Summary: When guerrilla documentary maker, Kyle Freeman, is asked to shoot a film on the notorious cult known as the Temple of the Last Days, it appears his prayers have been answered. The cult became a worldwide phenomenon in 1975 when there was a massacre including the death of its infamous leader, Sister Katherine. Kyle’s brief is to explore the paranormal myths surrounding an organization that became a testament to paranoia, murderous rage, and occult rituals. The shoot’s locations take him to the cult’s first temple in London, an abandoned farm in France, and a derelict copper mine in the Arizonan desert where The Temple of the Last Days met its bloody end. But when he interviews those involved in the case, those who haven’t broken silence in decades, a series of uncanny events plague the shoots. Troubling out-of-body experiences, nocturnal visitations, the sudden demise of their interviewees and the discovery of ghastly artifacts in their room make Kyle question what exactly it is the cult managed to awaken – and what is its interest in him?
Content Warnings: Accurate Depictions of a Cult; Mentions of Psychological Abuse, Rape, Child Abuse, and Torture; Homophobic and Racist Slurs; Fat-shaming
Review: Since I started this blog, I’ve heard nothing but non-stop praise for Adam Nevill. Other reviewers called him the Stephen King of the British Isles, and one of his novels, The Ritual, has been adapted into a very well-received film. I at least enjoyed the film so I decided, why not try one of his books?
Thankfully, Scribd is currently offering an entire month of free content on their website, and it has a selection of Nevill’s stuff.
I quickly selected Last Days because its plot and themes intrigued me. I myself am a survivor of religious abuse, and I often find that reading horror stories surrounded by a similar experience are cathartic for me. I came in with high expectations, but, unfortunately, Last Days became a mixed bag for me as I kept chugging through the story.
But what were the things I liked?
Thankfully, Nevill possessed great skill in his craft. His prose lifted a very kitschy, even exploitative premise (a Blair Witch-inspired take on Charles Manson or Jim Jones) into a truly terrifying experience. I sped through this book in less than two days because of how gripped I was. To add to the stellar quality of the prose, Nevill also knew when to build up the tension, when to release it, when to hint at further twists to his mystery, and when to let the reader in on the dramatic irony that our protagonist, Kyle, finds himself oblivious to.
Additionally, I appreciated the realism in a lot of these characters, especially Max and Kyle. They were flawed but understandable, and even when I despised them, I still needed to know what was going to happen to them. Nevill’s skill with dialogue also kept side characters interactive and interesting instead of flat pivots for the plot. Every interviewee felt like a person that I think could exist, and, thankfully, the trauma of the victims in the cult was fleshed out and made incredibly important to the story.
Like most good authors, Nevill knew how to blend his themes with the research and the storytelling potential of his monsters (for yes, this book does feature some monsters). Specifically in this book, I often felt like Sister Katherine’s cult showed an amazing example of the lasting effects of trauma and how that damage can even spread to the people surrounding the event. This worked especially well with how the monsters often show up at the characters’ most vulnerable and how well they are tied to the villain’s malice. These monsters often felt like the worst qualities of greed and authoritarianism in a very familiar, creepy form.
The book also featured a compelling mix of influences that worked incredibly well together. At one angle was the found-footage element, which personally I wish was explored or delved into a little more. This found-footage element mixed itself with the very real phenomenon of the cult boom in the sixties and seventies in the United States which provides an excruciatingly real mood. I knew from the way Nevill wrote the interview segments and the descriptions of the cult’s activities that extensive research went into the book. Personally, I also appreciated that I never felt like he was exploiting that material to rake in scares. Instead, he kept using it to explore the protagonist’s motivations and to sort of ask questions to those of us who do make content centered around true crime and who seek to make art founded upon another person’s worst experiences.
Nevill also added an unexpected influence from depictions of Central European Renaissance art. Specifically, the designs of the monster reminded me especially of Bosch and Brueghel, the sorts of emaciated wraiths you’d find in paintings depicting the Black Death or the creative expressions of the Christian Hell that would later inspire the Surrealist movement. One chapter in the novel even took Kyle to Belgium, making the artistic influence pretty blatant.
With all these amazing qualities in mind, then, why was this a mixed bag?
For one thing, the last third of the book took a dive in quality for me. Nevill simply gave me too much information about the monsters, how they could be defeated, and how they worked. They became way less terrifying when that happened. Additionally, the climax turned the novel more into an action horror film in a way that was not expected and also would not fit with the rest of the book’s atmosphere. How can a book that so carefully explored trauma in a cult turn into an American stereotype uttering “Oora!” as he unloads his pistol?
I also found Nevill’s perspective on women in the book as odd. Not as characters. His female characters, in fact, were great. However, the prose descriptions of them tended to save a line or a phrase to determine whether they were attractive or not. One character, who only shows up in one scene, was described as “plump but in a sexy way,” for example.
What does that even mean? Why do I need to know that Kyle finds her hot?
This also came into play with a survivor of the cult and the cult leader herself. A few paragraphs took the time to detail how the survivor was gorgeous and everywhere in the news and celebrity rags in order to highlight her “decline” as she aged and trauma took its toll. I never really saw this with the male survivors of the cult, either, just the female ones.
With Sister Katherine, I especially didn’t like how her fatness seemed to provide motivation for her evil? The book mentioned several times that, because she was less attractive, it made her crueler to beautiful women. And, of course, when your cult members are starving, the emphasis was made on how portly she was in comparison. Other male cult leaders were mentioned throughout the book, and, again, they simply were not treated the same way.
Finally, for a book that really exposed how trauma works and asked questions about how ethical Kyle’s pursuit was, near the end of the book, two characters go on blatant author screeds about how narcissistic modern man is and how we haven’t evolved past “needing” authoritarian figures. It came across like such pseudo-psychological bullshit that it broke the suspense of disbelief.
Thankfully, I at least still enjoyed the experience. Hopefully, Adam Nevill’s other novels and collections will be even better.
Rating: ★★★ of 5 stars.