is far from dead and buried.

Last Days is definitely the most catchy of Nevill's books so far. It pulls you in and soon becomes very hard to put down, rather like a Phil Rickman novel. I think this is partly due to a plot that requires the two young men to film a number of interviews of surviving cult members, all set in different locations - an empty Georgian house in Notting Hill, an impeccably sinister French farmhouse, the beautiful but deadly Arizona desert and even Rotterdam, which we are assured has a uniquely weird vibe all its own. At each stage of the journey the natural eeriness of the scene is increased by awed, terrified or just plain confused commentary from the people who witnessed the cult's descent into madness.

Naturally, there is a supernatural element involved and the presences that appear (the "old friends") after being summoned by the cult members should be horrible enough for anybody. As per MR James' advice, Nevill begins with faint manifestations and ratchets up the nastiness until the reader has supped their full of horrors. Being a fan of the older sort of ghost story, I particularly liked the early stages, which are handled with a fair amount of subtlety at crucial points. The ensuing baroque orgy of unholy terrors has something to upset everyone, I'd imagine - I was especially upset by the canine stuff and the scary art.

Depraved art is something Nevill has made good use of in his two first books, and I did detect other similarities with Nevill's earlier work. The skinny, talonned,scratching Jamesian monsters are familiar from Banquet of the Damned and after reading all his novels and many of his short stories I've also come to the conclusion that he's got a thing about mothers. The process of motherhood is so often a source of disgust and horror in his books, especially in Ritual. Most of his characters are male and it is clear that the bonds between straight men fascinate him in a way woman-on-woman interaction clearly does not. He even admits to having deliberately peopled Ritual with an almost all-male cast because he wanted to make the book appealing to young men, whose increasing illiteracy is causing him some concern. And in this latest novel the doughy cult leader Catherine is disconcertingly sow-like.

All this could add be a recipe for misogynist disaster, but I don't think Nevill is particularly anti-women - he doesn't do empty heterosexist perving and Apartment 16 has some strong female characters who are definitely recognised as real people. It's really the mechanics of motherhood and the creation of broods of things that generate fear here. I find that totally understandable. I'm a feminist and a horror fan but the very idea of pregnancy turns me inside out with loathing (just one of many reasons I shall never have kids!) I can sit through quite gorey films but cannot bear to be reminded of my body's "natural" reproductive function - I even feel slightly sick watching footage of a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound!

Anyway, Last Days is definitely Nevill's best book yet. His style is concise without being insultingly simple, and he copes well with the extra religious dimension here without bashing anybody's faiths. He also explores the roles of the seer and the seen in the process of film-making, and address the question of how far a documentary author should push his subjects and involve himself in his work. As crisis point approaches there are some rants about Reality TV that feel hackneyed (and why do they keep calling Strictly Come Dancing a reality show? There's no participation from the public at all!) Another possible flaw is the abundance of technical terminology surrounding film-making, but I didn't mind this too much and it only rarely strays into jargon overload.

After many years in the doldrums Nevill's time really seems to have come, with publisher auctions and film options galore. As always happens when a young (male) horror writer starts to do well, the stupider critics have started honking about him being the "next Stephen King". But Nevill is better than Stephen King. He just hasn't written as much yet. But hopefully that will change over time!


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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