Reviewer's Note: this is not so much a review as it is a synopsis. So, be warned SPOILERS big time.
We are all familiar with the crime procedurals of prose, usually written by someone with 20 or so sorties in their word makers. Holmes. Poirot. Mason. Shell Scott. Spencer. Bosch. Like their TV counterparts—Rockford, Colombo, etc—these alleyways of predictable plot shufflings usually end up with followups or "episodes" involving common characters all rushing ahead for the big payoff called A Series: The Final Cliche Frontier. So, why not call out horror procedurals(1)? Devil knows there's enough byways in this genre to carpool them for learned, specified routes. The Master Ghoul himself—Steven King—categorized them in Danse Macabre (p.85, Everest House HB version): Thing, Vampire, Werewolf, Ghost. But I'm talking about the outlines, the step-by-stomps of getting there that are as predictable as the sub-genres they sprouted.
Kyle Freeman(5) is a free-lance documentary filmmaker with an ethical platform we'd all like to be standing on in these profane times. You know, no money-grubbing, ass-kissing, or moral lapses. Integrity. Honor. It's like all for Art, dude. He's got the perfect best friend in Dan his cameraman, a big Chewbacca type who always gets the money shot. Starving artists, they are, so they jump at the opportunity to do a film on the infamous Temple of the Last Days that climaxed with mass murder in the mid 70s. The offerer is Max Solomon, a well-to-do London producer who turns out to be an ex-cult member himself. His major withhold is that he doesn't give a witch's tit about producing and exhibiting anything the boys come up with. It's the come up with he's interested in. He's the fortune cookie character: he advances the perfect dream job, but things become suspicious when it's discovered he's concealing major depositions, then reveals he's on the good side of the struggle, maybe. He's also mostly in the background, since this is Kyle's ego running the pages.
The requisite bag of clues takes Kyle and Dan on three initial locations, congruent with the path and organization of the twisted vision and execution they are following. Starting out in London with a similar jacket to Charlie's pre-Spahn Ranch days, Sister Katherine and her acolytes founded The Last Gathering in the fertile counter-culture of 1967 alongside and inspired by Scientology, EST, occult magic and reincarnation mysticism. Kyle vaguely remembers seeing her "plump, heavily made-up face . . . reduced to sick joke gimmickry, lurid nostalgia, and bespoke infamy for disaffected youth . . . Andy Warholed on to T-shirts."(p.10) At their London Temple site—re-modeled as living flats by now but conveniently vacant—Kyle and Dan set up a night shoot, along with past cult member Susan White—known backintheday as Sister Isis—for an interview while they frame roll the building. Susan lays out the basic regulatory information, revealing Sister Katherine as a prima donna "dripping with jewellery"(p.71) residing in a palatial penthouse while 30 or so cult members slept and ate dumpster food in one, big, sweaty room. She documents all the standard indoctrination shit: sleep deprivation with extended "sessions", all money and possessions donated, monitored procreation practices and "honey-traps"(p.50), discipline and imperious treatment, and striving to be Chosen, both by Sister Katherine in the mundane world and by the "presences" in the ether who would guide them to the The Refuge to escape The Apocalypse. Inside the structure they hear noises, later described by Kyle as "zooey"(p.76), blending the sounds of animals, people wailing, dogs running, and even some eerie notes on a flute. They leave on fleet feet. Later, Kyle goes through the video and frightfully discovers some thing emerging from a ghastly stain on a wall. He remembers the awful smell, the schoolgirl terror he felt inside, and, in the dark, noisy footage something he didn't see: a being with "haggard legs beneath a shriveled groin"(p.87) dropping to all fours to rout them from the building.
Their next location is a farmhouse in Normandy where the Gathering moved to in 1969. Max has lined up Brother Gabriel—"looks like an Egyptian mummy wearing a Harpo Marx wig"(p.112) is Kyle's first impression—to walk them through the structures and reel out his story. It has been abandoned since 1972 and looks it, with missing windows and doors, and rotting floors and walls. Brother Gabriel starts withering right away "from the ominous aura that issues from dilapidation . . . [and] an atmosphere more akin to anticipation."(p.122)
The France farmhouse was apparently the staging area, The Refuge as it were. Again, life was stripped down to its essentials as 23 disciples tried to farm the land without tools, without water, without electricity, give up all meat for lettuce, bear and die with unregistered babies. Sister Katherine refined her brand of "malignant narcissism"(p.135), in which one aspect was fixing up the sexual unions between the cultists, whether they were involved or not. Five babies were literally born in a barn out of this "testament to rage, jealously, and division"(p.133), presumably without doting, assiduous parents, with 2 of them destined for Arizona as the other three simply disappeared. Sister Katherine stayed in a "cozy, well-lit fermette"(p.129) down the path from her devotees. The aesthetic life didn't appeal, people were getting quite sick, and Sister Katherine visioned stardom in America. Inevitably, children and parents did die. There was a schism. Sister Katherine left the Continent. "The Temple of the Last Days was born: the most notorious [and final] of the cult's two incarnations"(p.133).
Brother Gabriel bolts from the barn converted to the temple and Dan goes after him, leaving Kyle to do shooting plus narration alone(6). With bad light and little camera skill, Kyle manages to find three stains producing more revenant-like abominations, one even "striding"(p.139) in materialization from the wall. Meanwhile, Bro Gabe has stepped into a bear trap hidden in the grass to stop disgruntled apostates from running away. Pretty much wraps the shoot and Gabriel's leg from the knee down.
This is when they need to go back to Max and say, "Luceeeee, youse got sum explanin' to do!"
Which they do, of course, but he silver-tongues them onto the next location: an abandoned copper mine outside of Yuma in the Fortuna foothills. This time Sister Katherine didn't even bother with appearances. She bought a mansion in San Diego and commuted. Considering she ended up "with her head in her lap"(p.227) a coupla years later, she should have stayed away and learned how to surf instead. Seriously though, this final resting place for the Last Days was a full-bore quagmire of death, fiendish horror, and muddled transmutation. And visiting the crime scene 36 years later kicks up only fuzzy clues. No scream time, just that pepto-bismol churning in your stomach of utter disgust.
The night of July 10, 1975—known as the Night of Ascent—left four dead trying to escape, cut down with assault weapon fire then chewed by suspiciously human teeth. Five abandoned children found locked up naked and filthy, except one, called the "clean kid"(p.269). Then, Sister Katherine herself plus four of her Seven henchmen, all willingly necktied with a razor. Brother Belial—the only member left alive at the scene as a willing cat's paw—called it "a feast of Old Friends"(p.268).
But one adult had escaped before the terrors of that night, and Kyle and Dan rush to Seattle to interview her. Martha Lake—at the time the gore-thirsty tabloids called her "star witness, cult fox, killer starlet, heroic mother"(p.275)—turns out to be a woman under a dead weight. Sure, she fills in more details and scatters more fuzzy clues throughout her diatribe, but the main impression is she's been "overwhelmed by an authority hitherto underestimated"(p.278). Although her mortal coil unwinds soon after the boys' visit, she gives them a drunkard's dose of reality in the attic:
The Blood Friends. Martha calls them "what Katherine brought down" and that they were"coming for me"(p.308-9). And, that night before flying home to London, Kyle is rousted from his recurring nightmare by an intruder in his motel room making "embryonic pawing and clutching" sounds and tracking him with a "grizzled head upon a stringy neck"(p.331). Kyle spends the night hiding behind the coke machine in the hallway. The next morning, there's the familiar patterns on the motel wall, "like an upright Turin Shroud: unholy umbilical smears seeped out of the wood, dirty and still wet. A sweetish odour of spoiled pork wafted from the mess"(p.336).
This is when they need to go back to Max and say, "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Do ya feel lucky, punk?"
Max whimpers apologies like a strapped dog, then cajoles Kyle with more sweet nothings to go to Antwerp and view a work by Niclaes Verhulst, painted after he escaped from a certain farmhouse in France in 1566. The Saints of Filth is a triptych locked away and guarded because, if you stare at it too long, you "go mad"(p.388). It is a chronicling of Konrad Lorche who set the precedents for Sister Katherine's Last Days back in the 16th century. But, unlike her, Lorche was persecuted and finally snuffed out in a 6-week siege of a town he was dominating. The final or far right panel called The Kingdom of Fools shows his final domain: "twisted demoniac forms . . . masquerad[ing] as angels . . . Damned . . . Devoured . . . white eyes full of madness"(p.396-7). Kyle comes home to find "a saucer full of teeth"(p.409) and Dan taken by the Blood Friends.
Max core dumps all his knowledge—he's the last survivor of the European membership(7), after all—passing on to Kyle that Chet Regal—the "clean kid" who grew up in Katherine's mansion and became an A-list actor and swimsuit model—is a "lifelong violent hater of beautiful women and a predatory bisexual with sadistic tastes"(p.422-3). But, more importantly, that Chet Regal is actually Sister Katherine.
So, it all comes down to a Big Boss Battle(8) for Max, Kyle, and Jed—a gumshoe-slash-mercenary Max has used for intel gathering—against whatever's in the San Diego mansion.
This is when they need to say to Max, "go on in. You first. We're right behind you."
I've already raked the procedural formula of Last Days. As a structure it works because of all the embellishments, side bars, and atmospherics that veil it with other interests. Author Nevill even gets a couple of jabs at America's Cult of Celebrity fixation and social media's The Show of Me(p.320). There is plenty of philosophizing about blame and responsibility, holding to Pogo's line, "we have met the enemy and he is us." The novel is truly addicting with ratcheting tension; especially praiseworthy in that the antagonists are all dead before the story begins. There's some unintentional groans here, like bringing Jed in for the last act and forcing the redneck, Gyrene, poser-postulatin' dialogue and macho struttin' stereotype into the most harrowing scene in the novel. It serves as some unwitting comic relief, for this novel is quite disturbing in its immediate action and subtle insinuations. All in all, Last Days is like a frame-off rebuild on a classic automobile: you get the modern amenities but in a time-proven design. It has taken the standard steps guiding its fashioning and walked them from predictible to produceable, instilling along the way a real feeling of anticipation, and, of course, serious dread.
Reviewer's post-script notes: as stated, not a review, but a re-living. I wrote it for the sheer thrill of re-visiting scenes and watching the plot pieces fall into place. Sensual and credible, atmospheres are tactile, then haunting. Nothing genre-shattering, but it is a wonderfully-driven, fresh shuffle.
1) http://www.imdb.com/search/title?genres=horror&sort=moviemeter&title_type=tv_series is a pretty definitive list. Separate the procedurals from the anthologies.
3) Author Nevill gives us the films and stories that he says influenced this novel here.
6) I must say author Nevill knows his guerilla filmmaking. The descriptions of on-location shooting with its problems of cable connections, sound & light balance, camera angles and zoom ratios, plus scripting & editing are all spot on. Makes me nostalgic for 1969 and the making Dirtbag Rider, shot with a super 8mm Beaulieu camera on B&W stock and developed, edited, scripted, and produced by me.
7) And, actually, the founder, too. Although Max says, "we cannot lead ourselves rationally or humanely or fairly, so we choose the most unscrupulous and egotistical to lead us. Into one war and one holocaust after another. . . It was why I began The Last Gathering. To create one small pocket of cooperation and decency. Of humility and grace. And look what happened"(p.465). Yeah, the "malignant narcissist" alpha dog took your bone, Max.